Mon, Feb. 17

Editorial: Jerome water dilemma a sign for entire Southwest

It wasn’t the kind of news folks in Jerome wanted to hear, but the town’s water supply is at historic and critical low levels thanks to the fickle moods of Mother Nature.

It’s simple science, really. Snowfall over the past 40 years isn’t what it once was on Mingus Mountain. The absence of deep, aquiver-enriching snowpack that fuels the springs that feed Jerome’s water system has left the mountainside community high and dry.

It’s a cumulative and powerful punch, explained the highly regarded Kristin Uhlman, consulting hydrogeologist and executive editor for the National Ground Water Association.

“If there is no snow, there is no recharge,” was Uhlman’s blunt assessment of Jerome’s water situation.

What’s true for Jerome also applies to all of Arizona and the entire Southwest.

One of the more interesting theories about water supply for the western United States involves the basic timeline over which this part of the country was populated, and the climate cycles that fueled the growth boom.

The western United States saw its highest concentration of historical growth in a roughly 40- to 50-year period that begin in the late 1940s. The post-World War II East-to-West migration saw the population of cities and towns in the Southwest explode exponentially. There were less than 800,000 people in Arizona in 1950. We grew to 2.7 million by 1980 and 5.1 million in 2000.

Amazingly, various tree-ring studies show that during the same time the West was experiencing a population explosion, in many areas of the western United States it was abnormally wet, in a historical sense, during that same 50-year period. Ah, Mother Nature. She fooled us. At the very time the western United States was growing by leaps and bounds, we were fooled into thinking there was an ever-replenishing water supply.

Instead, according to the scientists who study and interpret tree-ring data, the drought conditions that first presented themselves in the mid-1980s in the Southwest were not an anomaly. Rather, historically speaking, they were the norm. A University of Arizona study by Climate Science Extension Specialist Mike Crimmins shows there has been a steady decline in annual rainfall in Arizona since the mid-1980s, and a corresponding spike in the annual average temperature. Some climatologists will tell you that decline in rainfall and warmer temperatures only means we’re adjusting to something more historically normal.

In Arizona’s high country, average annual precipitation means snowfall, the kind that leaves snow packs for months at a time that slowly seep back into the ground and recharge and replenish our ground water supply.

As it currently applies to Jerome, Uhlman said, “You are not drinking recent water. The water is about 50 years old.”

What’s worse, the pitcher that holds that 50-year-old water has not been adequately re-filled in at least 40 years.

Obviously, when it comes to water studies, it’s not hard to find the science, or data presented as science, to back up whatever theory you to which you subscribe: extended drought, global warming or the opposite extreme that weather, and rainfall, is cyclical and the faucet could again begin running full force next year.

But if you buy into the science that we live in a hot, dry part of the country in which drought conditions represent the historical norm and we have more population than our water supply can sustain, we’ll eventually follow the path of the ancient native populations that lived here thousands of years ago. Some say they mysteriously disappeared. It’s more likely they moved on to an area that had a more suitable water supply.

There’s an old-timer in Camp Verde who recently told of a chance visit he made to the farming area where he grew up in Cochise County 60 years ago. Back then, he said you could drill a well 50 feet and have water. Today, on that very same piece of land, the wells hit water at 1,200 feet.

That tells you whose science you should believe.

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