The Desert City

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Most people living in the Southwest don't think it could ever happen. But the truth is, Arizona may be just a few years away from running out of water! This is the story of how we might get there and what we could do about it.

Submitted: December 11, 2014

A A A | A A A

Submitted: December 11, 2014



The Desert City


It started off slowly, with a trickle. The parched Southwest soaked up the rain to quench its dry heart. Sarah knew that rain would come eventually. But was it too little, too late?

The water blackouts had started off slowly, just as a precaution. No need to worry. Sarah wasn’t worried because she lived in the Southwest all her life. She had seen shortages. She had seen droughts. People worried in between their golf game and their spa days, but it never really affected anyone. The water still flowed when they turned on the tap. Little children still splashed in their pools. Sarah’s Mom still watered her Azaleas via her ecologically conscious, sustainable irrigation system.

And as a Professor of Hydrology at the local university, Sarah knew a thing or two about water. She had worked at the Salt River Project, SRP, before switching to academia and was still friendly with many of the best minds in the field. It wasn’t until she went to the industry mixer in the lobby of the Hilton that she became concerned. The usual gregarious laughter of her former coworkers and colleagues over a bottle of brew was replaced by hushed, hurried conversations over whiskey tonics. Sarah’s research group at the University had been studying a local watershed, the lower Salt River watershed located very near Tempe. They had noticed a decrease in size and flow, but nothing she thought was too concerning. The worried look on the faces of her former colleagues did concern her.

The problem announced itself even further when Sarah took her intro to Hydrology class to their annual trip to the Verde River, a major tributary of the Salt River located about an hour northeast of Phoenix. Her class would usually dress in their river gear and wade chest deep out into the water, lugging their flow meters to measure the rate of flow of the river. But when they showed up at the river on a sunny fall afternoon, the river was barely a trickle and there was nothing to wade into. It looked more like a kiddie pool than a river. Sarah just assured herself with the reasoning that they must have decided to hold back some additional water at Horseshoe Lake, using the dam that was located just upstream. But one thing was still bothering her. Why did they need to do that anyway?

When Sarah returned to her office from the failed Verde River trip, she was welcomed by an anxious voicemail from Stan, her old boss at SRP. He wanted a study done about the low flow of the Salt River to be conducted, pronto! And since Sarah’s specialty was the Salt River, she was the best person for the job. She began her study with a visit to the Meteorology department at her University. Drought conditions had been happening in Phoenix for over a decade and she learned that there was no sign of stopping. In fact according to data from the National Weather Service, the previous summer, the summer of 2014, had been the hottest on record with an average overall temperature of 95.1 degrees. That temperature included the day and night temps. Worse yet, the monsoon season had been unseasonably calm, releasing little rain onto the needy desert floor.

Sarah’s husband Jake knew about the heat; he was a firefighter. The drier the desert got, the hotter it blazed. The fire season had been particularly brutal that year and Jake was on the frontlines. And it wasn’t just fires causing problems. He and his fellow firefighters had rescued over 100 stranded hikers, after they had become disoriented from dehydration on the steaming desert trails. Unfortunately 2 of the hikers didn’t make it. It had become so bad that for a whole week during the peak of the heat, firefighters asked residents to just stay indoors from the hours of 8am to 10pm. It just wasn’t worth the risk to go outside.

The dry conditions were particularly unwelcome news for SRP, because a portion of the water they use to supply the city comes from surface water in the form of flow from the Salt river. High heat and low rain flow, lead to low river flows. These drought conditions along the Salt River watershed also led to increased pumping of groundwater to make up the difference. Luckily Stan gave Sarah access to SRP’s records. Sarah poured over the data to determine just how much they had been pumping and whether or not this rate was sustainable. It wasn’t.

It turned out that SRP had begun pumping so much water that they had reached a status called “overdraft”, which is when the amount of groundwater pumped out exceeds the amount of recharge or replenishment of the groundwater. And SRP was way overdrawn. Sarah employed a new technique of groundwater monitoring, by use of satellite based radar images. The technique, pioneered by Stanford researchers, allowed her to see accurate groundwater levels, even when the ground above is obscured by crops. To her horror she discovered that not only had groundwater levels dropped, but there were now distinct cones of depression, or cones of missing groundwater surrounding where the prolific wells were pumping.

This meant bad news for the city of Phoenix. But Arizona is last in line for water from the Colorado River and the drought afflicted California was not looking to share. But there had been some goodwill between the states dependent on the Colorado River. Just in December of 2014 states such as California and Nevada signed a pact to agree to return some water to increase the level of Lake Mead. This would help stave off shortage levels and buy some time for a more permanent solution. At that time Lake Mead was at 1,085 ft, just 10 ft above the agreed shortage level. The pact would add 10 more feet to the Lake Mead level, as no one wanted to see a shortage. During a shortage different rules would apply and things would get ugly. Better to find solutions beforehand everyone thought.

