This week’s episode is the second in a multipart series called Climate Hits Home, in which guests discuss the effects of climate change in US cities and towns and how local communities are addressing those effects. In this episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with Kathryn Sorensen about how the city of Phoenix, Arizona, has been preparing for uncertainty around water availability. Sorensen is a professor of practice at Arizona State University and a former director of Phoenix Water Services. Sorensen discusses how climate change is affecting the desert Southwest, how Phoenix encourages responsible water use, the importance of water-delivery infrastructure, and water-related lessons that other cities can learn from Phoenix.
Listen to the Podcast
- Climate change contributes to reduced water availability in Arizona: “Arizona is within the Colorado River Basin … and the news is not good. Scientists are telling us that climate change is baking our climate and that the flows of the Colorado River will diminish by as much as 25 or 30 percent in the future. That’s a real problem, because the Colorado River is already over-allocated. When you take an over-allocated river system and then expose it to that kind of stress, you can imagine that there are real challenges and real concerns associated with that.” (3:49)
- Pricing water can help in conserving water: “Pricing water to reflect its scarcity in the desert Southwest is an incredibly important management strategy. We find that, when you price for scarcity, people for the most part do make reasonable decisions and decrease their water use.” (8:42)
- Recommendations for water management based on lessons learned in Phoenix: “Water is local. It’s political … For that reason, a lot of Phoenix’s strategies have been homegrown. But when you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, a lot of these things are very transferable: Have a great rate structure that reflects the scarcity of the resource but maintains affordability for poor people and some measure of financial stability for the utility. Don’t let your infrastructure go to pot, because once you get behind, it’s difficult to catch back up, and that’s a huge burden.” (19:47)
Top of the Stack
- “A Quiet Revolution: Southwest Cities Learn to Thrive Amid Drought” by Jim Robbins
- The Unreasonable Virtue of Fly Fishing by Mark Kurlansky
- Khrushchev Remembers by Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Kristin Hayes.
Today we’re continuing our multi-episode series, Climate Hits Home, on how changing climate conditions are impacting communities in the United States. This episode’s topic is water availability and drought, and our place-based focus is on Phoenix, Arizona, which is a city situated in a very arid region of the country with a high rate of population growth and considerable concerns over water stress. I’m very pleased to welcome Kathryn Sorensen to the show to discuss this important subject.
Kathryn is director of research and professor of practice at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. For a number of years, she served as director of Phoenix Water Services. I can’t think of a better person to share insights on how Phoenix has been preparing for uncertainty around water availability—and I’ll offer a spoiler alert. This is not a doom-and-gloom story. In fact, there have been some notable successes in Phoenix that may well offer lessons for other jurisdictions. Stay with us.
Hi Kathryn. Thanks so much for joining me today on Resources Radio and for being our second guest in our Climate Hits Home series.
Kathryn Sorensen: Thank you. It’s really great to be included. I’m really excited for our conversation.
Kristin Hayes: We always like to start with a get-to-know-you question for our guests. So, let’s hear a little bit about your background and how you ended up working on water issues in the desert Southwest.
Kathryn Sorensen: I’m from Tempe, Arizona, and when I was a senior at McClintock High School, I took a course in economics and knew from that moment on that I would be an economist. Growing up here in the desert Southwest, you just inherently understand that water is our most important resource. Economics, of course, is the study of the allocation of scarce resources—or, as I like to say, who gets what. It was very natural for me to combine economics and water resources. I studied it as an undergraduate and did my dissertation in it, as well. So, I’m a lifer.
Kristin Hayes: It’s funny that you talk about that initial reaction to economics. It seems to me like for a number of economists I know economics really is a calling. They find this passion for economics early on. How did you end up translating to the public service aspect and becoming the director of Phoenix Water Services?
Kathryn Sorensen: I finished my PhD, but I knew that I wanted to do more applied work. I ended up in public service, because cities here in the Phoenix area all have water managers. In that role, your job really is to develop, protect, and defend the city’s water resources. I started my career in that vein, moved on to operations, and eventually moved on to running the utilities. But boy, I tell you, it’s been a joy. I’m absolutely thrilled to have had those experiences.
Kristin Hayes: That’s fantastic. As I mentioned, this is a series that’s about both climate impacts and how those impacts play out in specific places. Let me start with the broader side of that—with this question of, What do we actually know about the impact between warming temperatures, climate change, and drought? What is the link there?
