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Luttes pour l’eau dans les Amériques

Chloé Nicolas-Artero
Sébastien Velut
Graciela Schneier-Madanes
et al.

III- Repenser l’urbain à partir des enjeux environnementaux contemporains

Chapter 11. Water Conservation in Arizona Desert Cities: a Socioecological Fix to the Oasis Lifestyle?

Anne-Lise Boyer et Brian F. O’Neill

Texte intégral


1Nowadays, the availability of freshwater is at the forefront of global concerns regarding the sustainable management of natural resources. In the context of global changes and “peak water” concerns [Gleick & Palaniappan, 2010], especially with rapid urban growth occurring in semi-arid regions worldwide, the tension between water supply and water demand has become a critical challenge. Since the 1970s, water conservation has become an increasingly important component of sustainable resources management [Gleick, 2002; Sauri, 2013]. It refers to a reduction in water use and water loss and corresponds to a shift from supply management towards demand management [Gleick, 2000]. The main strategies mobilized for water conservation can be efficiency through water-saving technologies but also a broader set of policies, such as revised economic incentives and water rates, state and local regulations, communication and public education. These conservation tools were first deployed in cities, and targeted municipal, commercial and residential uses of water. Such tools have proved to be helpful in curbing water consumption [Inman & Jeffrey, 2006; Willis et al., 2011]. Today though, in Arizona, due to population growth and urbanization, municipal demand is the fastest growing sector of water use. In the 2000s, municipal uses accounted for approximately 40% of water demand, and they are now expected to exceed agricultural and industrial uses by 2025 [Jacobs & Megdal, 2005; Hirt et al., 2017].

2In the semi-arid American Southwest, water transfers and supply “augmentation” (bringing new, untapped sources of water) have been a traditional response to water scarcity as evidenced by hundreds of large canals and pipelines that crisscross the landscape (Figure 1). However, since 1980 and the enactment of the Groundwater Management Act (GMA), Arizona water stakeholders (government officials, mayors, city managers, and bureaucrats) have been forced to implement water conservation strategies to plan for a future with less water [O’Neill et al., 2016]. Many scholars have described the GMA as a major policy innovation [Jacobs & Colby, 2007; Bernat et al., 2020] and Arizona cities’ policy documents and newspapers valorize these actions as being the avant garde of water conservation to sustain urban attractiveness [Benites-Gambirazio et al., 2016].

Figure 1. Arizona Cities and Essential Water Infrastructure

Figure 1. Arizona Cities and Essential Water Infrastructure

Source: Anne-Lise Boyer, QGIS, 2019. Data from USGS, 2015; ADWR, 2017; University of Arizona GIS

3The research presented here aims to question the implementation of water conservation policies in Arizona’s desert metropoles. What socio-political context allowed for the development of a law such as the GMA and the implementation of public water conservation policies? Beyond stating success and policy satisfaction, what are the stakes and limits of water conservation measures as implemented since the 1980s? To assess this question, the research presented in this paper is based on a three-year fieldwork among water stakeholders, conducted in the cities of Tucson and Phoenix, the two largest cities of the State: 80 semi-structured interviews were conducted with water managers at different scales (Lower Colorado River watershed, State of Arizona, counties, cities, etc.) and at different qualification levels (lawyers, field technicians, educators, etc.), and 40 interviews were conducted with environmentalists and water activists.

4The chapter proposes first going back to the history of the transformation of the American West in the light of the concept of “fix” [Harvey, 1981; Swyngedouw, 2013]. The chapter then focuses on the analysis of the processes that preside over the implementation of public water conservation policies in Arizona, notably through the increase in number of water managers under the category called “water professionals”. Finally, the chapter presents examples of grassroots attempts at going beyond the logic of “fix” in order to propose more eco-friendly cities re-connected to their local desert environment.

The making of the illusion of water abundance in the American Southwest

5Since the Federal Reclamation Act of 1902, the Southwest has been part of the development of massive infrastructures (dams, aqueducts), which started the transformation of an arid area of the United States into the center of economic development that it is today–the southwestern “Sun Belt”.