With the situation becoming more and more alarming, Sarah called Stan to alert him of the impending danger. When he answered the phone, she could hear the stress in his voice, despite his attempts to cover it.

“Hey Stan, I’ve just done this research and oh God, its bad,” she decried, unable to contain her fear.

“Oh,” was Stan’s response.

“Well, yeah. You told me that SRP had begun relying on groundwater, but not to this extent. And with the continued drought, other arrangements must be made or there just won’t be enough! Not for a city as big as Phoenix. I mean there are 1.5 million people living here! And the farmers, don’t forget about the farmers. In all of Arizona, about 60% of our water goes towards agriculture and in any shortage they will be the first to feel it. And a lot of the agricultural water supply comes from the CAP, and you and I both know that water flows uphill towards money. And California has a lot more money than us,” she exclaimed, finally finishing her rant.

There was a long silence. “Oh yeah, of course Sarah, I, umm, I know what you mean, and, we’re going to you know, we’re going to get this handled”, Stan finally managed to say. “Just send me the report, and-.”

“Yeah I’ve almost finished it and I’ll get it to you right away,” Sarah interrupted. “But don’t even wait for it. Tell your bosses, tell their bosses, TELL EVERYONE! I don’t know how many people know the true danger that lurks right around the corner. I’m serious Stan, this is big”.

Sarah ended her conversation with Stan and quickly finished her report and mailed it off to him just a few hours later. In the wee hours of the night, she returned to her Ahwatukee home, just 10 miles south Tempe, and found her husband sprawled out on the couch.

“Tough day hun”, she said. Jake grunted an affirmation.

“Yeah me too.” She went over to greet her husband as she touched his face he grimaced and jerked his head away.

“Oww, don’t touch that,” he cried.

Now noticing the black eye dominating the left side of his face, she cried out, “What happened babe!”

“Ughhh”, Jake gruffed. “I ran into some trouble at the vet clinic today.”

“The vet clinic? We don’t even have a pet.”

“Yeah I know hun,” he continued. “The boys and I were called out there to investigate some missing water. You know that vet around the corner from the fire station? Well, she had noticed that some of her water was mysteriously missing from her water tanks that she kept for her animals. At first she thought it was a leak, but checked the tank and everything was fine. She figured that someone must have been stealing the water! Can you believe that? So she set up some security cameras and sure enough caught footage of the culprit in action. The local Sheriff put her in contact with us so we could watch out for any suspicious activity and sure enough tonight some of the boys saw someone with a big truck and a syphon! So we go over to confront him and the sucker slugs me and tries to take off! Luckily, the boys caught him, but really can you believe that!”

“Oh my God, how crazy.”

“Yeah, crazy is the word. Its crazy out there. People are going crazy for water. I mean my guys are out there fighting fires, and we show up to a hydrant and its dry! ‘Cause some yahoos are stealing the water. GOd forbid it was their house that was on fire.”


Sarah thought she would hear back from Stan the next morning, or afternoon at the latest, but there was no word all day. Finally at about 5pm she called him and it went straight to voicemail. It took him three days before he finally called back.

“Hey Sarah, glad I caught you. I just wanted to tell you that I had some of our researchers look at the data and it appears that there’s been a few errors and really things are not as bad as we thought. Turns out some of the machines were malfunctioning and giving out erroneous data about the river flows, and amount of groundwater pumped, so we can all calm down a bit.”

“Well I mean that may be true about the malfunctioning machines, but what about the radar images. They clearly show the groundwater level dropping.”

“I don’t know if we can really say that’s clear Sarah. I mean look its very new technology and frankly it hasn’t been tested enough to rely on. Especially when there are no other indicators.”

“No other indicators? I think we-”

“I think we both got a little carried away, and you know its time reel it back in a bit. This is still a top priority, but we have some time here. We can work on solutions. But thanks for your help we really appreciate it. Take care”. Click.

As the dial tone rang in Sarah’s ear, she wondered if he could be right. Malfunctioning equipment? It wasn’t the first time that had happened. But if they were wrong, then everyone in Phoenix was in danger. But with little authority of her own, and the city unwilling to dig further, there was little she could do. Only time would tell, who was right. And by then it might be too late.


That next summer was worse than the previous one. Hotter, drier deadlier. Things were not getting better. Everyone needed water and were willing to fight to get it. As they say “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.” And the water lawyers definitely went into battle. California’s drought was even worse than Arizona’s and the farmers of Central California demanded their share from the Colorado River. Any additional storage from Lake Mead was quickly taken out as all three states reneged on their Water pact. This led to shortage conditions and things only got uglier from there.

Ranchers in Arizona began to stockpile arms. With their livelihoods at stake they guarded access to their wells and defended it with their lives from any would be thieves. But as even those wells began to dry up, some of the ranchers would quickly switch sides and use their weapons for more menacing purposes. People banded together in posses demanding access to water. The sheriff was called in, but as the crisis grew, the Sheriff stopped showing up.

