Water Maze

TWO RIVERS used to flow through Phoenix: the Salt and the Gila. Now they relinquish most of their water to a network of turbines and canals. At the edges of the city, some stretches still flow naturally, but the water is warm and shallow, and it vanishes after a hundred yards as if rising for a breath before disappearing back underground. Mostly dry, their cobbled, sandy beds are bleached by the sun.

The Phoenix water network is a web few ever see, an underworld that makes this arid basin livable to more than 4 million people. The vast majority of incoming river water is captured, diverted, and mixed with redirected Colorado River water pumped from three hundred miles away. The hydrological cycle taught in textbooks— precipitation, evaporation, precipitation, evaporation —has been greatly manipulated. Dams plug canyons where reservoirs drown wild cliffs. Artificial lakes gather beneath freeways.

Sustaining this number of human beings has become a careful, daily balancing act, control rooms glowing with batteries of monitors where people called “water masters” monitor every twist and turn, their fingers dancing on keyboards to open and close head gates. When chains of upstream storage reservoirs dip below their desired capacity as snowpack and runoff dwindle from the mountains, the city turns from surface storage to groundwater. Switches are thrown so pumps can haul aquifer water from beneath the city up into the daylight. Sometimes you can smell the change. A faint green scent wafts along as clean groundwater suddenly reaches the air, reinvigorating life in sluggish canals where carp drift like zeppelins among drowned shopping carts and half-buried traffic cones.






Images of this hydrologic infrastructure seem like X-rays. Instead of bones, the city has water for a skeleton. A labyrinth has been constructed. Chambers like those of the heart have been filled. Water flows uphill when necessary, aided by powerful machines. Helicopters make regular rounds, cruising the streams and reservoirs above the city, binoculars trained out their windows and down into canyons, searching for any glint of water. Seasoned hydrologists will tell you that gauging stations are only so reliable. You have to see the watershed yourself, observe it from year to year before deciding which reservoir to fill and which to drain to keep the city alive.

Eventual rains will bring the watercourses back to life. The sky will split open under towering summer thunderstorms. With three inches of rain an hour, the storm drains will become rivers and bridge pilings will be dressed in debris. By the next day, the ground will be dry again, the riverbeds empty but for the last scattered pools steaming in the sun.

See a slideshow with more images from this series here.

D. Bryon Darby is an assistant professor of photo media at the University of Kansas. His photographs in this issue were originally commissioned by the City of Phoenix through the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture’s Public Art Program.

Craig Childs, an Arizona native born in the Phoenix satellite of Tempe, is the author of more than a dozen books.


  1. Those cooling towers in the distance are the closet thing to Mordor I have ever seen.

  2. Don’t know who or what MORDOR is, but I’m mourning for the wild watercourses of naturally flowing rivers…to see such beauty replaced by concrete and pipes is profoundly sad, an immense loss that does not really even register on us most of the time…we’ve gotten so used to loss…It’s all elegies now as some poet said.

  3. Potamicide: assassination or murder of rivers. (Jackson Lima)

  4. And, when the grid fails, what then? The whole of the Southwest water supply is propped up and pumped into a massive unreality that defies the imagination. For readers, go to Wallace Stegner’s biography of John Wesley Powell in Beyond the 100th Meridian, to learn why our plans in the deserts of the Southwest ignored the local knowledge and the science in favor of short-lived profits. http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Hundredth-Meridian-Wesley-Opening/dp/0140159940

  5. More of this sort of thing needs to be written. Calls to mind all those ruins I have been to visit where people built great cities that now are tourist attractions. Taken in the context of those worlds, their achievements were impressive. They obviously must have thought much of their civilizations, as we do of ours. We think we are so smart – and undoubtedly, they did too. I can’t help wondering what earth will look like 1000 years from now. Perhaps North America will be a desert where archaeologists are excavating, trying to understand who lived here and why we disappeared.

    But which of us is going to not have children, and which of our children will we entreat not to have children, so humanity can remain within the limits of our resources? Sorry, do I seem a little fatalistic? Let’s face it, it has happened before, many, many times. If you think about some of the ruins around the world and how immense the structures were, it didn’t take all that long for them to disappear, literally covered over, eventually forgotten.

  6. “When chains of upstream storage reservoirs dip below their desired capacity as snowpack and runoff dwindle from the mountains, the city turns from surface storage to groundwater.”

    This sentence encapsulates the unsustainability of the situation because, as well as by what little rain occasionally falls, the groundwater aquifers are refilled by that same snowpack runoff. If the snowpack is not regenerated over successive winters, the aquifers can’t be regenerated either. And the Colorado river already doesn’t reach the sea anymore, so it is debatable how long Phoenix can keep taking that amount of water from it.

    Maia: To understand the reference to Mordor, you have to read “Lord of the Rings”.

  7. Read comment by MAIA. I feel as she does… Sadden by the loss of our rivers. This is devastation.

  8. I live in Phoenix, and no, no one sees this. Most people don’t even know about it. So we go on, thinking the water is infinite, the golf courses will always be green, and the air conditioners will always run. I don’t live in a sane place.

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