Until I moved to Arizona, I hadn’t thought about water and how the liquid gives us life and connection and cleared spirits. The east coast is plentiful with water. Growing up in Western New York, there was a lake at the edge of our town, creeks in my grandparents’ backyards, waterfalls at Letchworth State Park, the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes, the Atlantic Ocean, all within driving distance. My other grandparents had a cottage along the St. Lawrence River at the 1000 Islands. Water literally surrounded me, not only in bathtubs, kitchen sinks, showers, pools, and garden hoses, but everywhere we visited. I had no worries or concerns.
The Hohokam, original Indigenous peoples of Arizona, built over 500 miles of canals which sustained approximately 80,000 people, and probably more, using what is now the Gila and Salt Rivers. Those rivers have since been diverted by Arizona for man-made lakes, drying them nearly to dust.
When I drive around Tempe, Arizona golf courses teaming with green, or businesses lined with annual non-native flowers, or houses covered with grass and bushes, I cringe. These must be east coasters. Used to such green. Or just those about money, rather than knowledge. None of this was once a part of Arizona. I so want those desertscape gardens at each space, ones which use the beauty from Arizona, rather than take the beauty away. Desertscape uses rocks or mulch around succulents, cacti, and local flowers and trees. Because the plantings are local, they require less watering. In other words, meant for desert conditions. There is also xeriscape, or landscaping needing no additional watering except installed irrigation. Arizona isn’t lacking in green or color such that a desertscape would appear dull. The land merely grows, nurtures, and creates its own version of color and landscape.
Aloe, blooming cholla, globemallow, palo verde, mesquite, giant saguaros, Mexican gold poppy, brittlebush, ocotillo, fairy duster. Snow capped mountain peaks. Red rock buttes and mesas. The sunflower lined Beeline highway moving from the Sonoran desert, to Mazatzal Mountains, to the Mogollan Rim, from the United States to the Navajo Nation. These landscapes explode with reds, pinks, purples, oranges, and yellows throughout many months. But only after rain and collected ground water work their way through soil and roots.
Rivers might not cascade and crash through Arizona. But water is life here.
We affect that life and color when we use water. And so often abuse the privilege of having water. I wonder about my own usage as shower water rains down my back, or as faucets pour out water when washing my hands or the dishes. I run the dishwasher once a week, to save because it’s more economical amounts. But I still have dishes that can’t go in that dishwasher. Should I stop using anything not dishwasher safe? Should I only shower twice a week instead of four times? Our bodies don’t really need all the bathing we give our skin, especially here in Arizona, where natural hard water causes a slick cover, making it difficult for soap to foam and clean.
Only about 39 percent of Arizona’s water needs are fulfilled by in-state groundwater, which has over the years been overdrafted. Higher populations and drilling caused faster drawing on that water, depleting the source, and negatively affecting water quality. Overdrafting also caused the depletion of 90 percent of riparian habitats throughout Arizona. How fast the water goes when we aren’t looking. We then have to rely on reclaimed water, surface water, the Colorado River, and Lake Meade. The latter three are sources renewed by rain. But Arizona on average gets maybe 10 inches of rain, with the highest amounts, 22 inches, accumulating in the Mazatzal Mountains.
I’ve walked many Tempe sidewalks, including within my own apartment complex. The way sprinklers are set up, again to keep grass green, they line the sidewalks, running so much of the sprinkler water onto the sidewalks. I assume this arrangement keeps the sprinklers off the middle of the lawn where people might trip. But when puddles form on concrete, where I then slip in my flip flops, and spots along the middle remain dry grass, we have so much water loss. My apartment complex argues that the grass brings renters. Yes, there needs to be water to keep up, they say. The main company resides in Montreal, Canada, the east coast again. No knowledge of desert or water loss or resources other than money. I don’t remember being drawn in by grass when apartment shopping. “Oh this apartment doesn’t have grass, but rocks and cacti. Let me not rent here.” I remember instead the cost. The space. The proximity to campus. Safety.
We ruined this.
When I was younger, about once a year in summer, my small Western New York town cautioned our water use for a week, suggesting boiling before using. I didn’t think then about what that meant. “Don’t drink the water this week,” my mom would say.
I shrugged and carried on like any twelve or thirteen-year-old. I didn’t know. Couldn’t. We were never educated on the problem because pollution makes people want to hide.