6This section proposes to analyze the transformation of the West through the notion of “fix”, which has had many cognates in sociology and geography. To describe the different ways capitalist accumulation processes are being sustained in cases of internal capitalist crises, David Harvey [1981] analyzes the idea of “fix” in a Marxist perspective. His definition takes into account the many meanings of the verb “to fix”: i) one meaning “refers to something being pinned down and secured in a particular locus, the idea is that something is secured in space: it cannot be moved or modified”; ii) another meaning is “to resolve a difficulty” (e.g., fixing a car); iii) the fix for drug addicts: “the burning desire to relieve a chronic or pervasive problem […]. It is implied that the resolution is temporary rather than permanent, since the craving soon returns” [Harvey, 2001, p. 24]. Later, political ecologists have proposed to take another look at the “fix” concept by analyzing a “socioecological fix”, adding this to the variables of nature production in their analysis [Ekers & Prudham, 2015; 2017]. Indeed, “fixes” always have socioecological dimensions: they are linked to a shift in the modes of nature transformation and production, and therefore especially impact landscapes (e.g., the construction of a dam answers to a project to solve a water and/or energy supply problem and changes the local landscape by flooding a valley) [Comby et al., 2019]. For example, in the context of a water scarce Spain, E. Swyngedouw proposes more consideration for a “hydrosocial fix” [2013; 2015], implemented to rectify the dysfunction of the “hydrosocial cycle” [Linton & Budds, 2014] that was based on the reproduction of “a development trajectory based on increasing water supply” [Swyngedouw, 2013, p. 262]. In this sense, the fix is very often to “pin down” water infrastructure in specific geographical locations, with the aim of transferring water resources management problems from old locations to new ones that are free from political and legal baggage.

7Likewise, as Cortinas et al. have shown [2016a], water policy in the American West has been built “to promote economic development and to avoid social protest.” Indeed, the Reclamation Act was set up to solve potential threats, such as economic ones linked to the durability of the project of the West as a new “El Dorado” [Worster, 2002], but also social ones linked to discontents in a region that was being fast colonized and transformed. Furthermore, there were environmental threats, especially droughts which were threatening the economic development in the region. Later, in the 1930s, the federal government’s policies on water were used as a tool to pave the way out of the Great Depression. Building large infrastructures was indeed thought to ensure jobs and to stimulate the economy. In this context, following Erik Swyngedouw, dams and their related infrastructures can be considered as a “hydrosocial fix” in the first two meanings given by David Harvey: the goal was to fix the capital on one point, in the form of huge federal investments, to sustain a broader regional socio-economic system, and to reclaim and repair a semi-arid area to make it productive and profitable.

8The cities of Phoenix and Tucson rely mostly on two mega-infrastructures for their water supply, built in the context of the Reclamation of the West in the beginning of the 20th century and of the Great Depression: the Roosevelt Dam and Lake Roosevelt (1911) on the Salt River; and the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead (1936) on the Colorado River.

9Cities in the semi-arid Southwest would not be what they are today (e.g., Phoenix is the 5th biggest city in the U.S.) without water and the technology needed to deliver it to its users. Thus, those cities can be considered as oasis-cities, where water supply networks contribute greatly to the making of the urban region [Jaglin, 2012; Lavie & Marshall, 2017]. In the 1950s, after World War II, Arizona cities started to grow exponentially. Indeed, the war period had brought a range of new industries linked to the defense sector and brought many permanent newcomers as well as retirees fleeing the cold East and Midwest during the winter months, known as “snow-birds” [Sheridan, 2012]. Consequently, the water demand was consistently growing, and Arizona urban centers were trying to expand their water supply by tapping the underground aquifers in Tucson or by transferring water use from agricultural to urban in Phoenix [Bernat et al., 2020]. But these efforts were not enough to reduce the growing gap between demand and supply; and led to a crisis regarding aquifer levels. Arizona municipal leaders became therefore strong supporters of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), considered the best means to supplement scarce local water supplies [Kupel, 2003]. The construction of the CAP was enacted in 1968, started in 1973 and was completed in 1993 with delivery to Tucson being fulfilled (although it was initially botched, and full operation was not realized until 1999). Concretely, the CAP is a system of aqueducts, tunnels, canals and pumping stations over 500km from Lake Havasu on the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson [Cortinas et al., 2016b] transporting water uphill (the elevation of Tucson is higher than the CAP’s origin point). At the end of the 20th century, the CAP has become the “urban Arizona lifeline” [Kupel, 2003, p. 154], providing 70% of Tucson’s and 40% of Phoenix’s water supply.

