Sustainable Tucson

How sustainability came to pass



TUCSON (A-P) — There is an organization called Sustainable Tucson, associated with the international Transition Movement. The following is not approved by them nor by any group. I happen to live in Tucson and have issues with the non-sustainable life, but I tend to think after my own evidence-based fashion, so the following is offered for consideration only. I have nothing to sell, in either a figurative or financial sense.

A sustainable Tucson will have to "transition" from import dependence to a largely local means of support. Our water comes mostly from the Colorado River, pumped 300 miles from Lake Havasu whose level is maintained by discharge from a receding Lake Mead as those upstream make increased demands on local water supplies making for ever less run-off. The canal flows uphill powered by over a dozen pumping stations. Virtually all feed and food comes from elsewhere. Train loads of coal feed the power plant. The interstate is an apparently endless 24/7 stream of trucks bearing not freely given gifts.

The only certainty is change. Ever more trucks, coal, water, food, population a possible near future, just not the most likely future, as growth cannot continue evermore. At our current "slow" growth rate, everything will double in 25 years if current growth rate could be maintained. Many sense that change happens, likely will happen, and responses vary from stockpiling ammo to buying locally produced food. Hope springs eternal in varying forms, as does fear, but at some point reality creeps in on little cat feet.

Sustainability issues are many, but in the arid Southwest, water is basic. Water is just a bit less basic than having ground under your feet to stand on.


Rainwater Harvesting

Back in the day when Tucson was a sustainable village, water was dipped from the river and delivered by burro to households to be stored in a pottery jar. Later, after the railroad came bringing coal, it was pumped to a tank to flow by pipe. Using more than 1 gallon per person per day may have seemed extravagant, but by the 1880's the rich newcomers from the East were doing it, thanks to the pump, tank, pipes, and power.

Today, the average Tucsonian's water use is about 90-100 gallons per person per day within the household, which would include the washing of cars in the driveway and letting the water run while brushing teeth. Or the total is actually about 130 gallons per person per day which would include washing cars at the car wash, what was used at work, and flushing a public toilet. While corporations may be people too, they use a lot more than 130 gallons a day.

The river doesn't flow no more, other than to discharge storm runoff. Perennial surface water, cienegas, pools, fields irrigated by diverting water from the river are no more, and when Lake Mead water stops flowing, groundwater pumping will deplete what's left and present usage will not be sustained. Tucsonians would have to rely on rainwater catchment as the rivers/cienegas won't flow any time soon due to area-wide historical soil loss secondary to overgrazing/clearing of vegetation and groundwater mining.

Assume that the average suburban home lot has 2,600 sq. ft. of roof area, that 11 inches of rain falls on it per year, and that there are 2.7 people per household. Not all rain will run off the roof, so assume 85% rainwater catchment efficiency. Assuming every roof drains to a gutter and every drop that runs down it is captured, about 15,000 gallons could be collected per year (if there were a place to store it), or 41 gallons per day for potential use. That would be about 15 gallons per person per day. This would have to be shared with any plants, animals, and water using devices that may be part of the household (e.g. swamp cooler, shower, dishwasher). In need of irrigation would be most non-native plants, i.e. all garden plants and most everything considered eatable. This raises the question of what the non-native animals (humans, pets, and livestock) are going to eat in sustainable Tucson?

Even if there is water in Lake Havasu to pump, the power needed to pump it, or very much of it, may not be there, and the flow of semi-trucks may come to a trickle as well. If food has to be produced locally, some of the rainwater catchment will have to be used, so people will have to use less than 15 gallons per day. Actual water need per person (as distinct from want) is about 1 gallon per day, leaving 14 gallons per person per day for domestic plants and animals, including pets, or 38 gallons per day per household. Assuming swamp cooling is used in the summer, water usage averaged over the year would be about 15 gallons per day, so 23 gallons for various uses is left over, or 8.5 gallons per person+animals/plants. In dry years humans might have to limit their evaporative cooling to sweating and maybe a personal spray bottle consuming 1 liter/day of rainwater.

