From downtown Flagstaff, cozy coffee shops and hotel signs meld with the sky as the San Francisco Peaks (the Peaks) flaunt green and yellow color combinations in the background. The image translates on postcards as tourists bustle through famous Route 66, Ponderosa pines decorating the landscape all year-round.
Behind the Peaks, a different image is created. Homes, people and livelihoods are threatened by the severity of wildfires, a lack of water availability and are vulnerable to flooding. The well-known summer monsoons and cool temperatures have shifted, causing alarm among different northern Arizona communities.
The Unnoticed Impacts
As the world faces differing impacts with a continuous rise in greenhouse gases, there is an emphasis on how each region is affected. Depending on the terrain and where communities are placed, the effects of a warming climate are specific to that area. Northern Arizona is experiencing a variety of changes that pose a threat to people’s security with their homes and businesses.
Christina Schädel, an assistant research professor in biological sciences at Northern Arizona University (NAU), focuses on prehistoric carbon stored in permafrost in the Arctic. Schädel conducts most of her research on the computer, synthesizing other scientists’ reports of permafrost and compiling it. This allows her to look at what scientists know at this point and what they need to know going forward. This work is then translated to policymakers and the public. Schädel was one of many contributors to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published in late September. The IPCC report focused on oceans and the cryosphere, the frozen water on Earth.
When people think of the erratic changes happening in the environment, it is difficult to connect what is happening in Flagstaff to the Arctic. Although, what happens hundreds of miles away has a significant impact on the local community.
“The atmosphere is something we all share on the planet,” Schädel said. “If carbon dioxide is released in Alaska, it’s increasing everywhere around the globe. We know that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has that global warming impact.”
Elaine Pegoraro is a Ph.D. student studying carbon dynamics in tundra ecosystems and works closely with Schädel. Pegoraro bridges the relationship between what happens up north to cities located hundreds of miles away.
“When people think of climate change, they think of rising sea levels, which is fair, that is a fact, but [permafrost research] also sheds light on how climate change may impact soil and plants,” Pegoraro said. “[This] has implications to food security and can have implications on increased rain and drought, which will impact everybody on a more local level.”
A changing climate has a profound impact on the animals and plants that inhabit certain environments. In Flagstaff, there has been a concern regarding certain flora and what a hotter and drier climate will mean for their survival.
“Climate change threatens the synchrony of different biological processes, and disruption of that synchrony can lead to unpredictable and erratic growth patterns and behavior in wild systems,” Swenson said. “So that affects the overall integrity of the system.”
Schädel is clear: Arizona will be affected by the unprecedented rise in greenhouse gases. In Flagstaff, it is expected for there to be less snowpack, more drought and an increase of wildfires that will be more destructive and severe.
Snowbowl: Controversial Snow Making
Flagstaff’s tourism culture has an intimate relationship with the climate. If there is less snowfall or raging fires, tourists tend to change their plans.
The past winter lead Flagstaff to exceed the 1915 record of most snowfall in a day with 39.5 inches. This summer, Flagstaff’s blue skies and cool weather turned into a smoke-filled inferno with the absence of rains.
“Looking at data over the last 35 years, there has always been swings in snow levels, summer rain levels and swings in temperatures making for a challenging environment to operate a sustainable business,” said Rob Linde, the general manager of Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort.
Snowbowl offers tourism year-round. In summer there are trails for people to hike or bike, as well as offering views of the aspens changing from green to bright yellow in the fall. Snowbowl’s peak season is winter, as people travel to take advantage of skiing and snowboarding.
During the summer, Snowbowl has to be wary of the monsoon and fire season. In 2018 the U.S. Forest Service had the resort closed due to the threat of wildfire. Snowbowl reported that in the summer of 2019 they experienced one of the largest visitation numbers in previous years. This could correlate with the fact that the summer was also one of the lowest monsoon seasons in recorded history.
Due to the allure of outdoor activities, weather can affect tourist visitation and overall revenue that the resort generates. The introduction of snowmaking in 2012 to 2013 neutralized the effects of low snow years. Snowbowl has partnered with the city by using reclaimed water to make snow, a controversial action that has lasted many years.