10All the “fix” strategies to secure Arizona cities’ water supply have contributed to unprecedented urban landscape transformation from small desert villages on the brink of the inhospitable to flourishing major urban areas with vast peri-urban expansion. In Phoenix, for instance, high water use rates (around 765 liters per person per day, while the national average is between 300 and 380 L per person per day) can be explained by the interests of city officials in maintaining “a historic pattern of perpetuating an artificially lush oasis” [Larson et al., 2009, p. 108]. Developed as early as 1920, when Arizona started to be promoted as a winter resort, composed of golf courses, artificial lakes, palm trees and well irrigated lawns, Phoenix institutions and residents have been preferring lawns and oasis-style landscaping [Yabiku et al., 2008], thus forming a significant dimension of the modern desert-dweller identity. For instance, Figure 2 and 3 are pictures taken in Scottsdale, a wealthy suburb located north of Phoenix, developed in the 1950s on the model of the oasis and “western ranching lifestyle” [Benites-Gambirazio, 2016, p. 131], dedicated to leisure and relaxation to attract rich tourists and “snowbirds”. The city has particularly developed based on an aquatic image, around an urban center built on the waterfront around the Arizona Canal which supplies the city with water from the Salt River.

Figure 2. The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, and Lake Mead, the main water reservoir in the American West

Figure 2. The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, and Lake Mead, the main water reservoir in the American West

Source: Brian O’Neill, December, 2016

Figure 3. View from Camelback Mountain, looking down on the Phoenician Resort Hotel

Figure 3. View from Camelback Mountain, looking down on the Phoenician Resort Hotel

Source: Anne-Lise Boyer, April, 2019

  • 1 WINES Michael, “Arizona cities could face cutbacks in water from the Colorado River”, New York Time (...)

11Now, alerted by the Bureau of Reclamation (the federal agency managing most of the major western U.S. infrastructures), cities in southern Arizona must publicly acknowledge that they are threatened by a reduction in their water supplies coming from the Colorado River.1 The situation invites to question the current water system’s efficacy from Harvey’s “drug fix” metaphor: technological solutions can only be temporary, sustaining the system only until the next shortage.

Water conservation: the end or the upkeep of the water abundance?

12The CAP was promoted in the 1960s as a means of effectively combating both the situation of structural water scarcity in the Arizona desert, and a conjunctural scarcity linked to drought periods that have been recurrent throughout the 20th century [Poupeau et al., 2016]. In exchange for investment in the canal’s construction, the federal government asked the State of Arizona to address the problem of groundwater overexploitation and to solve growing conflicts among water users, particularly between farmers and expanding municipalities. The latter were indeed increasingly nibbling away at farmlands to secure their access to new water resources [Boyer & Bernat, 2020]. At the time, Arizona experienced a crisis in water management, both ecological (dramatic decline in groundwater levels) and social (increased conflict). This was especially important due to Arizona’s precarious position in relation to water legal appropriations along the Colorado River: Arizona is only ahead of Mexico in guaranteed supplies in the event of a shortage declared by federal officials. This socio-political context can be analyzed as a moment of transition which closes the “era of state intervention”. Described as “hydrosocial contract”, such a moment of transition opens a phase of demand management because supply increase is then seen as being too costly or less environmentally acceptable [Turton & Ohlsson, 1999; Kauffer, 2006; Blanchon, 2009].

