The Long Water Emergency?

I just finished reading this book.  I know, I read the book that sets the tone years after I have read and gotten on board with the whole idea…typical for me.  It has taken me almost two weeks to read this; one because the Thanksgiving holidays meant I worked more before the holiday to have the weekend off, and two because what he has to say requires thought and digestion before absorbing more.

I have a couple of thoughts on what he has to say about my little neck of the woods — the Southwest.  I suppose yesterday’s post relates to what he has to say as well, because I don’t really offer any sweeping ideas for anyone outside of my home area, unlike Peak Oil Hausfrau.  Her part two is quite sweeping and fairly complete in describing methods of using less energy to cook. Preventing Deforested Moonscapes Part II What I want to talk about today is water.

First, he states that the we will be unable to grow anything in the Southwest. I tend to take issue with that, for the simple reason that the natives who were here long before us used irrigation that required no fossil fuel inputs, and grew an astonishing variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains; they also made extensive use of the cacti and other desert plants in their diet and lifestyle. I have been looking into planting my front yard using methods the natives used — sunken beds, more native plants such as corn adapted to my climate, beans that are native, tomatoes that do well if they are ‘ignored’, native vegetables such as chaote and sunchokes, and ollas in my beds.

The first, sunken beds, is a fascinating idea. The use of berms and earthworks to channel water into the beds is such a simple yet brilliant idea I really don’t know why the pioneers to this area didn’t look at it more closely — other than the fact that they were convinced that the natives were ‘savages’ who had to be civilized and saved, or exterminated in competition with the land. On the Tohono O’odham reservation south of Tucson there are many such farm beds nestled between hills that form small valleys within the larger ones. They are mostly fallow now, and many of the natives that still farm at all have taken to using Western methods using large petrochemical fertilizer inputs and heavy machinery, but the yields honestly aren’t any better than what their forefathers/mothers got using ancient technology. I can see a potential for going back to the old ways as food gets scarce and fuel gets expensive. Brad Lancaster, author and permaculture designer has a wonderful story including pictures of successful use of this very technology on his website Farming in the City with Runoff from a Street

This year was my first in harvesting prickly pear for jellies. I definitely think that I will try to make fruit leathers and other products besides the jellies next year. Maybe a prickly pear mead? I found an elderberry tree that I could potentially harvest for next year. The problem I see with doing these things in the wild rather than in my own yard is that if peak oil supply disruptions hit sooner than later, I will not be able to spend the gas needed to harvest these things in the wild. I really must plan to have these things in my own yard, or at least in the neighborhood.

And what about water supply here in the high desert? As I stated in yesterday’s post there simply isn’t enough water to support the present population here. The Big Chino Aquifer, our fossil water source and one of the big feeders for the Verde River, has been the subject of a long standing lawsuit between Prescott, Cottonwood, people who purchased water rights with their properties, and the Salt River project which supplies water and power to a great portion of the metro Phoenix area. Since gravity works, SRP says that the water is ultimately theirs since it ends up there. Prescott says it’s on their side of the mountain so it’s theirs. Cottonwood says the Verde runs through their valley so it’s theirs. The people with wells and water rights say the water runs under their properties and they bought the rights so it’s theirs. This lawsuit has been stalled in court for literally years, with no resolution in sight – I think ultimately the winners will be those with the most money; with the economy the way it is I still think that it’s anyone’s guess who that will end up being. And, people in this area being the children of pioneers and rebels, I don’t think it will change how things are done much anyway. People will still use their wells. The cities will still use theirs, they’ll just charge a WHOLE lot more for the water delivery in order to cover the further legal fees. Until it runs dry, that is.

The Big Chino is projected to run dry in less than 20 years, at the current rates of consumption. I think the bust in the real estate business, ESPECIALLY here in this ecologically sensitive area, is the best thing that could have happened. In Prescott Valley three homebuilders have gone bankrupt in the past few months. Their planned communities sit partially built and mostly vacant. A few short years ago, herds of indigenous pronghorn antelope grazed on these prairies. They were moved at the request of the developers so they could build up the area; the antelope were deemed a hazard to all the cars that were planned to be in use on the roads. Now the area is devoid of the animal fertilizers that kept the grasses growing, and kept back the erosion that is sure to follow as the diversity of plant life decreases. Let’s hope some of the antelope escape their confines in Chino Valley, and find their way back to the prairies of Prescott Valley.

But what about the rest of the Prescott/Prescott Valley area? The housing boom of recent years has meant that there are many, many transplants from the Phoenix area who actually commute to Phoenix every day for their jobs. What about all the water they use? As I mentioned yesterday, Chino Valley has instituted rules against home gardening due to the water shortages…yet there are no regulations requiring rainwater catchment nor greywater harvesting. This needs to change; I don’t think that presently there are many people who are even aware of these technologies or there would be more of them in place. The people who live here have grown up with the word ‘drought’ pounded in their brains and simply don’t think of what that means long term for them and their way of life. One thing that gives me hope this might be changing is that I know someone who owns a well drilling company; he has in the last year also gotten into water harvesting systems such as cisterns, above ground tanks, and the like; this is purely due to customer demand. I have also noticed a new rainwater harvesting company in Prescott on the way to the spinning store; it’s only been there about 2 months but I think they are doing well; the rules enaction in Chino I think has awakened at least some people to the potential in their own city for the same.

In my own neighborhood we have the Agua Fria river which still runs year round only about 1 mile from us. I have the rain barrels, I have a Berkey water filtration system, and if I have to I can always go to the river and haul water back to the house. I would like to retrofit our house for greywater harvesting however my husband is dead set against it unless we have a professional plumber come in and do it; the problem with that is that I don’t know of a single plumber in my area that is familiar with the concept. It is an option that is in the back of my mind however; as a low tech solution I could always put the plug in the shower and haul that water outside in 5 gallon buckets, or use it for clothes washing. Or even for filling the toilet tanks. Although we were very proactive in installing low flow shower heads, and made sure our toilets were low flow when we bought, we still have a lot of room for improvement in our water usage without suffering at all.

The upshot of this post is that while I think Mr. Kunstler is partially right, that the Southwest cannot sustain its population at present numbers, I think the Southwest can sustain many more than he suspects by adopting ancient technologies such as catchment, recycling, and overall less use for frivolous things like golf courses, and more use for home gardens using native technologies and permaculture.

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