Four Years: Ready for Exams, not Evacuation
NAU students are temporary residents of Flagstaff, rarely affected by the natural disasters that impact more vulnerable citizens on east Flagstaff and the Southside neighborhood. Despite the occasional smoke that fills the air with a campfire scent, students are mostly unaware of the extreme weather conditions that are gaining intensity as drought, high winds and flash floods become more prevalent.
Random interviews were conducted at the University Union to see how regular NAU students perceive the natural threats around Flagstaff.
Meghan Vaughg is a senior who has spent many years in Flagstaff and has observed some changes in the climate. She was residing in Flagstaff over the summer when she witnessed the Museum Fire and the preparation for the flooding that would follow.
“I think [city council] did a pretty good job making sure everyone was on alert where and when they needed to be,” Vaughg said. “I was in one of the ‘ready zones’ and they were pretty good at getting updates on, like, the status on the fire and who needed to be ready to evacuate when.”
Blaire Rice is a junior who has been living in Flagstaff for the past three years. He has seen some of the weather phenomena first hand, such as the heavy snowfall Flagstaff received in 2018 when over three feet of snow forced NAU to cancel classes.
“It concerns me because I wonder if it’s an effect of climate change, but I also know that Flagstaff has some extreme weather,” Rice said. “I feel like it’s not always this extreme and that it might be getting worse.”
Other students like Danny Mill, a sophomore student, had similar thoughts.
“I feel like with the university they expected classes to continue even though it was unsafe for some people because some people don’t live on campus...I remember [Rita Cheng] sent an email canceling classes, so it was a very last-minute decision but it was the right one,” Mill said.
Among century-old houses, the Southside neighborhood sits south of the train tracks. The Murdoch Community Center, decorated with a mural of five black community members that have had a profound impact on the Southside community, is nestled in the neighborhood.
Deborah Harris, the board president for the Southside Community Association, has been a key voice for the community. She attends city council meetings, using her voice to elevate the issues that matter to the Southside neighborhood. Her voice is laced with patience and understanding as she sits in the large room of the Murdoch Center, the walls filled with black and white news clippings and pictures.
At a city council meeting on Oct. 15, the Rio de Flag flooding plan for a 100-year flood was approved. This was a win for many members in the community, as well as Southside. Waiting for an effective plan since the late 1800s, Southside sits in a flood plain.
Currently, city council is working in collaboration with the railroad and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in an attempt to prevent the Rio de Flag from flooding large areas of Flagstaff, a project that has been in the works for nearly two decades.
“We’re doing what we can but nothing moves fast in the government level,” Vice Mayor Adam Shimoni said.
Mayor Coral Evans had her own thoughts on the Rio de Flag plan. Her home, built by her grandfather in 1942, sits in the flood plain. Evans is the third generation of her family living in the Southside neighborhood. She has been a part of the discussion to take Southside out of the flood plain since her grandfather and her mother were a part of the talks.
“I think over the years, those residents started figuring out that it wasn’t happening,” Evans said. “And they got tired of coming to these types of meetings, because one: they weren’t being listened to. Number two: they figured it wasn’t going to happen.”
Evans explains that the people in the Southside community have been waiting for a plan for decades, and finally the Rio de Flag plan will be delivered. It may not be perfect or aesthetically pleasing, but it will save people and property.
Different people took part in public participation, sharing their thoughts on the project and what they were concerned with such as ruining the scenery with a levee. Evans explained her support of the plan and that it will benefit the Southside community.
“We talk about climate change, we talk about habitat, we talk about tourism, we talk about beautification, we talk about economics, we talk about sustainability, we talk about transparency, we talk of lack of public support, we talk about water conservation, we talk about concrete,” Evans said. “One thing we do not talk about is social justice and equity. Especially when it comes to this plan.”
More than 50 years ago, Southside was a segregated part of town. When the Rio de Flag flooded, the more affluent parts of town were impacted. The council members sitting on the board at the time, as well as people associated with the railroad which also continuously flooded, decided to change the river’s course through channels that diverted the flooding to Southside.
Due to living in a flood plain, Southside residents with a fixed income are bombarded by costly flood insurance fees that can reach 4,000 dollars a year plus their mortgage.