Kathryn Sorensen: That is a broad question. I can tell you what the scientists say about the Colorado River Basin, in particular. For context, all of Arizona is within the Colorado River Basin, so that’s our basin, and the news is not good. The scientists are telling us that climate change is baking our climate and that the flows of the Colorado River will diminish by as much as 25 or 30 percent in the future. That’s a real problem, because the Colorado River is already over-allocated. When you take an over-allocated river system and then expose it to that kind of a stress, you can imagine that there are real challenges and real concerns associated with that.
Kristin Hayes: I must admit, Phoenix and the desert Southwest came to mind when we were thinking about water availability and water stress. But I actually had to check myself and ask, Am I thinking that it’s more of a problem there simply because I’m thinking of a desert, or is it in fact particularly problematic there? It sounds like you’ve answered that a little bit with concerns about the Colorado River Basin, but would you say anything else about the susceptibility of Phoenix?
Kathryn Sorensen: It’s interesting you state it that way, because I think a lot of people fail to understand that Phoenix was very carefully chosen by ancient Native Americans who had a vast agricultural civilization here. Phoenix is where the flows of the Salt, Verde, and Gila Rivers all come together. Although we’re in the middle of a desert, Phoenix is where the state’s main rivers come together and was chosen for that reason. There’s more water here than you might think.
Kristin Hayes: Maybe that’ll be the title of our episode—I’m always picking titles for episodes mid-episode, but I like that one. There’s more water here than you think, but it sounds like, even though there’s more water there than you think, some challenges lie ahead.
I wanted to ask about one thing that we think about a lot at RFF when it comes to climate impacts, which is the distribution of those impacts. In this case, I wanted to ask you about the distribution of water availability or any future drought-related challenges. It often seems like climate impacts will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable members of a community. I’m wondering if that’s the case here, as well.
Kathryn Sorensen: Yes and no. Let me start with no. In the city of Phoenix, the major cities operate their own water utilities, and even very poor people have access to the community water system. Phoenix in particular does not shut people off of water service for nonpayment. They will restrict the flow that is delivered to a house, but they will not shut people off. That’s of course to support public health and quality of life. But, for that reason, even very poor people maintain access to the community water system.
But I will say yes, too, because Phoenix charges more for water in the summer than in the winter, and that’s intentional. The idea behind charging more for water in the summer is that it sends a direct signal about the scarcity of the resource. It discourages people from maintaining lawns or really lush landscaping, because if you want to have a lawn in Phoenix, it needs a lot of water in the summer. If you charge more for water in the summer, people get a really high bill and decide they’d rather have desert landscaping. But that is an issue for the more vulnerable and disadvantaged in our communities, because trees and grass and lusher landscapes can mitigate the impacts of extreme heat. Through signaling the scarcity of the resource, we also have made water for cooling purposes more expensive, and that probably does have a disproportionate impact.
Kristin Hayes: This is really interesting that you’ve brought up pricing, and, as an economist, I’m sure you think a lot about pricing scarce resources. Are there other pricing structures in place that represent either the current status of water scarcity or how scarce water could become? To what extent could you anticipate changing prices based on water availability in the future? That’s a very speculative question, but I’m curious about your thoughts on pricing in general.
Kathryn Sorensen: Let me first say that pricing water to reflect its scarcity in the desert Southwest is an incredibly important management strategy. We find that, when you price for scarcity, people for the most part do make reasonable decisions and decrease their water use. An example of that is that we used to have these enormous summer peaks before we started seasonal pricing. If you look at a chart of how the peaks have declined over time, you can see that pricing signal has been extremely effective.
In the future, we would anticipate even greater rate increases because of scarcity on the Colorado River. As there’s less water available in the Colorado River for importation into Central Arizona, the level of water will have a direct impact on the cost of water that the cities and private water companies are delivering to customers.
The more important determinant of the cost of water has to do with infrastructure, because the delivery of safe, clean water to every single home and business in a community is among the most expensive of human undertakings. It’s a huge capital expense, and we need to continually reinvest in that infrastructure as it ages. Water scarcity is a big part of that, but I also think there’s a huge need to invest in aging infrastructure, as well.
Kristin Hayes: Is any of that water infrastructure covered by recent legislation? Is there federal funding available to either maintain or revitalize any water infrastructure? We’ve talked a lot about energy infrastructure, but I’m curious.
