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Gateway To Grand Canyon Restricts Water Use

John Moore
Laurel Morales
Williams Mayor John Moore stands in front of the Santa Fe Reservoir dam. The water would usually be above his head.

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Gateway To Grand Canyon Restricts Water Use

Gateway To Grand Canyon Restricts Water Use

Laurel Morales

Williams Mayor John Moore stands in front of the Santa Fe Reservoir dam. The water would usually be above his head.

Williams, Ariz., is running out of water. City officials have recently issued severe water restrictions and cut building permits after seeing the local reservoir all but dry up. Climate experts say the water woes of small towns in the Southwest aren’t going away.

The pine forests characteristic of Arizona’s high country surround the tiny town of Williams and its claim to fame, the Grand Canyon Railway. Train fanatics travel great distances to ride behind this steam-powered engine.

“That’s one of the challenges with the steam program is it takes a lot of water to get to Grand Canyon and back,” said Bruce Brossman, Grand Canyon Railway spokesman. “It takes 14,000 gallons.”

Brossman said the company buys that water from the town of Valle, 35 miles away. He said the Grand Canyon Railway also operates a hotel, which works hard to conserve water.

“We’re trying to reduce water use as much as we can all the time,” Brossman said. “We don’t wait until a crisis to try to reduce our water use. So we use non-potable reclaimed water for our irrigation.”

The company even reuses its pool water. When the hotel drains the pool for repairs, the railway reuses that water in the steam engine.

Laurel Morales

The Grand Canyon Railway's Bruce Brossman stands in front of the company's steam engine, which uses 14,000 gallons of water for a trip to the Grand Canyon and back. The company has cut the number of steam engine trips to nine a year.

Riding around town with Mayor John Moore, you better not be in a hurry.  He has a way of stopping and talking to everyone he sees.

Moore looks like the Marlboro man — extremely tall, prospector mustache and cool blue eyes. He’s been mayor for seven years and a lot of people trust he’ll get them out of this water mess. We pulled up to the town’s reservoir. It was so shallow a bird can stand in the center of it.

“It’s a drought,” Moore said. “We’ve had no rain. We had a few drops a week, 10 days ago. We haven’t had any snowfall all year. That’s where most of our water comes from, those mountains that we’re standing here looking at. That’s where our snow melt comes, fills our lakes. That didn’t happen this year.”

Williams also sits above a plentiful aquifer, but Moore says the city is pumping its two wells to capacity. Digging a new well can cost up to $1 million.

“They tell us there’s a lot of water,” Moore said. “It’s finding the exact location to put a well then you got to go 3,500-3,600 feet and that’s a lot of drilling a lot of work then you got to pipe it out. It’s a big undertaking but it’s one we must do.”

The city will fine residents who use drinking water outdoors and water rates will double for households that use more than their monthly share. Moore is confident the drought is temporary, nothing to cause alarm.

But climate experts said we could be in the middle of what’s called a mega drought. Ancient tree ring samples show that arid parts of the world have experienced droughts that last decades.

Laurel Morales

Williams is 65 miles south of the Grand Canyon. It's mostly a tourist town with a historic downtown along Route 66.

Bill deBuys, an environmental historian, said that’s on top of climate change.

“When those droughts come they’ll be more severe because they’ll be hotter. So that’s kind of a double whammy that’s hanging out there.” said deBuys, the author of "A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest."

The town of Williams isn’t alone. Last year Magdalena, N.M., ran out of water. And deBuys says small towns like these suffer more than large cities.

“The vulnerability of small cities is they are not connected to large agricultural districts,” deBuys said.

Having agricultural rights is the ticket to water in the Southwest. But DeBuys predicts large cities like Phoenix and Albuquerque will someday be forced to lease water rights from Indian tribes.

In the short term, residents in Williams are hopeful El Niño will bring the rains they so desperately need.

Laurel Morales was a Fronteras Desk reporter in Flagstaff from 2011 to 2020.