“The primary goal is to take it out of the city so that property and lives are not lost,” Harris said. “Lives and people’s property, especially their homes, are primary. Everything else is secondary, in my mind.”
While discussing the Rio de Flag flood plan, there are other natural solutions that can help mitigate the damage caused. One of those solutions could be to plant more trees.
“The trees being on the landscape, especially in these mountainous areas, that helps in the reduction of soil erosion and helps with mitigating floods, especially for Sunnyside and Southside that tend to flood,” said Jared Swenson, a biology graduate student focusing on the Southwestern white pine.
Flooding is a concern for many residents, especially after heavy snowfall or rain. Although, this past summer it was abnormally dry. Harris has noticed that the summer monsoons in town are becoming less and less predictable.
With a dry environment and unhealthy forests, the Museum Fire was able to spread quickly in a few days. After the fire was extinguished, many residents feared heavy rainfall would lead to disastrous floods.
The plan for the Rio de Flag may not be perfect, but it begins to address the issues Flagstaff faces in regard to flooding. The project will help mitigate the danger Southside has faced for so long.
“We all get to be responsible for the things that people did before we came along,” Harris said. “Somebody is going to be responsible for the things that we do because we’re not gonna get it all right, ‘cause none of us are perfect and we don’t have a crystal ball. We just need to suck it up and just do it. Just fix it. If it’s wrong, fix it. If it cost us money, fix it.”
The U.S. Highway 89 stretches past east Flagstaff where the mountainous view radically shifts. The backside of the Peaks are covered in bare dead trees resembling small white hairs. Scarred by the Schultz Fire in 2010 which smoldered 15,000 acres of land, this side of Flagstaff is not normally included in photographs flaunting Flagstaff’s landscape.
After the Schultz Fire, Flagstaff experienced its fifth wettest July, leading to flash floods that caused havoc in neighborhoods on the eastside. The community is still experiencing impacts from the 2010 fire.
When heading to east Flagstaff, red dirt becomes the road, saying goodbye to civilization while turning off the paved highway. The sound of gravel crackling and snapping beneath the car tires flirts with your eardrums. The earthy aroma of grass, pine trees and wildlife swirls in your nostrils. The sun setting behind Mount Elden gives the last rays of warmth and turns the sky into pink and purple cotton candy. Pictures don’t do the view justice.
The view is one of many reasons why residents live out in east Flagstaff. Greta and Mike Hannemann currently live 20 minutes away from town.
“It feels like we’re kind of camping right here. Living here,” Greta Hannemann said.
The Hannemanns enjoy living where they are, off-grid with a large amount of acreage and lower prices. But, there is a reason for the lower prices: flooding.
An abandoned campfire on June 20, 2010, caused some of the worst flooding Flagstaff has ever experienced. A mushroom cloud emerged on the right side of Mount Elden. As ash fluttered down it looked like a rare snowfall in June. The hollow bass of planes shook floors. According to the U.S. Forest Service, nearly 1,000 air tankers and helicopters raided the sky.
The city of Flagstaff issued communities to evacuate due to the fire endangering neighborhoods. One household that was on the “ready” phase was the Maslars.
“When you think you might lose everything it’s like, ‘okay what do we really need?’” Melissa Maslar said. “And there was this little sad pile of stuff in the middle of the floor and it was like ‘yeah, that’s it.’”
They also had their trailer packed and hitched just in case. Her daughter Miranda was entering middle school during the Schultz Fire.
“I remember getting my first cell phone around then and it wouldn’t work,” Miranda Maslar said. “I was like what the heck the fire is interfering with my cell phone texts.”
Smoke does not interfere with cell phones. The increase of high demand for cell service in one location is what throws off reception during fires.
After the fire had finished burning the east side of the Peaks to a crisp, Mike Hannemann knew that the worst had yet to come. The monsoons of summer 2010 haunted the residents.
In the year 2010 Flagstaff experienced its 11 wettest year with 27.89 inches of precipitation. In 2009, Flagstaff only had 11.65 inches of precipitation. The month of July in 2010 had 5.94 inches of precipitation, which doubled the month’s normal average.