The amount of food that can be grown on 20 gallons a day (one mature apple tree needs about 50 gallons a day) will not feed 2.7 people, let alone their pets or livestock, so all food needed will not be grown in the backyard. Rain also falls on the landscape around the roof, so by diverting such runoff of rain hitting the ground to sunken beds to concentrate it, and using stored water as needed to supplement between rains, some level of backyard agriculture can be sustained for fresh produce. Assuming basic dry foods could be imported--grains, beans, other dried foods, as was the case back when Tucson was self-sustaining (exporting cattle hide and tallow in exchange), then growing fresh foods (vegetables, fruits, the occasional eggs and goat milk), will be possible assuming food can be produced in excess elsewhere and Tucson has something to export. Otherwise, if all food must be produced locally, the population that could be supported will approach aboriginal levels, then decline below them due to the widespread environmental degradation of the past 200 years (there is all but no perennial surface water left).

Sustainable Tucson, before industrial imports, supported about 500 colonists, and that was when there was year around surface water for the dipping and the flood plain was annually flooded supporting a basin of grass, trees, and scattered irrigated fields tended by native farmers. Without continued industrial imports, because there are now many acres of roofs and asphalt, perhaps more people (more than 500 adaptive, innovative, and determined people) could be supported. Perhaps not. Sustainable imports of food and materials, assuming Tucsonians have something to export, are possible at some level. At what level, time will tell, but thinking about it violates no known laws of the universe.


Off Grid in the City

One way to envision a sustainable city (or world) is to imagine a sustainable household, then imagine more than one. Imagining a sustainable household, one dependent on no non-sustainable imports, is, however, merely a thing of the mind. Having a vision is a starting point, but of more interest would be creating such a household and living in it. Otherwise, talk is cheap and pointless other than to pass the time before reality creeps in.

So how to live off-grid in the city? Well, in Tucson, with maybe 11 inches of rain a year (can vary from 5 to 24 inches), start with water. As the rivers don't run, as groundwater level shouldn't be pumped below the riverbed, much less to bedrock, think rainwater catchment. What isn't caught and stored can be diverted to irrigate plants, but catchment and storage is essential to meet human and animal needs as well as plant needs between rains. In Tucson, no rain can be expected April through June when the heat is high and non-native perennials will need irrigation, and stored rainwater collection is the only sustainable option. As both humans and animals are dependent on plants, most of the water collected would go to water plants. Humans and dogs need to drink water, yet neither needs to bathe daily. But if 20 gallons go to plants each day (on average), humans and dogs could bathe daily in the water before it gets to the plants. Water just can't run down the drain in sustainable Tucson.

Assuming a place to stand, a bit of land to live on, resources are air, water, soil, and Sol-shine. Other resources depend on the basics. Biomass may accumulate over the decades and be burned for the embedded energy and nutrients contained in it, but biomass is made of air, water, soil, and sunshine as would be any feed or food produced. Air is pretty much there, a given, though it can be polluted in various ways. Water, in Tucson as in other arid places, doesn't flow other than as storm runoff. Pumping groundwater takes energy that may not be available even if there happens to be groundwater at an accessible depth. Continued pumping in the Tucson area will insure the river and creeks never flow again. Pumping of groundwater should have stopped when the river stopped flowing, when the springs and cienegas dried up, when the vegetation on the flood plain that no longer floods, due to falling water table and extreme riverbed cut down, died (foreseeable by a few, hence pumping should not have started, but democracy rules). In Tucson, if past and present human impact were mitigated, centuries, likely millennia, may pass before water flows and there is surface water year around. Collecting rainwater from roofs will decrease slightly the amount of storm runoff that reaches the riverbeds, but would, overall, have the least impact assuming roofs are not built just to collect rainfall. Living on such rainwater as falls on needed roof area is a natural limit. Life without limits defines unsustainability.


Energy Harvesting

The next basic need is energy. Energy makes our world go around. To not have enough is fatal. The body's need for food is basic. To not have enough leads to wasting away, and to not have enough long enough leads to death. Many foods need to be processed and cooked, for which energy is needed. Growing food takes energy. The fossil-fueled society is awash in energy. But the fossil-fueled life is not sustainable. A solar-fueled society is possible, but it will not be awash in energy. Perhaps cold fusion power (or zero-point energy or lots of hamsters running in wheels) generators will silently sit in a box next to each house and produce power too cheap to meter. Books could be written about all the promised alternatives to fossil power that will come to the rescue (and have been written), but all, other than nuclear, is oversold vaporware. Nuclear power is merely oversold. Don't buy into the oversold, and if you do, stop reading.

