According to drought.gov, 6.4 million people in Arizona are affected by drought; nine counties have USDA disaster designations; and 2022 has been the 11th driest season in 128 years. I live in Boston now, but I spent the first 18 years of my life in a small town in northern Arizona. Was I aware there was a drought going on in Arizona? Yes. Was it omnipresent in my daily life? Absolutely not. I can by no means speak for the entire state, but in my own home, there were no buckets under the sink to catch drips, and there was no particular guilt attached to taking the occasional extra-long shower. Now, however, looking back on these years, I can see that there were clear signs of this reality throughout my early life.
At some point during my childhood, my front lawn was converted from grass to rock; my backyard was converted to turf; and while we never kept a bucket under the sink for those extra drips, my parents did go through a phase where they put a bucket in my brother’s shower to make a point about water waste. Each of these measures was justified with “You should see our water bill.” But I never quite took it to the next step and wondered why the water bill was so high. The answer? Drought was increasing the cost of water in the state.
The subject of drought also came up during my family’s annual trips to Lake Powell. Arizona gets 36% of its water from the Colorado River. The river runs through seven states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — and feeds two reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Meade. Growing up, I remember hearing my parents talk about the sinking water levels in Lake Powell each year, especially when compared to their younger days. Currently Lake Powell’s water level is at 24% of capacity, its lowest level since it was first filled in 1963. For the most part, this has to do with the Colorado River seeing its driest conditions in more than 1,200 years.
Because of this, the Bureau of Reclamation declared the first-ever Tier 1 shortage of the Colorado River last year, leading to a cut of more than 500,000 acre-feet of water from Arizona. A Tier 2a increase could be coming in the next year that would escalate this cut to 800,000 acre-feet. However, this cut may have little effect on the ordinary Arizona resident. Most of Arizona’s water usage is outdoors in yards, pools, plants, and lawns. Arizona water providers have not yet required the residential water reduction measures that have been implemented in parts of California. The passage of an initiative to store unused Colorado River water in underground aquifers makes it unlikely that Arizona homeowners will face harsh reality any time soon.
To be honest, I have heard more about the drought in Arizona during my four years on the East Coast than I ever did while living there. Of course, I was a child for most of that time and not necessarily aware of water issues in the state, but I do think it is telling. Drought is one of those climate change effects that is very slow at onset. It doesn’t look as dramatic as a devastating hurricane or a raging wildfire. It means converting your lawn to rocks one year, and temporary placement of a bucket under your son’s shower the next. This fact doesn’t change the severity and the peril of drought conditions in Arizona and other Western states. But it is important to look at drought through this lens when considering its day-to-day impact on people’s lives — and how it will affect their willingness to act on the issue.