“The first year after the flood, you could have canoed by our property 17 times,” Mike Hannemann said.
The record rainfall had brought changes to east Flagstaff. Greta Hannemann vividly remembers the rain in 2010. She said it rained almost every day.
“When it rained on the mountain, it would come down and sounded like a massive river. You could hear it, you couldn’t see it, then all of a sudden I hear a waterfall,” Greta Hannemann said.
The monstrous floods impacted east Flagstaff. Neighborhoods came together as they sandbagged their yards and dug trenches to redirect the water from impacting their homes. The Maslars were one of the families that helped sandbag the Hannemann’s property.
The city of Flagstaff sent out crews to bring in Jersey barriers to help residents protect their properties. Homes and businesses to this date still have sandbags, Jersey barriers, trenches or hills on their landscape to redirect floodwater. Along with the floodwater, mud was problematic.
“We had six inches of mud in our garage and it flowed up,” Mike Hannemann said. “It closed up the front entry, slow enough that it sealed the doorway.”
Unwanted mud parked illegally in the Hannemann’s garage. Mike Hannemann said that the mud would slowly creep up to damage houses. First the fire, then the floods, next mud. What could possibly be next? Silt.
“That black sludge that came down and it’s really lovely because after the black sludge, then turns into this fine silt that gets in the air, and you find the silt in the refrigerator,” Mike Hannemann said. “When the wind would come out you would not see five feet wide because the silt would be in the air.”
Fires continue to burn in Flagstaff and throughout the country. Over time the amount of fires stays relatively the same, but the size and cost have started to increase. This past summer Flagstaff citizens were faced with another fire, the Museum Fire.
“It looked like large candles going off everywhere,” Melissa Maslar said.
The Museum Fire burned just about 2,000 acres. The fire was a major concern because it was located just one mile north of Flagstaff. With another fire raging, the Maslars began to make their “sad pile.” Miranda was not home during the fire and called her dad to retrieve her contributions to the family’s pile.
“I told my dad just grab my Zac Efron signed photo, that’s all I care about,” Miranda Maslar said.
The next morning the candles on top of the mountain had burnt out due to a rainstorm overnight. A rainbow glistened over the mountain, Melissa said it was like a cherry on top.
Despite what people may think are obvious changes in terms of climate, people and organizations alike are hesitant to use the term “climate change.” This includes Flagstaff’s Water Services. They have been advocating for better management of the city’s water sources, yet they do not acknowledge the drought as proof of climate change.
Flagstaff Water Services’s only concern is for the city’s water supply. Erin Young is the Resource Manager for Flagstaff Water Services who helps manage the drinking water that the city needs.
“Our stance is to plan for all possible futures,” Young said. “We look to the City’s Sustainability Program in Public Works, and to the Wildland Management team to provide us direction on what the possible conditions are likely to be in the future. We continue to look for trends in weather and climate, adapt to conditions and plan for redundancy.”
Currently, Flagstaff depends on a variety of sources when it comes to receiving water; from the basin in the San Francisco Peaks where precipitation is caught, the well fields from around the Upper Lake Mary and the wells scattered around the Woody Mountain area. The wells pump up groundwater from aquifers. The largest and most relied upon is the Coconino aquifer, or C-aquifer, which extends about 21,655 square miles underground.
The C-aquifer is essential to other communities that utilize it such as Winslow, Holbrook and the Mogollon Rim region. Due to the importance of the C-aquifer, its use is carefully monitored so that neither people nor the environment will be affected by overexertion.
Flagstaff Water Services ensures the city of Flagstaff has plenty of water to go around by spreading awareness to the community to better understand the importance of conserving this vital resource. The department has set up rules to help conserve water, such as the odd/even address watering system, where addresses ending with an odd or even number are permitted to water their vegetation on specific days of the week.
In addition, Water Services has different strategies that can be viewed online in order for the city to properly adapt to its water needs. Strategy I is Awareness, when there is still enough water for people. Strategy II is Water Emergency, where new rules are introduced that restricts water usage due to a decrease in availability. Lastly, there is Strategy III: Water Crisis. This is when water needs can not be met and more extreme measures are taken, most notably no potable water at all during a crisis. Any violation of the listed rules will result in an added fee to residents’ water bills.
