By David A. Schaller
If you are older than 34, you may remember an Arizona without a La Paz County. Our youngest county, La Paz was carved out of the northern reaches of Yuma County in 1983. With just 20,000 year-round residents, the county is the state’s second-least populated. Still, La Paz County has created a niche tourism economy for itself built around the popular “Parker Strip,” a 17-mile stretch of Colorado River coastline that supports a wealth of water recreation. The area has become a haven for visitors during the winter months when cabin fever strikes in northern states.
The sun-drenched Colorado River strip is also a playground for California spring-breakers and others seeking a temporary respite from the cold. But by late spring, the sun turns quickly from virtue to vice as a seven-month stretch of brutal heat begins baking the county and driving people indoors or away altogether. La Paz County’s greatest asset – the warm sunshine – becomes its greatest challenge as the heat extremes brought by climate change intensify.
An annual temperature nearly eight degrees above the state average gives La Paz residents not only a claim to being the hottest county in Arizona, but also the one with the highest cooling cost index of any county in the state. Costs and inconvenience due to the heat are reflected not only in utility bills, but in something as small as the operation of the county’s landfill transfer stations.
In late summer of 2016, concern over the lack of climate-controlled shelter for operators of the county’s eight waste and recycling stations forced county supervisors to change the operating hours for the stations. They shifted the hours to an earlier time of day, ending just past mid-day. They also declared that should temperatures exceed 115 degrees on any day of operation, the stations will close until the next scheduled day of operation. “Extreme Heat Warning” signs will be posted at front gates of the stations to notify users when the transfer sites are closed.
In late spring of 2016, La Paz also declared a primary natural disaster area due to losses suffered by farmers and ranchers during the ongoing drought. The declaration made all qualified farm operators eligible for low-interest emergency loans and other assistance. At the same time, and with no small amount of irony, La Paz County groundwater continued to be pumped by Almarai, a Saudi Arabian company, to grow alfalfa for shipment to the Middle East as cattle fodder. Two years earlier, Almarai spent $47 million to purchase nearly 10,000 acres in the county as a way of accessing its groundwater.
As in other rural areas of state, La Paz County remains exempt from severe restrictions on groundwater pumping that are imposed on Phoenix, Tucson and other large Arizona cities. Thus, China, Japan and the Middle East will continue to vie for scarce Arizona groundwater in places like La Paz County, even as drought conditions persist. This is not a formula for sustainability.
La Paz, of course, is Spanish for “the peace,” but the name reflects a page of regional history as well. It was taken in 1983 from the early settlement (now ghost town) of La Paz along the Colorado River. Now, in the years following the last census in 2010, the county’s population has seen its first decline since formation. The region’s existing harsh climate clearly does not lend itself to expansive population growth, but the county does depend on a healthy tourism economy and the human services needed to support it. The foremost challenge for La Paz County may now be to balance the population needed to support its tourism and agricultural economy with the forces working against it in the form of punishing heat and drought.
For Green Living’s climate change series, each month we will focus on one of Arizona’s 15 counties and how climate change is affecting it specifically. Next month’s installment will focus on Maricopa County.
David Schaller is a retired environmental scientist living in Tucson where he writes on climate, water and energy security.