Thicker than water: Arizona town of Williams confronts drought
WILLIAMS, Ariz. — It’s September, and John Moore gazes out across the Santa Fe Reservoir, his wide-brimmed, felt cowboy hat tilted back so he can see.
In the clear, calm water of the reservoir is the reflection of Bill Williams Mountain, the town’s namesake. Wildflowers line the banks of the reservoir. It would be easy to think nothing’s wrong.
Moore, who owns a hotel, bar and restaurant in town, has been mayor of Williams for seven years, and he has lived there for 28 years. Never has he seen the reservoir — one of five that provide water to the town of 3,000 people — so low.
And never has he been so worried because years of drought coupled with a collapsed municipal well have brought the town uncomfortably close to running out of water.
In February, the town went into level four water restrictions, the highest level of restrictions that prohibits the use of water for anything other than public health or emergencies.
The Santa Fe Reservoir is more than 20 feet below its full line. Thick, black, white and rust-red rings mark the dam’s cement wall like a bathtub, an ugly reminder of how full the reservoir once was.
Five years ago, the rocky slope Moore stands on would have been underwater, rising past his leather cowboy boots up to his waist.
Water management in Williams has relied almost exclusively on surface water resources, which are becoming increasingly unstable in the face of climate change.
Moore comes here two or three times a week just to see if the reservoir is any fuller. He hopes for more water, but each week there is less.
Moore and the residents of Williams have adapted to the stringent water restrictions in town. Many have given up their landscaping and gardens, and those who take particular pride in having a green thumb must haul water in from Flagstaff.
Still others have hooked up rainwater collection tanks to their storm gutters or rigged mechanisms that divert water from washing machines and bathtubs to the backyard.
And yet the tourists who flock to Williams for a taste of the American West seem to know nothing.
Christened the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon,” Williams is a tourist town.
Just a 45-minute drive north lies the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and the Grand Canyon Railway still takes visitors to the Grand Canyon on old-fashioned steam engines that stop and start in Williams.
The streets of Williams bustle with flashy neon signs and tourists speaking six different languages. They’re eager to experience iconic Route 66, which cuts through Williams.
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to overlook Williams’ water problems. There are no signs that mention the drought, and no one likes to talk about it because it’s bad for business.
The tourists don’t know that restaurant workers and hotel managers struggle to conserve water in the summer just to give their patrons a glass of water.
Sadly, if widely accepted predictions for a drier Arizona hold true, the story of Williams may serve as a cautionary tale. Many rural Arizona towns will have to adapt to climate change as their water supplies become less and less reliable.
Williams is a town that is trying to adapt to its longstanding water shortage and could serve as a harbinger of how the Southwest’s increasingly hotter and drier conditions begin to change the way we live.
Moore steels himself with hope as he drives away from the diminishing reservoir in a beat-up, blue Ford pickup. The residents are survivors just like him. They’ll make it. He’ll die before the water goes away, he says.
Every year for the past two decades, Williams has faced water shortages, and it’s far from being the only water-strapped community in the state.
Starting in the 1990s, Arizona entered into a long-term dry climate trend that has continued to this day. Climate scientists predict ongoing climate change will exacerbate the water challenges already faced by desert cities in the Southwest.
On average, temperatures in the Southwest are expected to rise causing more extreme heat events in Arizona and even harsher winters, Arizona State Climatologist Nancy Selover said.
In the next 30 to 50 years, climate scientists expect Arizona’s winter temperatures to increase. That’s a big problem for the state because much of Arizona is heavily dependent on surface water, which comes primarily from snowmelt.
Increased winter average temperatures will decrease snowfall, meaning more precipitation will fall as rain than as snow.
The water infrastructure in Arizona and across the U.S. is not equipped to capture rainfall. Instead the large runoff events that happen during summer monsoons flood the streets, parks and fields before the water is lost.
Not even Williams, where residents have grappled with water restrictions for decades, has adapted enough to make significant use of rainfall.
In Williams, the town’s five reservoirs rely on snowmelt from Bill Williams Mountain to stay full. But the drought and relatively mild winters in recent years have left the reservoirs at less than half their normal levels.
Three of the city’s five reservoirs – Dogtown Lake, City Dam and Kaibab Lake – are unusable because water levels have dropped below the height of intake pipes, and what little water is left is too dirty to use.
The residents of Williams are accustomed to using water conservatively. Buckets and water collection tanks are a common sight beneath gutters. Low-flow toilets and faucets are used at many hotels and restaurants. Waiters at restaurants don’t bring patrons a glass of water unless they ask.
It’s a lifestyle the town has adopted to balance out the huge increase of water use the influx of summer tourists brings.
Tourism is the driving industry of Williams, and residents must save water so that tourists aren’t inconvenienced with the effects of drought restrictions when they visit.
“We do have a huge impact from the tourism because it doubles our population easily,” Williams Fire Chief Chase Pearson says. “The Polar Express (a train that travels from Williams to the Grand Canyon) will put close to 3,000 people a day on the train. Williams is 3,000 people.”
Despite the normalcy of water restrictions in Williams, residents are frustrated by the lack of water security they face currently and in the future.