The only significant power falling on your place to stand on is sunshine, an exceptionally dilute energy form. Occasionally winds generated by the sun's differential heating of Earth's surface blow and could be used to produce some indirect solar powered energy, but it's all recent solar, including biomass. Solar is not alternative. Other sources are. Nuclear is alternative, but buying into it as a short term fix to keep the high-power life going won't work. Nuclear power could feed the grid for a time, but perhaps we just need to say no to the nipple and stop sucking so hard. Tucson has few resources, but solar is one. There are on average about 195 days of full sun, about 90 of partial sun, and 80 cloud covered days with a bit more than half producing measurable precipitation (that could be declared regional holidays). There are sunnier places (Death Valley), but they are far less habitable. Tucson is about as sunny as it gets while still being habitable off-grid.

Tucson is at 2400 feet elevation. Summers are hot but "not too hot" if evaporative cooling is used. Winters are cold at times. Less than one inch of snow falls a year, gone within a day, but winter days are "not too cold." About 20 nights may dip below freezing, while afternoon temperatures typically still reach into the 70's. There is often only one hard freeze a year. While summer high temperatures often exceed 100°F, lows for the same days often dip into the 70's. So not uncommonly, at some time during the day, outside temperatures are practically perfect. Some coastal areas are more moderate, but Tucson is close to being "just right."

To create a sustainable Tucson takes more than a vision. It takes one sustainable household as a starting point, and there are none. There are many pundits, some writing books, filling web pages with ad copy masquerading as content, offering workshops and their consultant woo-woo services, but there is actually little to show for it because the vision they are selling is not reality-based. But it is a feel-good vision and there are many buyers. It's still a consumer society, so every problem has its product/service solution to be sold and oversold relentlessly. Are you buying it?

Should any Sustainable Tucsonians get this far, perhaps they would appreciate how one outside their movement views them. They are a small minority within the overarching growther culture. Impression based on limited observation/attendance of events: they are middle to upper middle class wealthy and therefore white, better educated than most and politically left leaning; environmentally sensitive progressives who read books (selectively).

As they tend to be university educated and so are not totally inecolate, at least not compared to those they tend to differ with. As the right leaning are overtly pro-growth, Transistionists are among the few who can question growth for its own sake. They are aware that some sciency types speak of limits to growth, some may even have read the book, so the idea that the future will necessarily resemble the past, that the next 300 years will resemble the growth of the past 300 years except insofar as it offers MORE!, is within their ability to question. They are numerate enough that they doubt that exponential growth on the third rock from the sun is going to go on forever, unlike the growther multitudes firmly believe. So Sustainers, maybe 1% of the growther culture, are exceptionally well educated and insightful, in a relative way.

Those in the Transition Movement (formerly know as the environmental movement) tend to be literate and not entirely dismissive of science. Some, such as those with a background in physics, economics, or engineering may be numerate, but few are ecolate. Still, compared to growthers, they are semi-ecolate. They envision a day when present growth will transition to sustainable prosperity. On average, the prosperity will be equal to or greater than present prosperity. Patterns of consumption may have to change; locally produced foods will prevail over imported foods flown into the airport or brought in by truck. But the future will be "a bright sustainable future in our beautiful desert Southwest" that will "preserve or enhance our quality of life while reducing our consumption of energy and other resources.”

If growth is limited, the question arises, "how much growth will there be in Tucson before the transition comes?" There are those, few and they tend to keep their doubts quietly held, who sometimes wonder if the lives of the present 1 million humans in the greater metropolitan area can be sustained. On the other end of the spectrum are those who are confident that another million, as projected to live here in the next 25 to 30 years, will be provided for by growing the sustainable economy. Sustainable products and services will "preserve or enhance" life as present and future Tucsonians will (transitionally and resiliently) live it. Most, of coarse, follow the middle way and suspect that 1.5 million Tucsonians, more or less, can live in the area. Those of the Transition movement, being semi-ecolate, see the future thus:

Some producers may over-produce, some businesses may fail during the transition, but consumers will transition to sustainable prosperity, equal to or higher than current levels, and live in a steady state of wealth. The graph above does describe secession and can be found in Bio 101 books, so it must be true. It shows an early phase of exponential growth followed by sustainable prosperity. Secession is what follows when a mature ecosystem is disturbed, even catastrophically such as by fire, and regrowth occurs leading to restoration of a diverse climax forest or other environment. Exponential growth may not go on forever, but transitioning is clearly a wonderful prospect most eagerly to be embraced by spending money on sustainable products and services to grow the sustainable economy.