Algae causes problems in the lake, my mom would say. Has since she was a girl. The whole lake would turn brown and mucky. Nobody swam during those periods. Algae can indicate environmental toxins in water when nutrients are affected. When warm suns heat such waters, symptoms show up as color changes and rising surface scums due to toxic blooms. Often causes are household laundry detergents, fertilizers, livestock waste, stormwater runoff, and potentially leaky septic tanks. Our town’s main economic boon is farming from corn fields to milk cows to beef cattle.
My sister’s ten pound dog got very ill with shakes and vomiting after walking along farm fields behind her house just after fertilizing.
There have been rumored high rates of miscarriages among our female population near where a drycleaner once stood.
We have a landfill several miles outside of town, now unseen kept under grass and weeds unless you remember the bulldozers and black bags lining the sides. On the road to the landfill was an old knitting mill. There’s a cookie mill a few streets from my mom. We also have had several laundromats scattered across town. One still in use downtown. The lake is only one brown flag.
Now, we don’t drink the water at all. And my family doesn’t talk about that as filtered water streams slowly into our glasses.
Letchworth State Park, 15 minutes from my hometown, was originally Seneca land. Waters have receded over the years. Waters which once coursed through the spiraling canyons and etched the crannies and rocks with their washes and movement. I am Seneca. And when I stand along these canyons, behind me picnic tables, cars, and cameras around necks, I know how this became a state park. Land was forced out of families. Not really the gift to William Prior Letchworth it’s made out to be. Those non-Native among towns wanted to spread out further and further. And many people from my community were forced to move, to sell fast, no choice. Sometimes they went to those small towns, sometimes they went to Cattaraugus Reservation or the Allegheny Reservation. I can’t know what the Genesee River there was like before the water had a Western name. But I can imagine that no one wanted this for the many creeks, streams, lakes, and rivers, some drying up, some smelling unnatural.
The water in my town grew worse as I grew up. Seventy years is not a long time in a grander scheme. That’s a speeding light running through the system, so quickly rearranging life in my hometown. The town has since published reports that they now have the best water quality in the area. How many chemicals does that take, though? And what’s still running into the lake after great storms? We may have water all around, but what of that do we really have left?
Nearly 317 of the 326 recognized American Indigenous land bases on reservations are contaminated in some way. Most are near factories, mining, or some other business which has used skeptical dumping practices. That’s just the land we were forced onto and doesn’t include original lands.
The Akwesasne Mohawk Nation worked a long time for clean water along the St. Lawrence River, about 400 miles north of Letchworth. Companies have built factories along the river since the mid-1900s. Throughout the 80s, Mohawk peoples fought General Motors against polychlorinated biophenyls (PCB) contaminating the St. Lawrence. Fishing is an important part of both subsistence and cultural traditions. The alternative is affordable food from grocery stores such as potato chips, microwavable meals, and frozen French fries. The result has been higher rates of obesity and diabetes among the Mohawk Nation because they were told just don’t fish—eat other food. No bodies are meant for this.
The river is still unsafe to either drink or catch fish.
“Don’t drink the water,” said my Tempe, AZ doctor. “Only drink water from the fountains with filters if you have to. But don’t drink directly from the water fountains.”
I don’t know why she said this. I haven’t found such warnings when researching. Only my first year in Arizona, I didn’t question the comment. I had grown used to avoiding tap water, filtering out the impurities.
I remain skeptical about what we aren’t told about water no matter where we live. Water use. Water pollution. We are water. The earth is water. What we do takes life. For generations, for the earth, we have to re-make how we use water. We are being flooded, but with something slowly disappearing. Disappearing from puddles, hoses, the shower, the kitchen sink, man-made lakes, the rivers, the oceans. But the Hohokam canals are still there. Within the desert sands. Under our feet.
By: Melissa Michal
Melissa Michal is of Seneca decent. She teaches creative writing and composition and loves helping students find that they too can write. She has her MFA from Chatham University, MA from The Pennsylvania State University, and is currently working on her PhD in literature at Arizona State University where she focuses on education and representation of Indigenous histories and literatures in curriculum. She received an NEH summer fellowship and is also a recipient of the 2013 Best Short Fiction prize for CALS/CCR Community Read. She has been grateful to read at the National American Indian Museum in DC and Amerind Museum in Dragoon. Michal has work appearing in The Florida Review, Yellow Medicine Review, and the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program’s Narrative Witnessing project. She completed a short story collection and is currently working on her first novel; although she also writes non-fiction and does photography.