Kathryn Sorensen: Let’s hope so. Honestly, it’s great, and never say no to federal money, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what the need is out there. It’s really important that communities and the ratepayers within those communities support the water system, because, fundamentally, no one’s going to care more about your water system than those who rely on it. That’s important to keep in mind.
Kristin Hayes: I promised at the outset that this is not a doom-and-gloom story. There are lots of strategies that Phoenix has been employing. You’ve already referenced a few of them, and I definitely want to get to that in just a second. Before that, I have one last stage-setting question, and I would welcome any storytelling that you’d like to bring to your answer—I wanted to ask whether, in your recollection, there was a seminal moment or an event or anything that you can recall in Phoenix where folks realized the trajectory of water use had to change.
Kathryn Sorensen: Absolutely. I don’t recall it directly, because I’m not quite old enough, but I really think that came about in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During that time, Arizona was doing its best to import Colorado River water into Central Arizona to support agriculture and cities and Tribes. There was a lot of discussion about the depletion of groundwater resources during that time. Central Arizona is really blessed to have very vast, productive aquifers, and the federal government was concerned about importing Colorado River water into the state and then allowing the mining of fossil groundwater to continue.
There was a lot of community conversation about how to manage groundwater and Colorado River water for the future. What came out of that was the state’s 1980 Groundwater Management Act. It’s still, to this day, the most progressive groundwater legislation that I can find anywhere in the country, if not the world.
It includes mandatory requirements for water conservation that the cities have to meet. It disallows the use of mined groundwater for subdividing land and growing—growth has to occur on renewable water supplies. It accomplished quite a lot. At that point, the culture began changing, and people began understanding that we were just going to have to manage our resources differently. What’s interesting about that to me is the 1980s is quite a long time ago now. Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and other cities of the desert Southwest have gotten a lot of good media attention more recently because of things that they’ve started to do. What’s ironic to me about that is that many of these things are strategies that Phoenix has been pursuing for decades.
Kristin Hayes: It’s interesting to me, too, because I won’t say that climate change wasn’t discussed in any circles in the ‘80s, but it wasn’t nearly as discussed as it is now. When I’m framing this in the context of climate impacts and water availability, Phoenix was way ahead of the curve. Perhaps it’s better positioned now in many ways.
Kathryn Sorensen: It’s interesting you say that, because we didn’t have the term “climate change” per se back then. But, in an odd sense, climate change matters less to us here in Phoenix, because it’s always hot and dry. It has always been hot and dry in Phoenix. It will only ever be hot and dry in Phoenix, and it’s a condition for which you can plan methodically. Unlike other natural disasters, which are stochastic in nature, you know that hot and dry is something that you can plan for. That’s what we do. We plan very carefully and very thoughtfully to overcome it.
Kristin Hayes: I can’t wait to talk about the transferability of some of these lessons, but first I want to make sure to give you a chance to talk through some of the strategies for water conservation. You’ve mentioned some of them, but please give as much detail as you’d like to share with us about the ways that the city employed policies and behavioral nudges to make reductions over the years possible. I should also note that my understanding is that there has in fact been a pretty dramatic change in water use since that period that we were just talking about. If there’s anything you’d like to share about trends, too, that’d be great.
Kathryn Sorensen: Let’s start with the reclamation and reuse of reclaimed water. That is something that we pioneered here in central Arizona. In fact, most of our reclaimed water feeds the Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station for its cooling towers. Palo Verde is the only nuclear power plant in the world that is not located on a major body of water, and it is here out in the desert providing the benefit it does to our communities because of that reclaimed water. But we also use reclaimed water for golf courses and schools and parks and cemeteries and other turf facilities. We have long understood that every drop of water in the desert is precious.
Like I said, we did a pretty good job through the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. The law, like others, has its loopholes. We did a pretty good job of protecting those fossil groundwater reserves for future generations. That will be tested now that there will be less Colorado River water available for importation. The other thing is that we set about settling our disputes about water. Most economists will appreciate this. You cannot expect people to invest in your economy if there is not absolute certainty about the water supply that’s available in a desert.
There was a lot of uncertainty here in Arizona because of competing claims among the Native Americans, the irrigation districts, the cities, the mines, the power companies—basically everybody. We spent decades trying to resolve those disputes. Not entirely, but for the most part, we have been relatively successful, and that does provide that certainty for investment in our water supplies.