“They do seem to be just a way of life for us. But is it frustrating? Absolutely. At some point we’re going to go into some kind of restriction and you won’t be able to do something whether it’s not water your grass or wash your car or something like that,” Pearson says.
When Moore walks down the street, the cars slow and roll down their windows. He waves at the drivers, a smile crinkling his weather-beaten face.
“Hey guys, how’re y’all today?” he asks.
He knows everyone by name and often stops to joke with the residents or talk to the tourists.
Moore is a hard guy to miss. His white cowboy hat, boots and 6-foot stature make him easy to spot. And his teal, 1986 Ford F-150 pickup truck with a license plate that reads “CHIEFS1” makes it easy to know when he’s in the office.
Moore came to Williams in 1985 from Missouri to take a position as the police chief in the town. After he retired as police chief, he ran for mayor, he says.
But as Moore ambles down Route 66, the main street in town, the flashing neon lights and crowds of tourists can’t mask the empty windows and “for sale” signs that pepper the street and surrounding neighborhood.
Williams is a small, historic town that never expected to become a metropolis like Phoenix, but the residents would still like to see growth boost their economy.
At the last census count in 2010, there were 3,023 residents, most of them between the ages of 18 and 65. The median household income was $32,455. Many of the residents own or work in the shops on Route 66.
The residents would like to see higher-paying jobs brought to their town, but the water issues have, to a large extent, crippled those dreams.
“The water restrictions have brought concern to some buyers that would maybe not move here because they’re afraid there’s no water in Williams,” says Pete Baldwin, president of Platinum Realty Network in Williams.
Williams City Council voted to put a moratorium on building permits for the duration of the level four water restrictions, according to minutes from the March 13, 2014, Williams City Council meeting.
In Arizona, the 1980 Groundwater Management Act mandated that developments be able to demonstrate there is a 100-year ensured water supply in order to build. This includes all of Arizona, even areas like Williams that are outside of Active Management Areas.
The Groundwater Management Act created five Active Management Areas in Arizona where the use and development of groundwater resources is heavily monitored by the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
“Williams has always dealt with water issues when they try to grow,” Pearson says. “So when someone wants to come in and say ‘I want to build this, or I would like to have this project done,’ first issue that comes up is water.”
Moore is confident Williams is doing what it can to mitigate the problem and ensure a reliable water supply for the town, but some residents are doubtful that enough is being done.
“It gets a little old to hear that it’s all about water, it’s all about water, it’s all about water because it’s been an issue forever. Well, why haven’t we done anything about it?” Pearson says.
Williams has some of the deepest wells in the state. The groundwater table is 3,500 feet below the surface, making it difficult and expensive to drill wells, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
In comparison, Flagstaff’s groundwater table is about 1,200 feet below the surface.
But Williams has no alternative. Residents already use water conservatively, and, unlike the Phoenix metropolis, a private swimming pool or large lawn is a rare sight in Williams. The town must drill a well to ensure its residents have enough water for basic household use.
Williams City Council voted to drill a new well to help offset the town’s reliability on surface water resources. The Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona announced in October that it would grant Williams a $3.5 million loan to help finance its necessary water infrastructure investments.
With the adoption of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, Arizona legislators recognized groundwater as a finite resource that is not easily replaceable.
Heavy groundwater pumping in the Valley in the 1940s and 1950s lowered the groundwater table by 300 to 500 feet and caused the land to sink in some areas of the state, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Now, cities like Phoenix and Tucson actively try to limit use of groundwater lest it run out. They view groundwater as “rainy day fund” to be used as a last resort when surface water supplies become unsustainable and unreliable.
But Williams has seen its rainy day come and go. The best solution for their town is to drill another well, says Donald Bills, senior staff hydrologist for the USGS in Flagstaff.
“Actually I don’t think of (groundwater pumping) as being less sustainable, I think of it as being more sustainable,” Bills says.
“Because there’s a lot of water in storage, there’s more water available for use. Surface water resources tend to be generally more here today gone tomorrow and groundwater resources tend to last for a much longer time.”
A well-managed groundwater program, involving conservative water use in Williams and surface water use during wet years, could be more sustainable than you would think and could sustain Williams for the next 100 years, Bills says.
The geology in Williams is different than the Valley. The groundwater aquifers deep below ground in Williams and Flagstaff replenish much more quickly than the aquifers below Phoenix, which can take hundreds to thousands of years to fill.
Fractured bedrock in the area surrounding Flagstaff and Williams allows runoff from a storm or from snowmelt to seep directly into the groundwater aquifer, Bills says.
“There are places where you have direct conduits from the surface to the regional groundwater flow system. In that case, recharge events can happen on the order of hours,” he says.
It’s November. The Santa Fe Reservoir that Moore visits so frequently is even lower than before. Deer and bird tracks crisscross the muddy banks of the reservoir. Rocks and a small isthmus of land that lay hidden beneath the water just weeks before peek through the surface.
The rhythmic sound of water lapping against the shore is broken by the occasional roar of a car driving by. Summer is over. The clouds darken, and the temperature drops. It’s 34 degrees.
For a few brief minutes, snow begins to fall softly from the sky. It melts even before it reaches the ground. Then it stops, and the clouds clear up as if nothing happened.