“Flagstaff citizens and our Water Services Division continues to make strides in using water more efficiently, reducing leaks and things like that,” Young said. “It certainly makes a difference – we’re pumping less water from the aquifer because of these efforts to reduce water demand.”
Another aspect that Young finds critical is the protection of watersheds, especially around Lake Mary.
“A fire within the Upper Lake Mary watershed could potentially sweep the entire watershed,” Young said. “Such a fire could be devastating to that water supply.”
Should a fire occur in the area, sediments and other debris could become loose, fall into the water and potentially contaminate the drinking water. This then leads the forest’s health to be a part of the equation.
Flagstaff Water Services is partnered with the City of Flagstaff’s Wildland Fire Management Division and the Salt River Project, two entities that monitor and manage the forest’s watersheds.
“That [Schultz Fire] was a huge wakeup call, that if that fire and subsequent record monsoon rains had happened on the city side of the peak’s watershed, then it would have been devastating to the city,” Young said.
Donald Bills is retired from his work with the United States Geological Survey, but he still volunteers as an emeritus scientist as he continues to study geographical changes in northern Arizona. Bills is also a board member of the Coconino Plateau Watershed Partnership, a partner of the Coconino Plateau Water Advisory Council. Both are non-profit corporations dedicated to the preservation and distributing water resources to the inhabitants of the Coconino Plateau.
Bills came to Flagstaff in 1978, at the tail end of the area’s last drought cycle that had only lasted about five years.
“One of the things that confuses a lot of people when you talk about decadal droughts is the fact that you can have above normal precipitation years within that drought cycle,” Bills said. “But just because you have one anomaly above normal average annual precipitation value does not mean that the drought has ended.”
Bills points out how the average annual precipitation, the amount of moisture that we receive via rain and snow, has decreased by a couple of tenths of an inch less than the average annual precipitation for this year. It’s a small change, but when lined up with recorded data from the past, an alarming pattern is forming.
“1993 being one of the wettest years on record, but since then it’s been, if you look at average annual, it’s been relatively dry up through present day,” Bills said.
This present drought began in the late 1990s and is now in its second decade. It is one of the longest droughts that Bills have ever witnessed in this part of Arizona.
Boots are covered in dust as the dry landscape is peppered with small shrubs and patches of sun-soaked grasses. The properties are painted in a beige color, the specks of green reveal a life line, water has to be nearby. Despite the ranches being 40 miles from the other, the terrain is similar. The livelihood of the ranch and the animals survive in an environment known for its lack of moisture, but it’s getting even drier.
The language surrounding these changes has led to a lot of worry. Climate change or global warming has been deemed as a climate crisis. Although, for Diana Metzger, these changes are common on an Arizona ranch and seem like nothing new.
“It’s not a crisis, it’s a bad year,” Diana Metzger said.
In regard to climate impacts and land management, Bill Cordasco, president of Babbitt Ranches since 1991, understands the gravity of the conversation and the importance of addressing the issues effectively. The best he can control are Babbitt Ranches' actions.
“To be aware of possible changes and to be responsible for our part to minimize our impacts as those changes occur,” Cordasco said. “To certainly address what the problem really is and to do our part.”
Babbitt Ranches and Flying M Ranch are faced with the challenge of protecting their landscapes from overgrazing, drought and maintaining soil structure.
Jeremy Powell, a member of Flying M Ranch since June, wishes to debunk the publics’ opinion that ranchers do not care about the environment.
“’The ranchers don’t care about the environment’,” Powell said. “’The ranchers don’t care about the cattle.’ That’s not been my experience at all, by any means, at all. Seeing that we can’t go into pastures that we need to go into because there’s no water, I see them legitimately upset about it.”
Both ranches focus on land stewardship by partnering with organizations such as Babbitt Ranches with The Landsward Foundation and Flying M Ranch with Diablo Trust.
When discussing solutions, Cordasco hopes to steer the climate conversation to actual resolutions that do not include blaming people’s way of life. Cattle ranching specifically has a culture around it, and when the topic turns to stopping what ranchers have grown up learning and implementing, it does not lead to an effective conversation.
