Plan for a More Sustainable Phoenix, Part II – Air Quality

     One of the growing health concerns for many major metropolitan areas is air quality. Since the Industrial Revolution, the issue of smog in cities, and air contaminants and gases from factories, industry and transportation has threatened the general wellness of many American populations. This is an especially sensitive issue in Arizona right now. Last year, azcentral.com reported that Phoenix was second-worst in the nation among major cities for harmful air quality (Metro Phoenix Air now rated 2nd-worst in U.S.).

        How did it get this bad? Many people blame the ever-expanding freeway systems, too many cars on the road, and industry. But industry hasn’t really been a major contributor for the last 70 years or so, as we have seen an epic decline in things that are actually made in Phoenix. The problem very likely also has something to do with dust. Wide fields that were once home to native desert plants (which helped prevent erosion and keep the surface dirt in place) have been wiped clear. With every construction project, or field-clearing for new developments—even farmland before seeds are sown—vast fields of desert sand/soil/dirt are left exposed to the wind. Some people seem to think that the massive haboobs we’ve experienced in the past 10 years must just be some random force or change in nature. They are wrong if they think human activity on the land hasn’t contributed to this phenomenon.

    The irony is, Arizona’s wide-open desert skies and dry air once attracted people who were ailing from calamities such as asthma and tuberculosis. “Once a haven for TB sufferers seeking respiratory relief, by 2005, the Valley’s infamous Brown Cloud was drawing the lowest national grades from the American Lung Association for air quality in both ozone and particulates, and in 2010 reclaimed the number one slot for dust pollution after a few years of improvement in reducing ozone levels” (Ross p. 5). Due to mankind’s activity, the quality of our hot, dry, local air has declined. Because of excesses of dust, particulates, and gases such as CO2, and nitrous oxide being pumped into the atmosphere at astronomical levels, Phoenix is no longer paradise for those who are hard of breathing.

     It is true, one of the greatest detractors to the quality of local air is the amount of automobile usage. Of the top five most common harmful air pollutants (CO, NO2, O2, particulate matter and SO2), guess which ones automobiles emit. It is estimated that the average vehicle owner in the U.S. drives about 12,000 miles per year, and that people in the greater Phoenix area alone use more than 1,089 gallons of gasoline per household annually (Kahn 2006, p. 115). When more fossil fuels are burned, more “greenhouse gases” are released. These cause ill health effects, and prolonged exposure can be deadly. Though today’s cars and trucks burn fuel more efficiently and cleaner, “…the sheer quantity of vehicle miles driven results in large releases of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons into the air” (Frumkin 2002, p. 202). Nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons, when exposed to sunlight (which Phoenix has an abundance of), form ozone. Ozone is an irritant to healthy humans, and higher levels of ozone in an area have been known to lead to more incidences and more severe cases of respiratory symptoms, decreased lung functions, higher need for medication, higher numbers of doctor visits, and more days missed from school and work by members of the population. The effects of ozone intake are also much worse for people with asthma, lung cancer, the very young, the very aged, and people with other respiratory and cardiopulmonary diseases (p. 202).

My Plan for a More Sustainable Phoenix, Part I

The following is part of a final paper that I wrote for my Sustainable Cities course, which I took online through Rio Salado, Fall semester 2011, with Prof. Flores.

I have decided to post my research and my paper here, as a three-part series, because I very much believe that my downtown friends and neighbors can benefit from looking at many of the reports I referenced, as well as online tools such as the online carbon footprint calculator, “walkable”/liveable city online tools, and reports from the EPA that are readily available online. My ‘hood can benefit because they can discover which areas of Phoenix might be most preferable to look into for housing and businesses as we make our pledges to become more carbon-friendly, less wasteful, more energy efficient, and overall start living healthier more active lifestyles.

Moving forward, I think it’s really important for all of us to understand and embrace the practical purposes for green space and to understand the urban heat island effect. Especially those of us who live in the heart of concrete desert megalopolises, such as Phoenix and L.A.

