Bearing Witness: Voices Of Climate Change Part II: There Used To Be More Water

Jun 10, 2019

This week, we begin a series of interviews called Bearing Witness: Voices of Climate Change. They're stories told by longtime Arizonans about changes they've seen in the familiar landscapes of their lives: Watering holes gone dry, food sources vanished, tribal customs changed because of drought. Personal experience, in and of itself itself, is not scientific conclusion. But, many researchers believe long-term observation is a critical component to understanding how climate change affects humanity and the planet. In this segment, we hear from lifelong Flagstaff resident, Jim Babbitt. His family came to the area in the late 1800's when the population was only about 600. They bought ranch land and cattle to graze it, and over the next 100-plus years, became a ranching dynasty, as well as a family of conservationists and stewards of the West. Here, Jim Babbitt remembers local watering holes and streams in Flagstaff that aren't what they used to be, including the Frances Short Pond. It was created by the Arizona Railway as a storage reservoir. 

Lifelong Flagstaff resident, Jim Babbitt, at the Frances Short Pond
Credit KNAU/Ryan Heinsius

JB: Flagstaff is named after an event that happened in 1876 which is commemorated by this flagpole just right up beyond the pond here. And the reason it's such an important spot is, this was one place where there was fairly permanent water for the people who were traveling through here in the early days. And that is because this is Antelope Spring, a permanent spring. And, you know, we live in kind of a high desert with not very much water, so anytime I can find water, particularly water that has historical significance, that's where I'm at home.

I have a wonderful picture probably from I don’t know, the ‘20s or ‘30s of the Rio running full tilt, and so much so that the spillways in this dam were running and even above the spillway it was overtopping the whole dam. And it was just a tremendous flow of water through here which you may see in some big, wet years still, something like that. But, from my youth to now, there seems to be, and this is anecdotal, this is not anything factual, seems to be a lot less water flowing in the Rio most of the time except after a big monsoon.

The development has been incredible. I think in 1950, Flagstaff had maybe 5,000 or 6,000 people. And look what's happened since then. But, the one example out in the other direction, an anecdote also, Mormon Lake used to be the largest natural lake in the state of Arizona. And it's dry most of the time now. I think they manipulated some of the drainages coming in there to channel that flow elsewhere. But undoubtedly that's a victim of climate change.

The other example I would give; I grew up just north of the old downtown underneath Cherry Hill, and in those days there was no housing development at all up on Cherry Hill. So we would spend our summers as a kid up there just fooling around in the woods. And there were two large bodies of water ponds up there that are no longer there. It's completely dry now.