Last, as you mentioned, we’ve really tried to focus not just on water conservation, but on using water wisely and changing the culture so that people understand that, if you’re going to live out here in the middle of the desert, you’re going to have to live a little differently than what you might be used to.
That long-term outlook is important, because flash-in-the-pan things get a lot of media. That’s great, but they can also ultimately confuse or frustrate customers. If you impose restrictions for one day, one season, or one year, and then lift them later, it sends a signal to customers that, sometimes, wasting water is okay. We would rather send the signal that you’re just going to have to live differently if you’re going to live out here.
Kristin Hayes: You noted in an article that was published by the Yale School of the Environment that folks in Arizona know it’s a desert and plan accordingly. That encapsulates it so well, and we’ve talked about how Phoenix had to be planning for drought and water scarcity long before other cities. That was an interesting point. Now, we’re getting at the heart of this question of transferability and lessons about adaptation and resiliency between places, because I can imagine that, as other places in the country are getting hotter and drier in the face of changing climate conditions, there could potentially be a lot to learn from a place that’s been figuring it out for a while.
I don’t know if that’s really the case. I’d love to ground-truth that with you. Can jurisdictions learn from each other? Did you learn things from other jurisdictions? How much are these decisions that have to be made local and specific, or could people in, say, Atlanta or Denver, learn from what Phoenix has been doing for a while and plan ahead?
Kathryn Sorensen: It’s both. Water is local. It’s political. It depends on the different water supplies that are available, the state of the infrastructure, and all these things that tend to be extremely local. For that reason, a lot of Phoenix’s strategies have been homegrown.
But when you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, a lot of these things are very transferable. Have a great rate structure that reflects the scarcity of the resource but maintains affordability for poor people and some measure of financial stability for the utility. Don’t let your infrastructure go to pot, because once you get behind, it’s difficult to catch back up, and that’s a huge burden. Settling disputes, creating an environment of certainty for investment, reclaiming water, helping people to understand that they need to use water wisely—I think all those things are very transferable.
But ultimately, the thing that has really helped Phoenix is that the water managers have this attitude that we are in the trenches and will always be in the trenches. We will always need to work harder, innovate more, collaborate on different levels, and do better. That is very clear, because our condition of hot and dry is perpetual. We never had the luxury of taking water for granted. That has ironically been a benefit to us. Other cities may discover that they no longer have that luxury, either.
Kristin Hayes: It’s great to hear from a place that has piloted a number of things that other places may eventually, by necessity, have to start employing. Again, I want to keep us focused on the successes, which I think we’ve been doing a good job of doing.
Kathryn, I just want to thank you again. This conversation has been a great contribution to our Climate Hits Home series, and I appreciate your taking the time to talk with me today.
Kathryn Sorensen: Thank you. That is very kind.
Kristin Hayes: Let me close with our closing feature, Top of the Stack, and I would welcome your recommendations for our listeners.
Kathryn Sorensen: I just finished reading Mark Kurlansky’s book on fly-fishing, and it was super fun, so I would definitely recommend that. But right now at the top of my stack is a very interesting book I just found. It’s called Khrushchev Remembers, and it is a translation of Khrushchev’s memoirs, notes, and things like that by Strobe Talbott, who had the audacity to organize and translate all this stuff. It’s fascinating. I am not a student of Russian history by any means, but it is a fascinating book that I’d highly recommend.
Kristin Hayes: Is it particularly fascinating, given the moment that we’re in right now, too? Is there a through line between that period of United States–Russia relations and now?
Kathryn Sorensen: I’m only 50 pages in, so I don’t know, but I’m going to say yes—and one thing I did not know is that Khrushchev was from the Donbas region, so there’s a parallel for you.
Kristin Hayes: Well, I am 100 percent not qualified to host a podcast on political events, so I will probably stop asking questions right there, but that’s such a good recommendation. I always enjoy it—our guests expand the horizons of what our listeners might be interested in. That is a great Top of the Stack. Kathryn, thank you again. It’s been a pleasure. I look forward to staying in touch.
Kathryn Sorensen: Thank you very much.
Kristin Hayes: You’ve been listening to Resources Radio, a podcast from Resources for the Future. If you have a minute, we’d really appreciate you leaving us a rating or comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes.
This podcast is made possible with the generous financial support of our listeners. You can help us continue producing these kinds of discussions on the topics that you care about by making a donation to Resources for the Future online at rff.org/donate.
RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve our environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.
Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.