“On Babbitt Ranches, there’s something we call ‘carrying capacity’ and we can not put more cattle in a pasture then that pasture can handle,” Cordasco said. “At some point in time, we need to learn what capacity means in other contexts, and also, particularly when it comes to sustainability.”
Although on the topic of sustainability, Diana Metzger has a different opinion.
“Economics is the root of sustainability,” Diana Metzger said.
Diana Metzger explains that the cattle ranching business is dependent on profit and being financially stable. If a rancher can make sure all the bills are paid, then the topic of sustainability can be addressed.
Diana and Kit Metzger inherited the ranch from their parents, passing along the duties of a rancher since Flying M Ranch was established in 1914. Kit Metzger has been working on the ranch all her life and Diana Metzger is back after a break for 33 years. Throughout the time Kit Metzger has been working on the ranch, she has noticed a change, specifically in precipitation patterns.
“Flagstaff used to say it was 24 inches annual [precipitation] and then they dropped it to 22 and then they dropped it to 20, now I think they are saying something like 18 to 20,” Kit Metzger said.
Cordasco noted a change in unpredictable weather patterns as well, specifically during the monsoon season.
“Folks would say that you could set your watch at when it was going to rain and then it would be clear by dinner,” Cordasco said. “The sky would be cloudless, over the last years it seems like it’s more erratic when those storms come through.”
Water is a constant concern on the Arizona ranches. At Flying M Ranch, there is a pride in the resiliency and independence the ranch has. They haul their own water and create their own electricity with a generator. There is a spring accessible to the ranch, but hauling water is no easy task.
If a semi-truck is used, three-to-five thousand gallons will be hauled at a time. Each load of water is about a 10 mile turnaround, with three to four loads a day. In June, there can be up to six loads a day. In preparation for drought, there are temporary tanks set up to haul the water.
“If you have 800 head of cows that are going to drink 20 gallons a day, it’s a lot of water you have to haul,” Kit Metzger said.
Due to the hazardous road conditions, there are only a few pastures that the water can be hauled to. An 18 wheeler hauling water can not afford to go off-roading.
With the limited access to roads, it leads the ranch to use the same fields multiple times. This is not ideal; the pasture needs to grow back since a cow can eat up to 30 pounds of forage a day. There are two growing seasons for the pastures: the spring and summer. Although with a change in monsoons, the summer season was impacted.
“Like this year, the spring growing season was fantastic, and then the summer one was nonexistent,” Kit Metzger said.
The amount of water is dependent on when the cattle can graze. Flying M Ranch’s livelihood is dependent on the calves born in the spring and the amount of forage available.
“It seems like it’s up and down all the time,” Kit Metzger said. “It’s really wet or really dry, can’t seem to find a happy medium as much as it used to.”
The yearly inconsistency in precipitation and water conservation has been an ongoing problem.
2002 was a very dry year. For the first and only time since city council adopted a Water Conservation Ordinance in 1988, the water awareness strategy was elevated above Strategy I. In May, it was elevated to Strategy II: Water Emergency, then from June to September it was increased to Strategy III: Water Crisis.
During the 2002 water crisis, it forced Flying M Ranch to relocate. They chose to transport their cattle 16,000 miles to and from Oklahoma. The relocation lasted a year and saved the business, but Kit Metzger explained that it was a hassle.
“I won’t go there,” joked Jim McDonald, the veterinarian that has worked for Flying M Ranch throughout the years.
McDonald explained that it is important for the ranch to have middle-aged cows, as they know where the water and feed are in the pasture. The cows then teach the calves where everything is located over a few seasons. If there are new cows or calves that are born in a different state, it would make it difficult for the calves to find their way around the pastures in Arizona.
If another dry year occurs, Oklahoma is not an option.
“I’m not sure what we’d do,” Kit Metzger said.
Flying M Ranch has dealt with dry seasons over their 105 years of business. Being around 28 years longer is Babbitt Ranches.
The name Babbitt has a classic connotation to it, as it makes an appearance on street signs, on the side of a historic building downtown and is seen elsewhere throughout the city. The name carries a lot of weight in Babbitt Ranches, established in 1886.
