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Climate Experts Discuss Threats To Arizona And Possible Solutions

The Arizona Republic hosted a virtual climate panel discussion Friday to discuss how record heat, wildfires and water shortages are affecting communities across Arizona.

Panelists included former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, ASU Sustainability Professor Jennifer Vanos, Navajo Water Project Director Emma Robbins, and University of Arizona professor and environmental researcher Karletta Chief.

Babbitt, who also served as secretary of the Interior, says the lack of water management in rural Arizona, combined with rapid development in those areas, means the state could be facing a serious water crisis in the coming decades.

"I think the growth in the future is not going to be in Phoenix and Tucson," Babbitt said. "They're going to be moving retirement communities and growth into higher areas — the Verde Valley, the Patagonia area of southern Arizona, and the Colorado plateau. That's going to simply amplify the problem of good management."

Babbitt said Arizona lawmakers need to act soon if they want any hope of sustaining the state's population growth into the 22nd century.

“There’s going to be less water. We can ignore the problem and all leave in 50 years, or we can begin dealing with it now," he said. "If we manage it well, there will be enough. The state of Arizona, the Arizona Legislature has done virtually nothing. We’ve got to move on that, and move soon.”

Water issues are also prevalent on the Navajo Nation. Robbins, the director of the Navajo Water Project, explained how the drought conditions have led to the deaths of scores of wild horses and sheep. She says the drought's negative effects on the environment are hurting the Navajo community’s health and culture as well.

"That’s something that’s taking a chunk out of our culture," Robbins said. "It’s also pushing people to not be as resilient when it comes to gather their own water or their own food. So we’re seeing people who are relying on unhealthy food sources, which is a big issue. So it’s not just about weather or lack of water, it trickles down to other things as well."

Robbins says abandoned uranium and open-pit mines on the Navajo Nation have contaminated some of the drinking water sources — forcing many residents to rely on trucked-in water supplies.

Chief says she’d like to see more investment from the federal government to help tribes adapt their already-environmentally friendly practices.

"Indigenous people already have a lot of these green types of buildings such as arbor shades and kivas, and they also have existing farming techniques such as using drought resilient seeds and dryland farming," Chief said. "Engaging tribal communities in this conversation of adapting to climate change. I've been working with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe for over 10 years and they have been leaders in talking about climate change."

Chief says with federal investment, these strategies could create sustainable native communities that are resilient in the face of an ever-changing climate.

Scott Bourque was a reporter and podcast producer at KJZZ from 2019 to 2022.