Thursday, April 05, 2007


It's snowing in the Northeast, and the calendar on my wall here in Tuscon says April 5.

Not that we have all that much to comfort us in the Southwest, where my wife and I have a hideaway. According to the Associated Press today, Richard Seager, an earth scientist from Columbia University, says the arid Southwest could soon resemble the notorious dust bowls of the 1930s Midwest, due to climate change and a lack of water.

Now, let's leave aside for a minute the question of how a desert compares with an agricultural region. Most of the water from the mountain runoff on this side of the continental divide, including the Colorado River, gets siphoned off for agriculture in California's Central Valley, and just for argument's sake, let's say I would not mind paying more for California produce if it meant the water was distributed more equitably, and if some of the nitwits who waste it were educated better about water conservation.

So don't get me started on golf courses, which Tucson has far fewer of than the Phoenix sprawl. To my mind, golf courses consume too much land in places where land is scarce and water is plentiful, and too much water in places where water is scarce and land is plentiful. I realize this could generate an argument, and perhaps a five-iron upside the head, in many a country club, but there you have it.

Meanwhile, my philosophy is, you live in the desert, you adapt, whether human or vegetable. It's going to be 100 degrees or more most days starting in June, so if you don't like the heat, go to Maine.

And please keep grass, hedges, petunias, rose bushes and deciduous trees where they belong. We have five acres of land out by the Rincons, and there isn't a blade of green grass on it or a tree taller than a 15-foot native palo verde. As to the vegetation that does exist, and there is an abundance of it, my philosophy is -- you're on your own for water. The 150-year-old sajuaros and other desert plants seem to manage just fine. In fact, they tell me that watering them would kill them. That's my kind of plant.

Tucson is not like Phoenix, where subdivisions have rolling lawns like English estates., and the importation of alien plants and flowers is so out of control that the city, once a haven for those with allergies, now has more allergy clinics per capita than any place in the United States.

Some say that, without sensible planning, Tucson is headed in Phoenix's sorry direction. Tucson native Linda Ronstadt famously decamped from town last year to relocate to San Francisco, decrying the urban sprawl that Tucson is becoming. (I give Linda one more year of San Francisco weather before she flees back to the desert.)

We'll see. Tucson still had a wild west feel to it, unlike Phoenix. There's a municipal law to regulate ambient light at night, so the stars can still be seen.

But, to get to my point, Tucson is a very good place to contemplate the reality of climate change. Last December and January, it rained so ferociously that S.U.V.'s whose drivers were foolish enough to cross running washes sometimes ended up swept away and stranded in mud 100 feet from the road. Some desert washes that hadn't seen water in 30 years became raging streams for a few hours.

And now the Sonoran desert is in bloom with cactus flowers and wildflowers. It's sunny and warm.

What happened to all that water? Some filtered down into the aquifer that is Tucson'smost precious resource besides sun, but most was lost to runoff and evaporation. (At least there is now some talk about infrastructire: reservoirs and other means to hold water that otherwise gets wasted).

But a nine-year drought continues.

And just to show you how odd this all is, have a look at these two pictures taken out back a couple of months ago on January 22. One shows the scene at 8 a.m., after a freak snowfall, the first snow accumulation in Tucson in a generation. The other was taken that very afternoon, when the temperature had risen to around 60.

And top left is what happens when you don't believe those "Do Not Cross When Road is Flooded" during monsoon season. Took that poor guy 2 days to dig his S.U.V. out.

NOTE: The most comprehensive report on global climate change ever was released today by the United Nations scientific panel on global warming. It's at

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