The problem with visions based on a semi-ecolate grasp of reality is that secession in no way resembles what humans are experiencing. The planetary commons was not disturbed such that humans are primary successors experiencing the exuberance of growth. The planet was doing just fine, thank you Mother Nature, before the industrial growth culture came along. The planet was like St. Matthew Island in the Arctic before the reindeer: it was covered in lichen, a vast resource of food that had developed over hundreds of years. When humans brought a few reindeer to the island they were the first large animal to tap into an accumulated resorivor of feed. They did what any reindeer would do in the absence of wolves: they were fruitful and multiplied, exceeded 6,000, then collapsed unto island extinction.

reindeer on st. matthew island


The store of lichen was like Earth's planetary vat of fossil fuel which no animal had yet tapped into. Humans tapped it and the exponential growth of the Euro-Sino Empire was the result. Had any of the reindeer been ecolate, they would have seen what was coming. Perhaps some would have planned to fence off sections of the island and hire guards to protect their "wealth," to manage the commons, but no such reindeer did. They shared what was left and before death they gnawed such lichen as remained off the rocks. In 1966 there were 42 left alive and zero by the 1980's. Failure to transition is an option. Planning to transition to sustainable prosperity resembling current "quality of life" at current numbers is delusive. Transitioning to a managed descent to prosperity involving self-imposed limitations, though unthinkable, is possible in that doing so violates no laws of physics or energetics.

Will humans avoid extinction? If they do but merely in order to get back to business-as-usual as soon as possible to repeat the pattern, then life (other than human) on Earth will be more prosperous if humans transition to extinction as soon as possible.



From website [annotated]:

Our Vision & Mission

“We believe [bottomline: group is belief-based, not evidence-based] that the path to sustainability can only be achieved by involving the full community in visioning and actions that preserve or enhance our quality of life while reducing our consumption of energy and other resources.” [Informed that life as we know it is unsustainable, it apparently becomes essential to believe that our quality of life will be preserved if not enhanced. For a better grasp of reality, imagine how Tucsonians lived more sustainably 200 years ago, or 500 years ago after regional collapse of agrarian peoples in the 15th century..... Apparently collapse in the 21st century doesn't feel good, and so is unenvisionable.]

"Sustainable Tucson is a non-profit, grass-roots organization that builds regional resilience and sustainability through awareness raising, community engagement and public/private partnerships. Our members focus their action, advocacy and research through working groups addressing the unprecedented challenges of our time, economic meltdown, population pressures, climate change, and resource depletion." [To live sustainably, try going off-grid in the city.]



"The Mission of Sustainable Tucson is to create a community-wide network of people and organizations facilitating and accelerating Tucson’s transition to sustainability through education and collaborative action." [Consider the possibility that the current 1 million people, or 2 million people in 2050 at current growth rate, will not live sustainably in Tucson.]

"At full sustainability, Tucson (including its bioregion) will be mostly self-sufficient for water, food, energy, and transportation." [Such self-sufficiency would be sustainable, as water, food, energy, and transportation are basic needs. The question being ignored is: For how many selves? The debate seems to be between those who can foresee growing the sustainability economy to the point that the needs of the 2 million who will be living here in 35 years can be met, meaning current growth can be sustained and perhaps the rate of growth weaned down to the point that it doubles only every 100 years. Others entertain some doubts that the current 1 million Tucsonians in the greater metropolitan area will be able to "preserve or enhance" their quality of life, while moderates suggest 1.5 million is not too hot or too cold. Transportation needs met by walking, bicycling, and e-biking will be the easiest to meet. E-tricycles with solar panels could move people and stuff (using cargo e-cycles) around town perhaps more efficiently than horses. Energy needs, as distinct from wants, could possibly be met by solar, but not at the high-power levels currently consumed, unless, when Tucsonians look at Mt. Lemmon, all is covered in solar panels. Even with solar, solar, everywhere, the energy available will be low (EYR likely less than 2) by current expectations. Without fossil, if all energy needs are met by electric (solar for cars, industry, etc.), current electric use would increase several fold to maintain per capita energy consumption. Water is needed to produce food, so the question of self-sufficiency in "water, food" can be boiled down to "water." The Santa Cruz River used to flow most of the year and there was surface water all year. Water pumping began in 1881 and the water table is now nowhere in sight. Colorado River water will cease to flow by canal and groundwater can only be pumped down so far. The only sustainable water source is rainwater, which is currently being oversold to a credulous public. Those who imagine that Tucson could be "mostly self-sufficient" with respect to food and the water needed to produce it (for 1 to 2 million Tucsonians), may be wrong. Most humans have a fragile grasp of reality, but those who are tempted to buy into the "preserve or enhance" are at serious risk of having none. When there was surface water, the area wide population was about 3,000 including the indigenous population which early census takers did not count. The question should be whether that number can be sustainably equaled. Call me a wild-eyed techno optimist, but I think it can be equaled, perhaps even exceeded.]