So, for these reasons, I present to you Part I of my paper, a primer on desert water history and the importance of conserving our aquifers and respecting our canal systems. Part II will focus on the rising heats within cities and urban air pollution (esp. in Phoenix). AND, how we can scale it back for better breathing.

Part III will include a detailed plan for the future of transportation in Phoenix, a plan that I think could possibly be applied to other sprawling desert cities with some success, as well.

Thanks for reading!

“Plan for a More Sustainable Phoenix” – Part I, Water Control and Quality Issues

by Jenna Duncan

December 2011

Plan for a More Sustainable Phoenix

     Sometime between AD 300 and AD 600, a great people thrived in the valley of the Phoenix basin. From what archeologists and historians have found, and from stories passed down by the Pima Indians of Arizona, these were a hearty and resourceful people, building sturdy square pithouses of mud and wattle, and maximizing their uses of the resources of the land. The Hohokam people were hunters and gatherers, but they were also farmers, engineering a complex network of canals to bring water to their crops of beans, maize, and squash from the nearby Salt and Gila Rivers (Smith 2002; Ross 2011, p. 22, 25). For about a thousand years, the Hohokam and their fields of crops thrived in this valley, despite having only a trickle of annual rainfall, and persistent heat and sunny days with temperatures often surpassing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And then, after many generations of successful farming and a society that was once thriving and at is peak, the Hohokam mysteriously vanished from Phoenix, leaving only trace evidence of their empire.

A practical person might ask, why would anyone want to live out in the desert where water resources are so scarce? How can a civilization survive on such a limited supply of groundwater, and few other renewable resources? Furthermore, how can a community’s population afford to grow in these conditions?

For many modern people, the City of Phoenix is an enigma; a sprawling, low-density oasis of housing developments, veined by massive multi-lane arterial freeways, that seems like it probably should not even exist (but does anyway!). Phoenix is an urban area of around four million people, all of whom sprawl out so that the city’s actual urban density is only about 2,785 people living in a given square mile (Ross).Despite the unlikelihood of such a large urban center thriving out in the middle of nowhere, Phoenix a pulse that beats by sucking up groundwater, eating up gasoline while pumping out greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide (Roseland, 2005 p. 105), having a planning history that has allowed urban sprawl to snowball so wildly that the Phoenix metropolitan area umbrella spans about 1,000 square miles (Ross p. 4), dealing with rising temperatures due to the urban heat island effect, and also having to deal with extremely dirty air and haboobs because land has been stripped of earth-grabbing natural plants to make way for more building and development. Not to mention a concern that runoff from all of the automobile activity and “gray networks” (paved and concrete surfaces) contributes to groundwater contamination and also flash flooding (Ross p. 60-70; Girling & Kellett 2005, p. 74).
Needless to say, Phoenix has a lot of issues to deal with when it comes to sustainability. Major issues to be investigated include water use and conservation, urban sprawl and air quality, natural resource depletion/environment, urban transit planning, and Smart Growth planning (creating a more “walkable” city).

Some Valley residents and those who study urban planning seem hopeful that Phoenix can make the right kinds of changes to lessen or curb the city’s massive ecological footprint. An ecological footprint is a measure of how much of an impact one person, or one community of people, has on using up the earth’s un-renewable natural resources, but also how much output that person or community produces when discussing waste and environmental contamination (Newman & Jennings 2008, p. 80-90; Billitteri 2008).
While the City of Phoenix is addressing its ecological footprint, and even mitigate environmental damage already done, it will have a long way to go. Phoenix has become one of the most quickly expanding low-density cities in the world, and some say its unrelenting growth and extreme stress on its natural resources could lead to imminent collapse (Ross). One of the issues that Phoenix deals with, being a “concrete jungle” is the urban heat island effect. This is the phenomenon that occurs in a city when expanses of concrete, roadways, and buildings soak up the energy from the sun by day. These urban areas can get to be around 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter at city center than their more remote regions (EPA). This can naturally increase the need for water and cooling systems, requiring citizens to run air conditioners longer and use more energy.