The ranch is not invincible to an unpredictable climate, despite its longevity. However, through careful practices and planning, Babbitt Ranches has kept afloat by practices handed down from generation to generation.
“John Babbitt taught us early on that a successful ranch always manages for drought,” Cordasco said.
"For us, in Navajo, we say ‘water is life,’” Colleen Cooley said.
Continuing on U.S. Highway 89, it is clear where the reservation begins with the car tumbling past the cattle guard. There is a sign posted with “Welcome to the Navajo Nation,” and a sudden lack of trees. The trees just stop, as if there is a green border between ecological Flagstaff and the arid reservation. Sun baked rocks, sage brushes and the occasional Juniper tree is all that can be seen. Mesas sit on the horizons and little towns can be seen from miles away; a great parched plain where bone dry is considered normal.
Nikki Cooley, the co-manager of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP), has worked at NAU since 2005. She lives near the Navajo Nation in Doney Park. While Nikki Cooley speaks in her office, her dog dozes off after tail wagging and a few pets. As a woman of the Diné (Navajo) Nation, she speaks about the effects of a changing climate on the reservation with sincerity and a passion for the people who are witnessing the land change.
Solutions to a changing climate depends on the person presenting such solutions. Nikki Cooley believes in the addition of “indigenous knowledge,” the knowledge of people who are intimate with the environment in contrast with people who live in urbanized areas.
“There is more of an urgency to, I guess, pass that knowledge on, but also make sure it adapts to the changes that are coming,” Nikki Cooley said. “So yes, traditional and indigenous knowledge is very very important because it is a data set that is often disregarded as hearsay or anecdotal, because it doesn’t always contain numbers or graphs”
The lack of water is the most concerning threat on the Navajo and Hopi Nations. Water sources are drying up since the water tables are not replenished by rains, that were especially absent the past summer. This is causing a longer trip to haul water for families and livestock.
The trip to haul a 400 gallon tank of water used to take 10 miles or less; now the trip has increased to 20 or 30 miles one way from Black Mesa to Shonto. The hotter and drier weather has caused an increase in trips, some families need to make two trips a month when it only used to be once a month. This means more money to pay for gas, which can be hard for some members of the community.
The water pumped by windmills is an option, but it gives off a sulfur smell. The water is exposed to minerals and chemicals that have made the quality questionable.
Colleen Cooley, Nikki Cooley's sister, also works at ITEP and at the Interdisciplinary Global Program at NAU. Colleen Cooleyhas focused on studying the impacts of the coal mines on the reservation and their effect on the people and the land.
The Black Mesa and Kayenta Coal Mine, owned by Peabody Energy, are located on Black Mesa, Arizona. The mines have used a lot of water in order to transport coal through a slurry pipeline of about 300 miles from Black Mesa to the Mohave Generating Station in southern Nevada.
“So that happened for about 50 years. So you can imagine how much water has been used,” Colleen Cooley said. “I think billions of gallons of water, of pristine aquifer water.”
Springs began drying up on the Navajo and Hopi reservation. The water has not been contaminated, although Colleen Cooley is concerned about the coal ash produced from the burning of coal. The coal ash is kept near the power plant with the area sometimes lined, but other times it is simply buried in a pit, exposed to the elements. Over time the coal ash can potentially leak into the water table.
“I don’t think you would really realize it until your water is being threatened,” Colleen Cooley said. “You know, your water source is being threatened by an energy company, or by drought, by not having that easy access to water.”
Not only is the accessibility to water threatened, but so is the culture of the Navajo and Hopi Nation. Less water available for people, means plants are also not receiving the nourishment they need.
“And some of those plants are used for medicinal or ceremonial purposes and we’re used to harvesting plants at a certain time of the year in order to prep them for a ceremony that’s always held at a specific time of the year,” Nikki Cooley said. “And now if they are not being harvested because they’re not ready, that throws off our ceremonial schedule. And that has a big impact on how we feel spiritually and emotionally.”
Native tribes are adapting to the changes occurring, pushing young people to “rise up” and take leadership roles in managing the land. ITEPhas encouraged the use of indigenous methods to adjust to such changes.