13The topic of water conservation enjoys widespread consensus and has become an important part of water management, as it is at the intersection of technical aspects (water efficiency) and social aspects (water-demand, water education). Thus, in 1980, the State of Arizona enacted the GMA, a legislative framework for water management that places water demand at the core of its objectives, including an ambitious water conservation program for Arizona’s various water users, supported by a complex system of statewide regulations [Connall, 1982]. The GMA creates “Active Management Areas” (AMAs) (Figure 1) and the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR). The ADWR adopts management plans for each AMA, monitors water consumption, as well as groundwater pumping rates, and establishes specific conservation standards for water users [Cabello et al., 2016]. The GMA aims in part at changing the public’s behavior regarding water consumption by instituting measures of “reasonable reductions in per capita use”. The ADWR is in charge of implementing water conservation policies, and notably of promoting a “low water-use lifestyle” in order to “ensure a long-term, sustainable water supply”. In this context, how can the high-water use oasis cities adapt without jeopardizing their attractiveness?

  • 2 Interview, July 2018.

14Landscapes have an important impact on water demand because residential outdoor use can account for up to 60–70% of any residential water bill in the Phoenix Valley [Balling et al., 2008]. Table 1 shows the adult education programs proposed by the water services at the City of Phoenix and the City of Scottsdale in 2020. If we take a look at these water conservation workshops, we find that they focus mostly on landscaping. Primarily, they promote water efficiency, notably water-efficient irrigation systems, and second, the beauty of desert adapted plants. As a water conservationist explained, “we don’t want to scare them [the general public] off by talking about water conservation first”.2 The Phoenix Valley water policies are often described as “controversial” due to the focus on voluntary measures and passive conservation [Hornberger et al., 2015]. Some say these do not go far enough. But socioecological transformations are on their way too. In Phoenix, 80% of the cityscapes had lawns in the 2000s, whereas today these numbers have fallen to 14%, with most cityscapes replaced by xeriscaping, e.g., low-water use plants [Robbins, 2019]. Also, the water rates in the Phoenix Valley, currently among the cheapest nationwide, are on the table for discussion, and the City of Phoenix have started to work with the Watershed Management Group, a grassroots organization from Tucson, promoting rain and grey water harvesting.

Table 1. City of Phoenix and City of Scottsdale water conservation programs

Table 1. City of Phoenix and City of Scottsdale water conservation programs

Source: Spring 2020, Phoenix Water and City of Scottsdale

15To their credit, the City of Tucson has shown an especially strong involvement in water conservation strategies and policies [Megdal & Forrest, 2015]. While the Phoenix Metropolitan Area has the Salt and Verde Rivers, Tucson has no permanent flowing rivers because of its history of extensive groundwater withdrawal. Until the arrival of the Colorado River thanks to the CAP, Tucson was entirely dependent on groundwater. The risk of groundwater depletion in Tucson led to a precocious turn towards water conservation in the 1970s, reinforced by the historic interest of the city’s population in environmental issues [Charnley et al., 2014]. These facts led rapidly to the “return of the desert” at a steady rate since the early 1980s. In the mid-1970s, the city of Tucson experienced a drought and water shortage with some portions of the city being without water. The crisis was managed through the implementation of a water conservation campaign (information and communication) run by the local water agency - Tucson Water - and increased water rates. For the first time, Tucson residents experienced and perceived water shortage, which spurred the adoption of a new desert “waterscape” marked by desert adapted plants [Euzen & Morehouse, 2014]. The city has therefore proven its innovative capacity and the discourse and overall strategy of managing water has shifted.