The chaos reached the urban areas later than the rural areas because the city’s lawyers had kept the municipality flowing with water for as long as possible. They enforced water outages to try to stem the tide, but it was only a bandaid on the larger problem. Soon the money stopped flowing in Arizona as the economy slowed due to water cuts. And when the money stopped flowing, the lawyers no longer had any clout to obtain water for the dry city. The economy worsened further and soon the layoffs came. The industries that depend on water experienced a surplus of workers. The city of Phoenix’s credit rating went to zero. No one wanted take a chance on a city in a desert with a dry well.

The rest of the nation was not spared from the crisis either. California provides many agricultural staples for the country, and with the drought, the crops failed. Food prices shot sky high, especially in Arizona, since Arizona’s own agriculture was in shambles.

Sarah knew that she had been right. The crisis was real and now it was here. Sarah’s parents left Arizona for greener pastures back East. Her Mom wept as she said goodbye to her daughter, and her Azaleas. But Sarah and Jake were unwilling to leave. Their whole lives were here in Phoenix. Their jobs, their friends, their history. They would not leave. They could not leave their city and its people to just fend for themselves. No, they would fight.

This meant that Jake was away more than he home, fighting the blazes. And Sarah spent this extra time delving into solutions. Conservation. Reclaiming used water. Those options would help, but they wouldn’t solve the problem completely. What could? Sarah had an idea. Many in the water community had latched onto desalination as the wave of the future, and Sarah agreed. The process of reverse-osmosis desalination had been around since the 1950s but it was too expensive to implement when there was abundant fresh water supplies available. But now, the freshwater sources weren’t abundant and the city was thirsty. Still city officials could not agree on desalination as the solution. With the hefty price tag and the economic slowdown, many thought they could not afford to build an expensive plant. They weren’t convinced.

The heat of the summer marched on well into September and Sarah wondered if it would ever end. The monsoon had been silent that season, but there was a hurricane brewing off the west coast of Mexico. While Mexican batted down the hatches, Californians and Arizonans licked their lips at the thought of an impending deluge. The hurricane was still about 4 days from shore, when another weather possibility popped up. It seems the the hot air and colder air created enough of a pressure difference to finally bring some moisture down to Arizona and cause the long awaited monsoon. Arizona would get its rain.

As the hot sun beat down on them Jake and Sarah put up sand bags around their home. They were going defend their turf from the water, just as they had from the sun. Jake had to go out to the station and only left after Sarah promised him she would be fine and would not leave the house. And she didn’t. The current swept her out!

As the hurricane storm from the west and the monsoon met over Arizona, Phoenix became a sitting duck. The summer fires had removed much of the foliage that would normally suck up excess water, and thus the rains ran off the topsoil like a child flying down a slide. The small streams quickly grew it big streams, then heavy flows, then rivers flowing down urban streets. Sarah watched from backyard as the water overtook the water in her pool. It all mixed together and her backyard became a large pond, with the level quickly rising.

The city issued a state of emergency and Jake did what he could to rescue stranded people caught up in sudden currents, but his heart was still with Sarah. The power lines had gone down and there was no way of contacting her. Would she be okay?

Sarah huddled in the attic of her house. The water had already seeped through the ground floor and was quickly following her up the attic steps. At times like this, she really wished she had a second floor. She knew her last option would be her roof. SHe made her way to the roof and tried desperately to signal someone for help. But there was no one. She watched desperately as everything swirled around her. Houses, cars, people, all washed past her. The roar of the water squelching the cries of the drowning. Sarah’s eyes widened as she saw a large tree trunk thunder towards her in the water. The trunk knocked her off the roof and Sarah gasped for air as she tried to maintain her head above the water. She tried to grab on to anything that she could but everything was just out of her grasp. She grew tired and her legs felt heavy as she fought to stay afloat. With her last bit of energy she finally grabbed onto a drainage pipe. She was able to shimmy herself two feet up the pipe to the roof of a 2 story house. She collapsed onto the roof exhausted. She closed her eyes and her last thoughts were of Jake.

In the wake of the storm, the flood waters began to recede and the damaged could finally be counted. The city had been crippled. Hundreds dead. Many more missing. Jake left as soon as he could to return to his home and found it to not be where he left it. And no sign of his wife. He searched and searched but nothing. The Red Cross had set up tent cities to care for the homeless and wounded. It was there that he saw her. She was bruised, she was broken, she was bandaged. But she was alive Jake hugged his barely conscious wife as he realized they were one of the lucky ones.

The city would rebuild. And with money allocated from the government’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, Arizona was able to build its first desalination plant in partnership with California, on the banks of the San Diego coast. Thus providing a means for the city to survive. And Sarah and Jake would see the city survive. They would see their city through anything.

© Copyright 2020 Courtney Starling. All rights reserved.

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