In the worst-case predictions for the City of Phoenix, we either use up all the water and power or lose everything, or we are forced to move somewhere else, much like the mysterious Hohokam. But the City of Phoenix, urban planners, environmentalists, activists and downtown artists have started to develop and execute new plans for a better, more sustainable Phoenix. This paper will spell out and illustrate all of the challenges Phoenix is facing in areas of sustainability. I will then explore some possible solutions, and provide examples of plans that have worked and are working in other cities, and finally outline a plan for ways that Phoenix can help reverse its severe ecological footprint (local-scale and global-scale).

     Probably the most obvious daily issue that the City of Phoenix has to contend with is the water supply. Not only does the city have to assure that enough clean water is getting to all of its inhabitants for survival and industry, it also has to assure that all wastewater is treated and dealt with responsibly. Citizens and developers often take clean drinking water for granted, because it is so cheap. Often the water from the tap it already paid for by general tax revenues and/or property taxes, and therefore and readily available in massive quantities (Roseland 2005, p. 60). Because it is so cheap and abundant, this resource gets abused and wasted.

Most of the Phoenix area gets clean drinking water from one of two major sources: Salt River Project (SRP) or Central Arizona Project (CAP). While water seems plentiful and easy to obtain now, some scientists have speculated that if Phoenix’s in-migration continues to explode at such uncontrollable rates, and if there should be a prolonged drought, we could see our water tables getting depleted, and other sources, such as the Gila and Salt rivers drying up (Ross p. 25-26).

In order to avert major catastrophe, there are many measures that urbanites and businesses should be taking to begin to learn to curb their erroneous water consumption, find ways to reuse “gray water” to cut down on the expenses of treating wastewater, and to encourage smart development and xeriscaping so that Phoenicians are not needlessly wasting water on impractical, ornamental lawns, unused pools, and vanity fountains.

Some examples of ways to conserve water provided by Mark Roseland, in his book, Toward Sustainable Communities: Resources for Citizens and Their Governments include switching to low-flow toilets and high-efficiency showerheads, faucet aerators, conservation hose nozzles, and checking homes and business pipes and hoses for leaks (p. 61). He also uses many examples of communities where conservation and awareness successes were made because a monetary incentive, like a grant, rebate or tax break was awarded to water-saving citizens. Programs like these have been implemented in Mesa, Chandler, and Glendale (p. 62). Flagstaff and Tucson have both begun to ration water to help manage supply at times of peak usage (p. 39). Also in Flagstaff, “increased block rates” have been put in place to penalize high water users with higher rates. In some other cities, such as San Luis Obispo, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara and Las Vegas, cities and counties have changed ordinances to make sure that developers replace old toilets with new water-conserving ones, and anyone who allows water to overflow into a drainage area for 20 minutes or longer gets slapped with a fine (p. 64). These are all ideas that could be implemented in Phoenix to help conserve water.

In the last several decades, flash floods have become a major danger in Phoenix when there is sudden unrelenting rainfall. This is because there are so many “grey areas” in the city, where concrete and pavement covers the soil, the rainwater can’t effectively soak into the ground. Thus, it collects in canals, drainways and gullies, and often floods over, creating dangerous conditions for driving and walking in lower-lying areas (Ross p. 25-26, 133). While the City of Phoenix’s storm water management plan website is down and does not appear to have been maintained or updated since 2005 or 2006, Maricopa County, fortunately, provides a detailed plan for its actions to try to control floods, keep stormwater clean, and educate the public about urban runoff. One way that local flooding is managed is through the preservation of floodplains, which are large, open, flat surfaces where flood waters can overflow and sit if they spill over from rivers, streams and waterways. Maricopa County has implemented a continuing study of floodplain management, to “reduce or prevent flood damage, and to maintain the natural and beneficial functions of the floodplains” (The Flood Control District of Maricopa County).

Finally, to cut down on the costs of clean-up and waste treatment, Phoenix could encourage more citizens and businesses to consider adopting greywater systems with water re-use features in their homes and businesses. These systems take water used from bathroom sinks and faucets, and runs it through simple filters so that some of it can be re-used to water plants and lawns (Roseland p. 61). Implementing more of these practices and system will ultimately save the city both time and money.