16For example, one successful strategy has focused on rainwater harvesting. Since the early 2000s, Tucson has been at the forefront in rainwater harvesting implementation [Boyer & Le Lay, 2019; Radonic, 2019]. By 2008, Tucson was the first city in the United States to pass an ordinance to make it mandatory that all new businesses irrigate landscapes with at least 50% rainwater [Meehan & Moore, 2014]. In 2012, Tucson Water proposed incentives to promote rainwater harvesting in households: the water utility can reimburse a rainwater harvesting system installation up to $2,000, which makes most of the projects nearly free. Therefore, rainwater harvesting joins other alternative water supplies such as greywater harvesting and reclaimed water which completes conventional water supplies from the CAP and aquifers [Kuhn et al., 2016; Schneier-Madanes et al., 2016]. The overall goal is to decrease the dependence on the aquifers and CAP, as well as secure the city’s growing population’s future demand.

17Encouraging water conservation so that there will be enough for the Arizona cities’ booming population is considered by proponents as the main goal, particularly in a context where the backbones of Arizona are urban growth and real estate. The “fix” dimension here refers to the fact that the success of rainwater harvesting corresponds to the diffusion of an emerging technique which encourages the setting up of a new kind of market (sale of cisterns, landscaping works) and in return, supports the functioning of the “hydrosocial cycle”, while at the same time working within the urban growth framework. As one informant mentioned in a water workshop on rainwater harvesting in Tucson in April 2018: “We live in a much more urbanized environment now, and that’s ok. I grew up in Detroit, I know what happens when growth stops, and it is not pretty.” Water conservation is seen as an economic necessity, but one that can still flourish when partnered with the sustainability discourse logics.

The Rise of Water Professionals

18In his analysis of the “hydrosocial fix”, E. Swyngedouw [2013] shows that the fix process reproduces the hegemony of a few stakeholders, often the affluent ones and the experts. In the past 150 years, managing water in the Western United States, sustaining such a complex “hydrosocial cycle” and the oasis cities archipelago (Phoenix, Tucson but also Las Vegas and Palm Springs, among others), has originated hundreds of agreements, court cases, and infrastructural projects. The number of people who “make their living in water” has grown dramatically. What we describe here as water professionals are a group of people who work, often in governmental or bureaucratic spheres to further various agendas on water policy (engineers, lawyers, planners, scientists and quasi-politicians). One long time water professional described his first encounter with this nascent group:

  • 3 Archival interview extract from the CAP Oral History Transcripts project with lawyer and former CAP (...)

"the CAP board, particularly then, was an obscure, little-known, quasi-mysterious agency that met in a remote, bunker-like location and the meetings were attended only by the Water Buffaloes, the people who make their living in water. They are either working for a city, consulting for a city, representing a city, representing a farm, […] they speak entirely in acronyms. For like a year, I had no clue what these people were talking about … The other thing about water is that people who have done it a long time believe that it is magic."3

19This individual describes the water professionals as a distinct social group, who deal strictly in water policy, in a field with a well-adapted language of its own. As he says, they speak in acronyms for all the myriad laws, documents, and agencies that they must account for in their daily activities. When decisions about the CAP, the GMA, or specific AMAs need to be made, these are the people who make them. For example, the notion of “water buffaloes” is culturally specific to the Southwestern U.S. water bureaucracy and another term used to refer to water professionals. As S. Wilson [2004] explains,

"there are a lot of theories about how the name evolved. Some say it’s because they were just a bunch of grumpy old men. Some say it’s because, like the water buffalo, these Water Buffalos plodded along and would not be deterred from accomplishing their goals".

20It brings into evidence a particular social hierarchy in the water sector that is relevant for the operations of professionals in this bureaucratic field [Poupeau et al. 2019; Megdal, 2020]. The rise of water professionals must also be understood within the larger institutional and organization of Arizona’s water infrastructure. They have come to prominence in conjunction with the growth in the number of different governmental agencies of all kinds whose goal is to manage water and implement water policy. Today, they remain resolute and confident in the way in which they have “reinvented water conservation” away from the wasteful ways of the past, when groundwater was overdrawn in Arizona [O’Neill et al., 2018]. Comments made by Tom Buschatzke, current Director of the ADWR, can be taken as an example. He gave the following response to questions comparing the drought in California to the drought in Arizona for a National Public Radio piece:

  • 4 Million-acre feet is the way in which water supplies are allocated in the United States West. One a (...)
  • 5 See a reproduction of some of this interview with the water director at (...)

