Take a breath before starting the doomsday clocks.
Recent concern over important water issues in the West—Arizona, in particular—misses a broader point: The region’s water challenges are the latest chapter in civilization’s timeless struggle against the elements. Since the dawn of humanity, resource constraints have challenged our ingenuity. We have prevailed time and time again.
From the moment humankind set foot in the region now known as the American West, natural resources have challenged growth. As early as 2,000 B.C., the Hohokam, the first known settlers of what is now Phoenix, engineered the largest and most sophisticated canal system in the Americas in order to meet the region’s challenges.
The Hohokam’s efforts are simply one of many in the ancient world. The Romans, with their extensive aqueducts and road systems, were early adopters of ingenious terraforming infrastructure methods to support their empire’s growth.
In the modern world, the United States is one of the strongest examples of engineering ingenuity to support growth. Consider the Erie Canal. Before it was built in the early 1800s, the Appalachian mountains split America’s commercial seaports on the eastern seaboard from the rich farmlands of the Midwest.
When a canal was proposed to link New York City to the Great Lakes and the fertile lands beyond, the idea was famously dismissed by Thomas Jefferson as “little short of madness.” Originally spanning 363 miles, the canal took eight years to complete at a cost of over $7 million (equivalent to about $185 million in 2022 dollars).
The Erie Canal created the Northeast as we know it and was the catalyst for New York becoming the preeminent commercial center of the country—indeed, the world. Through human ingenuity and investment in infrastructure, the Erie Canal solved the region’s seemingly insurmountable geographic constraints on growth.
Additional examples abound. Washington, D.C., sits on a malarial swamp. Chicago is built on a gigantic mud flat. New Orleans … you get the picture. The growth and modernization of each metropolis required substantial ingenuity and engineering to overcome environmental challenges. Many staples of our lifestyle that we take for granted are often enabled by solutions that emerge from humanity’s continued clashes with the elements.
Environmental challenges continue to challenge growth today. It would be foolish to deny that reality. The American West arguably does not have enough water. The American East, too much. Both create hazardous conditions that require increasing human intervention in order to support continued habitability, let alone growth. Too often, these interventions lead to a moral panic rather than a practical conversation about humanity’s needs and well-planned growth.
And any practical conversation must acknowledge a modern reality: Every modern civilization faces significant challenges to growth or, in some cases, stability. No region of the world is capable of supporting the density, lifestyle habits, and resource demands of modern society without significant intervention.
The chopped salad served in a Manhattan cafe in February, for example, would not be possible without fresh vegetables grown in the Southwest in the middle of winter on land that should not be arable, bread baked from engineered grain grown in the Midwest (and maybe shipped along the Erie Canal), and a plate manufactured in East Asia and shipped via the modern oceanic shipping business (itself a marvel of engineering and logistical ingenuity).
So let’s put the conversation about Arizona’s water issues in perspective. When viewed through the lens of historical growth-supporting infrastructure marvels, projects like a proposed desalination plant and accompanying 200-mile pipeline fall far short of “madness.”
That’s not to say we shouldn’t discuss whether Arizona does, in fact, have enough water. Others have done that already, and have ably described Arizona’s laudable and nation-leading history of responsible water management. Arizona has banked trillions of gallons of water. The state uses less water today than it did more than 50 years ago despite a sevenfold increase in population.
The state has enough for residents and still dedicates over 70% of its usage to agriculture, which ensures that Americans across the country can eat salads in February. As others have pointed out, the state’s recent proclamations about water scarcity rely on technocratic and complex models that, by law, do not account for broader adoption of available water saving technologies, the invention of new ones, or even simple policy interventions—among other things.
On paper, using a 100-year time frame to model water usage is smart, proactive policy, but the devil is always in the details. It turns out that using a 100-year time horizon requires several debatable assumptions and judgment calls, which magnify over time when projected out over a 100-year period across a population of millions of people. One simply cannot “be right” when trying to predict a state population’s worth of behavior and impact over the course of a century.
But policy and business decisions must be based on something. So let’s instead base them on, and maybe even celebrate, what we know to be true.
If they are not already, Arizona and the American West will face real, existential challenges to continued growth and habitability. The same is true of every population center in this country and across the world. These challenges elicit very real social, moral, environmental, and other concerns.
The existential threats we face today are more borderless than those of the past, potentially requiring global cooperation among tribes that have very different priorities and belief systems And yet it’s also true that such challenges face a powerful, often unacknowledged, opponent: human ingenuity. And humanity has a winning track record.
We have not yet reached the zenith of our collective potential to solve hard problems, and we should encourage, support, and celebrate those who try.