Solitude Of The Desert

by M. E. Schuman

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.” Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire


Edward Abbey is well known for his eloquent description of the mars-like landscape of the desert. It is no wonder I am consistently drawn to this raw, wild beauty of the southwest. After so many adventures with a partner of no more, would I have the courage to make the journey again? This time alone?


Anxiety started to creep into my mind as my 3:30 am wakeup call turned into an hour waiting for a Lyft driver to confirm my ride to the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport. Auspiciously, I found myself on a flight to Tucson debating the madness of this decision. Slowly my anxiety melted away as I watched the documentary by Dr. Jane Goodall, a woman who I have admired since a young age. I can only aspire to be as courageous and strong as Dr. Goodall at age 88. She is a force of and for nature!


The city of Tucson is 2,389 feet above sea level and covers nearly 500 square miles and is flanked on all sides by mountains. What is it about the mountains? For the first time in months I feel a sense of direction as the claustrophobic flatness of Florida disappears.


The landscape is varied and includes flowering desert, rolling hills, winding dry riverbeds, rugged canyons, and pine-topped peaks, all beneath a clear blue sky. The sun rises above the Rincon Mountains in the east and disappears behind the Tucson Mountains to the west. Flanking the north and northeast are the Santa Catalina Mountains and to the south and southeast are the Santa Rita’s. Although accomplished in navigating in the wilds of Alaska, I have felt eerily lost in Florida as there are no mountains to guide me.


As a graduate student in environmental policy at the University of Arizona in 1994, the town of Tucson is barely recognizable with a population of almost 558,000. But in the distance I recognize Mt Lemmon, the highest mountain peak at 9100 feet in the Santa Catalina Mountains. One of the most spectacular drives is only 25 miles from downtown Tucson to the summit of Mt. Lemmon, passing through an ecological range from the Sonoran Desert, Semi-Desert Grasslands, Oak Woodland and Chaparral, Pine-Oak Woodland, Ponderosa Pine Forest, and Mixed Conifer Forest. And at the summit, there is a blanket of Alpine Tundra.


Although the sky is blue, the air is crisp with a strong and steady wind blowing from the North. As I drive on highway 77 the Tortolita Mountains stand guard to the northwest. All five of the mountain ranges offer a variety of hikes, camping, mountain biking and exploring. With such a diversity and richness of vegetation, the landscape is a bird lovers paradise. In the short time I have been here, I have seen the tiny Cactus Wren darting through the yucca, the brilliant Vermilion Flycatcher, Gamble Quail, Lucy’s Warbler and of course, the House Finch and the chatty Grackle.


I lay awake staring at the silhouette of a saguaro out my window after another restless night as nature’s demise continues to burden my dreams. At early dawn I take a walk on a nature trail that surrounds the development where I am staying. The chatter of the birds fills the quiet and there is a faint acrid smell of the creosote bush. I look for bobcat tracks in the sand but all I can decipher is coyote, hare, and ground squirrel. Cheatgrass, a nasty little grass that invaded over utilized rangeland across the west, is brilliant green hidden in the shadows of the understory. However, with the attenuation of livestock grazing, productive native tall grasses such as the Plains Lovegrass is taking hold.


Unfortunately, housing developments in Oro Valley such as the one I am visiting are growing in the desert. As in Florida, my concern is water, although here it is the lack of potable water. The sales agent responded that before land can be developed a 100-year water supply must be proven.


Oro Valley’s water supply is diverse; 41% from groundwater wells, 36% from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), 18% from in-state rivers (snow melt) and 5% from reclaimed water. Drought is having an impact on the Colorado River and the dropping water levels in Lake Mead. I witnessed this in 2018. The reservoirs, although at low levels, continue to deliver water to the people in the arid Southwest. To ensure this, the State of Arizona and neighboring states are working together to keep water stored in Lake Mead by implementing the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan.


In addition to finding solutions to these challenges, water conservation is allowing the State to save unused supplies of Colorado River water by storing the water underground with the use of recharge basins. It is estimated that Arizona has stored nearly 3 trillion gallons which is equal to serving the city of Phoenix for 30 years.


Although the population has increased almost 12% in the last ten years in Arizona, the State proclaims water use is essentially the same as it was more than half a century ago through water conservation, infrastructure and using reclaimed water. Population growth increased 1.8% in 2022 in the State.


Considering the political flavor in Arizona, I wonder if the impacts of climate change were factored into the analysis? I found myself with more questions than answers as to the future of water availability in this beautiful bur rugged State. Regardless, it will be a delicate balance of values and ecological services – human needs, recreation, agriculture, and nature.


We can always hope, the name of Dr. Goodall’s documentary. We must not give up on hope.


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