"The metropolitan parts of Arizona already have mandatory water conservation requirements in place. We also have stored a lot of water underground, so for a point in time when we see shortages, we’ve got over 3 million acre-feet of water.4 That’s more than a year’s (worth of) water underground. We’ve definitely done things differently; we’ve made some different choices. I think Arizona is one of the better places you can be right now in the western United States".5

21With these complex social institutions in place, drought is an interesting context in which to study such a system. In its absence, such a high degree of coordination may not be made clear. Indeed, state, and sometimes federal officials, need to be present even at very low-level meetings within the hierarchy. In light of the hardest drought in more than 1.300 years in the Colorado River Basin, and with the reservoirs of Lake Mead and Lake Powell at dangerously low levels, these meetings, committees and organizations have become important hubs of information from the state to the regional and local levels [Poupeau et al., 2019]. For Arizona’s water professionals, the fix has been made and is here to stay. Arizona, in their perspective, remains in a good position. Indeed, such discourse exists as a form of the dominant doxa in water resources management [Dasgupta et al., 2016].

Beyond the “fix”: Water Supply Crisis and Grassroots Claims

22Mickael Ekers and Scott Prudham [2015, p. 2438] insist that fixes occur “in response to real and perceived crises of legitimacy” and correspond to “shifts in the social regulation of productions of space and nature”. Indeed, much of the current debate involving Western U.S. water includes a discourse on crisis. The opening lines of Culp et al. [2014, p. 2] express that:

"The American West has a long tradition of conflict over water. But after fifteen years of drought across the region, it is no longer simply conflict: it is crisis, in the face of unprecedented declines in reservoir storage and groundwater reserves throughout the West".

  • 6 The Arizona Republic, “As the river runs dry: the Southwest water crisis”, B. Loomis and M. Henle, (...)
  • 7 Personal Correspondence with Water Policy Manager for Pima County, Director of Tucson Water, and Tu (...)

23Furthermore, on February 27, 2015, Loomis and Henle wrote an article for the Arizona Republic newspaper entitled “As the River Runs Dry: The Southwest’s Water Crisis”. They wrote: “Last year, the ADWR published a ‘strategic vision’ for the coming century. The department stopped short of calling the state’s current situation a ‘crisis,’ but said Arizona is at a ‘crossroads’ and needs to decide on actions to secure new water…”6 Because newspapers are readily available to the general public, they possess the power to influence public opinion [Comby et al., 2019] regarding issues such as drought.7 However, in Arizona, agencies do not refer to the situation surrounding the drought as a crisis per se.

24Instead of a drought crisis, Arizona’ water professionals are perhaps facing a crisis of confidence or legitimacy, which leads to searching other water conservation ways and other goals. Specifically, environmentalists have taken up the issue of water conservation. Based on ethical considerations, their vision for water conservation promotes a way of life more connected to the natural conditions of the semi-arid environment. For a more in-depth analysis of water conservation as environmental ethic, we can go back to the case of rainwater harvesting implementation in Tucson. Environmentalist groups have been pressing on the issue of rainwater harvesting in Tucson since the 1990s, questioning the “urban growth machine”, [Molotch, 1976] and especially the city’s dependence on CAP’s water [Boyer & Le Lay, 2019].

  • 8 Interview with The Permaculture Guild of the Sonoran Desert; with City of Tucson Urban landscaper ( (...)

25During the 1990s, for economic reasons (cheap rents, vacant housing), some of these environmental activists settled on the central or pericentral districts of Tucson which were in decline. This is the case of the Northwest neighborhood, which has become an experimental place for new urban landscapes, in greater harmony with local conditions and fed by rainwater harvesting. The Northwest Neighborhood Association is a group of residents who defends the neighborhood interests and organizes activities to promote social cohesion. They were originally motivated by the establishment of the Permaculture Guild of the Sonoran Desert and have now become the main actor in the area’s landscape transformation, under the principles of permaculture and passive rainwater harvesting.8

  • 9 Interview with the Permaculture Guild of the Sonoran Desert (2018).