Other Resources

"Harvesting RainWater, or anything else by by Brad Lancaster. Brad, a super permaculturist, does everything and teaches everything about our local water resources." [Brad is a super pundit, which in the early 20th century meant "a solemn pretender to learning."]

Per Wikipedia: "Lancaster lives on an eighth of an acre (0.05 Ha) in downtown Tucson, Arizona, where rainfall is less than 12 inches (305 mm) per annum. In such arid conditions, Brad consistently models that catching over 100,000 Gallons (379,000 Liters) of rainwater to feed food-bearing shade trees, abundant gardens, and a thriving landscape is a much more viable option than the municipal system of directing it into storm drains and sewer systems." [If Lancaster's 1/8 acre were entirely covered in roof, he might be able to collect about 34,000 gallons a year in runoff. If by "harvest" is meant every drop that falls on the property that doesn't runoff down the street, then he could claim 39,031.575 gallons could be "harvested" if only briefly before much of it (50% would be a good guess) evaporated or percolated below the root zone. Without catching and storing rainwater in a closed tank, most of it will be lost to evaporation/percolation and not in any meaningful way "harvested." To catch "over 100,000 Gallons," what is meant is that he diverts rainwater from the street that his neighbors don't harvest because he has removed the gutter from the street next to his house to allow runoff to enter his property that just happens to be downhill of the street, unlike just about everyone else's home in Tucson. With over 60,000 gallons diverted from public street runoff, showcasing eatable vegetation at his little house in the desert can impress some. The first sentence on Brad's website is, "Turn water scarcity into water abundance!" presumably by buying his books and attending his workshops or hiring him as a consultant/designer, none of which will create water abundance. If the average Tucsonian household could catch 100,000 gallons a year (they couldn't) from their really big property (rainwater that evaporates or percolates below the root zone should not be counted and effective rainfall that could meaningfully be called "harvested" is about 50% actual rainfall), it would equal the amount used by one average Tucson household. So one suburban property, three times larger than his, covered in roof (not permitted), could maybe meet the needs (as the average Tucsonian defines it) of one household. No one within the Tucson urban area, including Brad, has yet done so. Brad, using every trick in his book, still drains 20,000 gallons a year from the city faucet, most of which comes from the Colorado River and the rest from deep wells being drawn down. Where does the feel-good sustainability come in? To model sustainability for those not living downhill of street runoff, Brad needs to put the street's gutters back in and cap off the city water pipe, then talk about turning scarcity into abundance.]

Imagine having a slave, one who worked as hard as possible if urged on by whip and chain. Now imagine having 100 slaves. Life for you would be easy peasy, and if 100 slaves are good, having 150 would be better. Those having only 50 slaves are pitied and receive public assistance.

Now imagine you are an average 21st century EuroJapAmerican. You have 100 energy slaves and you want more. Life is easy, but could be easier. You sometimes question the natural order of things. Someone mentions that the high-energy-slave-power life is not sustainable. They sound all sciency and have letters after their names, so maybe there is something to think about.

To placate your concerns, a legion of book writers, talking heads, and workshop providers come forth. They talk of alternative slavery, of transitioning to a bright resilient future where you'll have 150 alt-slaves, and of course they'll be happy, deliriously happy slaves unlike those miserable fossil-slaves of yore. It will be a new and better world. All that is needed is to support the sustainable slavery economy by buying sustainable slaves and accessories as your old fossil-slaves wear out. Just buy more alt products to transition into sustainable prosperity.

Or not.

Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group.... Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works. —Carl Sagan


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