Terrascope Travels to Arizona, Explores Impending Water Crisis

By Ari Epstein, Lecturer, Terrascope

Terrascope students at Arizona FallsMembers of the Terrascope freshman learning community have returned from a week-long trip to southern Arizona, during which they were able to see firsthand many of the factors contributing to a crisis in the availability of fresh water that threatens much of the Southwest. The returning students, having deepened their knowledge of the human and technological factors underlying the crisis, show a renewed commitment to informing the public about the seriousness of the situation, and also a stronger understanding of the influences that have made it difficult to take action thus far.

The group began the trip with a visit to the Salt River, the source of much of the fresh water that serves the Phoenix area. A rafting trip through the spectacular Salt River Canyon let them experience the river charged with Spring snow melt. A visit to Roosevelt Dam and Roosevelt Lake (the artificial reservoir created by the dam) gave them a view of some of the massive projects that have been carried out to secure that water supply.

Next, the students visited the offices of the Salt River Project, a privately owned utility that operates dams on the Salt River and controls a substantial amount of the area’s fresh water. Following a briefing and a Q and A session, they visited one of the major distributary canals in Phoenix. That was followed by a trip to the Phoenix area headquarters of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a public agency that operates the largest aqueduct system ever constructed in the U.S., bringing Colorado River water to large areas of central and southern Arizona. Here, the students were briefed on the issues and participated in a lively Q and A.

Then it was out into the field, in an area north of Tucson where some of the CAP water is poured out into sandy basins, where it percolates down and recharges the area’s overused aquifer. At another site, the group explored a series of artificial wetlands being constructed by the Tucson water authority using treated and reclaimed wastewater suitable for landscape watering, agriculture and other uses. That day ended with a tour of an enormous open pit copper mine south of Tucson, where large quantities of water are necessary for the processes that extract and refine ore. With the price of copper rising, there are many large mining projects in the surrounding mountains that are in the planning stage and water use and contamination are at the forefront of discussions.

The next day brought a visit to the Gila River Indian Community, where representatives of the Office of Water Rights described how the community, which for centuries had built a culture that relied on the river and its ecosystem, had been affected in the early 20th century, when water was diverted upstream for agriculture and domestic use in and near Phoenix. They then led the group on a tour of community lands, and described the process by which elders and officials are determining how best to make use of water rights newly regained as the result of a settlement with the Federal government.

The last stop was Yuma, near Arizona’s borders with California and Mexico, a perfect site for learning about the complex national and international obligations that govern the distribution of water from the Colorado River. Here the students were briefed by officials from the Bureau of Reclamation. The stop included a tour of a large desalination plant and a boat trip up the Colorado, as well as visits to the Imperial Dam, which diverts Colorado River water into the All-American Canal, and to the canal itself, which carries the water to California’s Imperial Valley, where it irrigates highly productive farmland.

The trip was one component of this year’s Terrascope experience, in which freshmen spent the fall semester developing solutions to the impending water crisis, and are spending the spring developing interactive museum exhibits to teach the public about the crisis and creating a radio program on the topic, to be broadcast in mid-May on WMBR. The trip provided source material and sound for the spring projects, and it also gave students the opportunity to test their theoretical proposals from the fall semester against the reality of water use in the Southwest, as they met the officials and local citizens who will ultimately decide how to address the crisis.