26The Northwest Neighborhood Association has been successful in obtaining grants from Pima County and the City of Tucson to carry out landscape transformation projects. Between 2003 and 2017, they developed several projects to transform the neighborhood’s landscapes and harvest the rain, considered as a resource to be developed. They intended to give a new life to the distressed area by promoting landscapes in good ecological health, encouraging pedestrian circulation, and collectively investing with the inhabitants the construction of these new landscapes. The construction of a shaded pedestrian corridor, leading from the neighborhood main street to the public Mansfield Park, thus replacing a dirty alley between two blocks (Figure 4), is perhaps their most impressive project. This new path, green and largely shaded, is planted only with species endemic to the Sonoran Desert, adapted to the semi-arid conditions (mesquite, ocotillos, palo verde), irrigated exclusively thanks to gravity rainwater harvesting. This example is a good demonstration that it is possible to transform a dry and dusty place into a lush and pleasant oasis without relying on the mega-infrastructures system paradigm. For the supporters of this approach, it is therefore not a question of abandoning the urban oasis in the desert, but rather of transforming its conditions and landscape qualities: “we provided an alternative and we have shown that you don’t need to have a gravel yard to not use much water, you can still have a nice, wonderful, green space, with native trees”.9

Figure 4. A house equipped with rainwater harvesting infrastructures in the Northwest Neighborhood, in Tucson

Figure 4. A house equipped with rainwater harvesting infrastructures in the Northwest Neighborhood, in Tucson

Source: Brian O’Neill, August, 2019

  • 10 Interview with volunteers at the Watershed Management Group, 2018

27Some environmental activists make the choice to depend as little as possible on the CAP’s water for their domestic needs, or even to become completely self-reliant. It is, on the one hand, an ecological choice linked to the concern over groundwater, but also to the CAP’s energy consumption, the most prominent in Arizona. On the other hand, it is a political choice to denounce the centralization of decision-making and the control of growth strategies in the region by water professionals.10

Figure 5. The pedestrian path from East Linden Street to Mansfield Park - A passive rainwater harvesting landscape in Northwest Neighborhood, Tucson

Figure 5. The pedestrian path from East Linden Street to Mansfield Park - A passive rainwater harvesting landscape in Northwest Neighborhood, Tucson

Source : Anne-Lise Boyer, April, 2018

Conclusion: The Fix goes on…

28This chapter concludes with a provocation by Alvin M. Weinberg, a technocrat who authored a paper in 1967 where we can find one of the first conceptualizations of the term “fix”: “Green lawns and clean cars and swimming pools are part of the good life, American style, 1967, and what right do we have to deny this luxury if there is some alternative to cutting down the water use?” This question has been reactivated by President Donald Trump during the 2020 presidential campaign. In a meeting in Milwaukee, in January 2020, he was angry against the water saving mechanisms put in place in the United States, considering them as an obstacle to efficiency and comfort. “Sinks, toilets and showers. You don’t get any water. They have put restrictors on them. You turn them on, no water comes out”, he said to thunderous applause.