Nikki Cooley explains that native people are not normally provided a voice when it comes to solutions. They are not recognized as having the same problems as urban areas.
“We’re often the most vulnerable communities or populations because we are so rural and because we have had no access to water and electricity for a long time, since the 1900s,” Nikki Cooley said.
It is difficult to discuss the changes occurring on the land, especially when people are used to a dry landscape. Although, the changes to the environment are not unnoticed by long term residents and to discuss these issues Nikki Cooley makes sure to focus on how these changes are impacting particular individuals whether that be their family or livestock.
“And if they say ‘yeah, you know, I think what you’re referring to is climate change’ I’m like, ‘yeah if that’s what you want to call it, but I call it survival,’” Nikki Cooley said.
A change in curriculum is helping young people to adapt and understand the changes happening, as well as turning to traditional methods for solutions. A 45 minute drive from Flagstaff takes you to Service To All Relations (STAR) School located close to the reservation.
STAR School is off-grid. Solar panels line up in front of the main office and tall white wind turbines tower over the clay brown buildings, supplying the school’s power. Certified gardens are sporadically placed around the location. The herbs and vegetables grown become healthy meals in the school cafeteria.
A population made up of mostly Hopi and Navajo occupy the school. Most of the students either live on the reservation or come in from Flagstaff. Some kids may travel 45 minutes or over an hour away that live in Tolani Lake or Bird Springs.
A small class of seventh graders are led by their sustainability teacher, Andy Lafrate, to the classroom. Lafrate co-teaches a sustainability class once a week for 45 minutes. This is the school’s first year teaching the class.
“Being a part of Native American culture, I think sustainability and being in harmony and balance with the earth is just a culture element,” Lafrate said.
Living off-grid as well, Lafrate hauls his own water from one of the two wells the school owns. STAR School’s primary well is 1,400 feet deep and takes a lot of energy to pump the water up. Lafrate said that it could take thousands of years for water to get back into the aquifer.
A lot of the students that live out on the reservations have to haul their own water.
“They’re really good at conserving water because it’s a little bit different when you have to go a couple times a month in your truck and fill up a trailer,” Lafrate said. “It really makes you think twice about how much water you use and what you use it for.”
The students are given the opportunity to think critically about sustainability in the new class. Thanks to the curriculum offered at STAR School, students are able to foster a healthy relationship with the environment.
Rooted in Community
The Climate Action and Adaptation Plan was adopted on Nov. 20, 2018. It has three goals regarding mitigation, adaptation, and equity. Mitigation includes the 80 by 2050 plan, whereby 2016 to 2050, there is a goal to decrease greenhouse gases by 80 percent. Adaptation focuses on making Flagstaff more resilient to the climate impacts that are becoming more erratic and severe. Equity is an overarching theme, making sure all communities benefit from the plan.
“You’re not going to know what people need unless you talk to them. So that’s a big part of making sure that we’re not just providing something for a community, but we’re asking them what they need provided,” said Lee Bryant, the Climate Engagement Coordinator in the Sustainability Department.
There will be a one year report focusing on the forthcoming projects and successes since the plan was implemented in December 2018. There will be a public dashboard, comprised of eight google spreadsheets, one being the implementation strategy and the seven different focus areas acting as the blueprint of the plan.
“As those blueprints get updated and those tasks are completed, it will automatically update the dashboard...It’s super transparent,” Bryant said.
The plan will be examined every five years, listing the goals and plans in place that have yet to be implemented. It holds the city accountable since citizens can look at what the city is doing, has done and plans to do.
On Jan. 28, 2020 city council will discuss the possibility of Flagstaff declaring a climate emergency. A coalition of climate activist groups plan to attend a citizens debate on whether or not Flagstaff should follow the lead of 57 other cities in the United States by declaring an emergency. A climate emergency would allow for emergency funding and response from the federal government if a natural disaster occurs.
Bryant organized a Youth Climate Summit on Sept. 7, engaging young community members in the conversation of climate change. The Sustainability Department is also organizing community-based working groups regarding topics like electric vehicles, youth activism and equity. The main goal is to have these groups community-led and focused on local issues.
“We’ve got to empower folks, we can’t make kids afraid that the world is not going to be here,” Bryant said.