Foreclosures and Forecasts in the American Southwest

Las Vegas is America"s fastest-growing city.©

Not long ago, my fiancée and I were watching a movie about a small, waterless southern California town. The film led to a conversation about housing policies and the mortgage crisis. "It"s these dry western towns that are driving this mortgage crisis," I declared, no evidence to back it up, waving a glass of wine in one hand while standing in front of the fire, "and this is just the beginning of the problems we"ll see from all this sprawling urbanism!"

The following morning, dropping the red envelope with the DVD to be returned into the mailbox, I reconsidered this point and was surprised that it held up under the sober first rays of the sun on the morning dog walk. It didn"t take much research to confirm that this foreclosure crisis is hitting us harder in the Southwest than in the rest of the country. Even so, foreclosure is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problem of growth in the West and like any iceberg, the bulk of the thing—including its most dangerous parts—lies underwater. Like all icebergs, also, the "berg of western urban growth will have its existence and stability challenged by global climate change.

As I write this, the five cities with the highest foreclosure rates are: Stockton, Bakersfield, and Riverside/San Bernadino in California, Las Vegas/Paradise, NV, and Phoenix, AZ. There are a few things these towns have in common. First, show any one of these cities to a person who hadn"t seen it in 50 years and that person wouldn"t believe the growth. Second, in each case growth has required Rube Goldberg-ian water projects, four of them relying on the Colorado River and Stockton benefitting from similarly complex plumbing in California"s Central Valley. Finally, the growth of these cities hasbeen funded and encouraged through construction on the urban periphery. These similarities are related, but there has never been an overarching plan for Western urban development. The piecemeal policymaking style that has led to this crisis is particularly evident to me—a water planner—in the Colorado River Watershed.

In California, the Salton Sea"s waters are too salty to sustain life. Here, dead tilapia have washed ashore.

The management of the Colorado River is accomplished through an interlaced system of treaties, compacts, dams and tunnels. Interstate compacts define delivery and management roles between adjoining states that share in this body of water. These states, then, are divided into upper- and lower-basin states with additional compacts defining water-sharing agreements within and between these conglomerates. Next, a compact along the entire river system details sharing beyond the basin, and finally, a treaty between the U.S. and Mexico ensures minimum quantity and quality measures at the border.

Over time, these arrangements have altered the shape of the Colorado River and its watershed. Dams, pumping stations, desalination facilities and hundreds of miles of aqueducts store, carry, clean and move water throughout the basin. New Mexico takesits negotiated share of the river through 30 miles of tunnels in order to carry water fromthree Colorado River tributaries under the continental divide and into the Heron reservoir near Abiqiu, NM—the once pristine home of Georgia O"Keefe—where it joins the Rio Grande and flows to the Atlantic. For years the focal point of Southern Utah"s tourist economy has been Lake Powell, where tourists can explore ancient pictographs and sandstone arches as God intended—by boat. Passing through Glen Canyon Dam, the River turns massive electrical turbines before flowing through the Grand Canyon and intoLake Mead where it again powers and waters a rural desert community—Las Vegas, NV, America"s fastest growing city.

After leaving Hoover Dam, millions of acre-feet are funneled off into the Colorado Canal for delivery to thirsty residents, pools, fields, and golf courses in Southern California, the residue being hung out to dry in the Salton Sea—saltier than the ocean, more polluted than a can of soda. The Central Arizona Project brings another share of this water all the way from the state"s western boundary to Phoenix through series of siphons (to carry water uphill), tunnels (to carry water under mountains), and pumps (gigantic wells) that allow America"s fifth most populous city to stay hydrated, to swim and to golf year-round. When a few persistent gallons reach the U.S./Mexico border, the River is run through a plant to remove just enough of the salt that accumulates through irrigation and evaporation to meet the terms of our agreement with Mexico, but not so much that a fish could live in it or a farmer could spread it on her field.

Perhaps this is just an economic downturn and not the moment when the chickens of past crimes against the environment come home to roost, but it should at least give us pause. Moving forward we will face additional challenges to our limited natural resources including climate change and continued population growth. As we begin to address these issues, it is important that we learn from our past actions and consider the relationships between our housing policies, our environmental policies and our natural resources in order to better envision our future from a broad perspective and to shape policies to help us move towards societal goals of environmental and economic sustainability.

ANDREW ERDMANN holds Master’s degrees in Natural Resources Planning and Water Resources and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.