29In Arizona, no water restrictions are in place. As many Arizona water professionals like to highlight, “conservation is meant to avoid restriction”. Even though low water use toilets are recommended by municipalities and sometimes subject to incentives, water conservation remains voluntary. Avoiding a water shortage is a technical concern under the care of water professionals, first thanks to mega-infrastructure projects (“technical fixes”), and second by an important set of laws and public policies which aim at regulating and changing water users’ habits (“social engineering”). This now coherent whole can be embraced as a “socio-ecological fix”. In Arizona desert cities, water conservation is meant to encourage saving water so that there will be enough for the booming population and expanding urban areas. Following Alice Cohen and Karen Bakker [2014, p.132], it seems that the crisis of underproduction [O’Connor, 1988] that water scarcity imposes on the southwestern desert, “simultaneously depoliticizes and repoliticizes governance”. Indeed, the strong concentration of decision-making power in the hands of water professionals has first led to a strong professionalization of water issues, but also to a strong politicization: in reaction, it has stimulated the rise of water activists’ movements who propose another vision of water conservation but also another, eco-friendlier, way of life in the desert. However, despite divergences, the perspectives of grassroots NGOs and water professionals seem to converge on a closer look. Water conservation has found a wide-spread consensus. It works as a compromise that can put the threat of shortages on hold and postpone the structural problems for a longer period of time. For instance, the day of reckoning with the main contradiction - irrigated agriculture in the desert continues to be postponed…


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1 WINES Michael, “Arizona cities could face cutbacks in water from the Colorado River”, New York Times [online], 17 June 2014 [accessed on 22 September 2020]. Available at:

2 Interview, July 2018.

3 Archival interview extract from the CAP Oral History Transcripts project with lawyer and former CAP board member.

4 Million-acre feet is the way in which water supplies are allocated in the United States West. One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons, or 1 234 m3, or enough water to cover an acre of land with a water depth of 1 foot (30,5 cm).

5 See a reproduction of some of this interview with the water director at

6 The Arizona Republic, “As the river runs dry: the Southwest water crisis”, B. Loomis and M. Henle, February 27, 2015. URL:

7 Personal Correspondence with Water Policy Manager for Pima County, Director of Tucson Water, and Tucson Water Public Information Officer (2015–2016).

8 Interview with The Permaculture Guild of the Sonoran Desert; with City of Tucson Urban landscaper (2018).

9 Interview with the Permaculture Guild of the Sonoran Desert (2018).

10 Interview with volunteers at the Watershed Management Group, 2018

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Arizona Cities and Essential Water Infrastructure
Crédits Source: Anne-Lise Boyer, QGIS, 2019. Data from USGS, 2015; ADWR, 2017; University of Arizona GIS
Fichier image/jpeg, 308k
Titre Figure 2. The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, and Lake Mead, the main water reservoir in the American West
Crédits Source: Brian O’Neill, December, 2016
Fichier image/jpeg, 392k
Titre Figure 3. View from Camelback Mountain, looking down on the Phoenician Resort Hotel
Crédits Source: Anne-Lise Boyer, April, 2019
Fichier image/jpeg, 544k
Titre Table 1. City of Phoenix and City of Scottsdale water conservation programs
Crédits Source: Spring 2020, Phoenix Water and City of Scottsdale
Fichier image/png, 138k
Titre Figure 4. A house equipped with rainwater harvesting infrastructures in the Northwest Neighborhood, in Tucson
Crédits Source: Brian O’Neill, August, 2019
Fichier image/jpeg, 544k
Titre Figure 5. The pedestrian path from East Linden Street to Mansfield Park - A passive rainwater harvesting landscape in Northwest Neighborhood, Tucson
Crédits Source : Anne-Lise Boyer, April, 2018
Fichier image/jpeg, 472k


Anne-Lise Boyer is a Postdoctoral Fellow for the HYDECO program of the Labex DRIIHM. She coordinates a network of interdisciplinary researchers analyzing water issues through the prism of connections, disconnections and reconnections between societies and their hydrosystems. Her doctoral dissertation, defended in 2020, addresses the main challenges for urban adaptation to water scarcity in the context of climate change. She has conducted extensive fieldwork in Phoenix and in Tucson, USA since 2015.

Brian F. O’Neill is a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the Department of Sociology. Working at the nexus of environmental sociology and political economy, his research focuses on environmental politics, justice, and the financialization of industrial practices related to climate change adaptation. His work has appeared in the Journal of World-Systems Research, International Sociology, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Natural Areas Journal, Journal of Political Ecology, and Visual Studies. More information about his researches can be found at

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