Contrasting views on what to do about dwindling water

2010-03-23T00:00:00Z 2014-07-15T17:54:32Z Contrasting views on what to do about dwindling waterTony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 23, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Philip Fradkin, now 75, has written 11 books, shared in a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Los Angeles' Watts riots, spent six months covering the Vietnam War and was a pioneering environmental reporter.

But he's best known for "A River No More," a 1981 book about the Colorado River. It was a history and a warning about the source of Tucson's drinking water and the West's lifeblood.

He predicted that the river could run out of water by 2000. That didn't happen, but he was on target in his concern that the river's supplies were stretched too far among too many people.

Today, there is a possibility of near-term shortages for the Central Arizona Project - which top state water officials said in the 1980s wouldn't happen for at least another 20 years - shortages that could be worsened by climate change.

Fradkin was interviewed while in Tucson recently at the Tucson Festival of Books.

Q. What led you to write "A River No More"?

A. I knew the river knit the West together. I thought it was a tremendous way to give a portrait of the region and hook it on the river as a lifeblood, a dying lifeblood. The title came from the fact that the river no longer reached the Gulf of California because all of it was used upstream.

Q. Why did you predict that this river would ultimately run out?

A. The predominant thinking at that time was that we had enough water to last forever. They were just winding up the last major projects on the river, and the feeling was that the river would supply CAP once it got going and there would be enough water left for California and for the river's upper and lower regions.

Certainly in terms of the government, nobody had put the whole river together and seen the demands on it and seen the amount of water that was and wasn't there. No one had ever taken into account the fact that when the Colorado River Compact was put into place in 1922, it was based on a series of very wet years, and that the tree rings showed that even now, 30 years later (after the book), you can see the up years and down years.

I felt out on a limb. Nobody else was saying this. But if you added up the facts and looked at the river as a whole, you couldn't help but come up with this.

Q. Today, do you feel vindicated by what's happened with the drought?

A. No way. . . . I think vindication is a sign of large ego. The vindication is not personal. It is watching the continuation of the same kind of boom-and-bust development and the overuse of water in the West - it's the vindication of history. I only act as a narrator.

Q. Did your book influence the views of water-policy makers? Were you trying to influence them?

A. They're set in their ways. The book didn't change their thinking. Back then, nobody paid attention to me, and I was only one small voice.

Also, I wrote the book to tell a story. I think that people can take that story whatever way they want. I don't write books to teach a lesson or preach, or club them over the head.

Q. What do you think will happen next with water in the West?

A. I don't see any change in the historic approach to the use of resources in the American West. The West has not shown a tendency to become like Europe, with one nation. It's a fractious collection of warring entities. . . . If the West is to survive as an entity, it has to survive as a whole, not a bunch of babbling voices crying out to find a solution to their perceived needs.

Q. If Australia and the Middle East can keep going with desalination, use of rainwater and other schemes, why can't we?

A. No civilization lives forever. You can read the Jared Diamond book "Collapse," and watch what happened when nations as a whole start spending an increasing amount of money on warfare, not defense, but warfare. The Roman Empire did, too. Once you get hooked to that, you can't do much for domestic issues.

It takes money to build and run a desalination plant. It takes money to build and run the Central Arizona Project aqueduct. It takes money to maintain highways. As you travel our highways, you see them increasingly deteriorated. You've gone to war, and you don't see the resources. I watched that happen from Vietnam to Afghanistan and beyond.


Priscilla Robinson, a retired Tucson environmental activist and water consultant, is more optimistic than Philip Fradkin. She sat in on the negotiations in the 1980s and '90s for many of the agreements that shaped Arizona's water policies. She says:

● No knowledgeable person in Arizona water politics thought the CAP offered enough to last forever. Officials have spent the past two years in an intense search for new water sources.

● During the 1980s and 1990s, officials focused on increasing efficiency in water use and were not complacent about water.

● Increased development and water overuse aren't synonymous: "Overuse of water is using more water than necessary to accomplish something. This part of the story - dealing with this problem - is a success."

● The politics of the West is very much based on the sovereignty of states. It's hard to imagine Nevada and Montana and Colorado, let alone Arizona, agreeing to turn basic decisions about water over to a regional, or worse, federal, authority.

● Investment in infrastructure and water storing varies wildly among jurisdictions regions and states. Tucson Water has in place enough infrastructure to use or store all of its CAP allocation.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or

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