Rows of traditional crops undergo biweekly or monthly irrigation floodings of roughly 1,600 gallons of untreated water, depending on the month. (Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio)

Gabriel Pietrorazio

Record Heat Waves and Droughts Can’t Dry Up This Native Garden in Phoenix

As Phoenix copes with a dwindling water supply, flood irrigation and canal systems grounded in traditional Indigenous knowledge are allowing these urban gardeners to grow crops in the Valley of the Sun’s extreme conditions.

Story by Gabriel Pietrorazio

Published on

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It’s the 27th consecutive year of a statewide drought in Arizona, with temperatures in Phoenix climbing up to 105 degrees on average during the month of August. Yet Amanda Whitesinger, the Indigenous wellness manager at Native Health of Phoenix, can still be seen tending to the local holistic health care clinic’s 1,700 square-foot urban garden.

Whitesinger, who is Diné, and Native Health garden coordinator Lilian Kong sometimes rise from bed to head for the garden as early as 5:30 a.m., in the hopes of avoiding the worst of the sun’s brutal rays blazing down as unrelenting extreme weather dries up the American Southwest.

The urban garden, located in a residential neighborhood along West Pierson Street and under the stewardship of Keep Phoenix Beautiful, is less than five miles north of the capital city’s downtown district and near the border of Glendale in Maricopa County.

Native Health of Phoenix’s traditional garden shares the West Pierson Street property with Keep Phoenix Beautiful in a partnership that started at a former residential school a decade ago. (Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio)

Harsh heat waves, debilitating droughts and record-high temperatures routinely reaching the triple digits, have dominated the daily and weekly forecasts in the desert city. Although gardeners can grow year round due to the warmer climate, it still led to an incredibly challenging season for gardeners this summer.

“I think any person who gardens in Phoenix would also say that the timing of planting has shifted over the past few years,” Kong says, “because of the rising temperatures and fluctuating climate.”

She curates a list of drought-resistant plants, most of which are native to the Sonoran Desert and aren’t prone to dry heat conditions, including: Navajo copper popcorn, Hopi rattle gourds, papalo, tepary beans, White Mountain Apache sorghum, Diné blue corn and Tohono O’odham melons.

Even these crops can wither away if a particularly hot summer day scorches the soil and seeds, which are provided by Ramona Farms, a multi-generational traditional heirloom farm owned and operated by an Akimel O’odham family on the Gila River Indian Community’s reservation.

Still, the garden manages to grow about 5,000 pounds of produce each year on average, which frequently donates fresh produce to the health center’s food pantry.

A canal overseen by the Salt River Project carves through the soil of Keep Phoenix Beautiful’s community garden site on West Pierson Street, less than five miles north of the city’s downtown district. (Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio)

The garden’s success despite the extreme heat is due to its use of flood irrigation — an advanced technology that’s been used in the region for a millennium, devised by the American Southwest’s original desert inhabitants, predating colonial contact.

“Flood irrigation does really help in terms of cost,” Kong says, “and the plants actually, because deep watering really helps with the heat.”

There are 18 flood irrigation dates scheduled each year through the Salt River Project (SRP), a Tempe-based nonprofit service provider that supplies water to the site through a low-level canal that carves into the property.

Each flooding releases roughly 1,600 gallons of untreated water in a regulated flow, taking up to 45 minutes to drain out entirely. It happens every other week from April to September, and once a month between October and February as the weather gets cooler.

Keep Phoenix Beautiful President and CEO Tom Waldeck holds a blueprint of the West Pierson Street relocation inside his city hall office. (Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio)

The technique costs a little more than $130 annually, a bill paid for by Keep Phoenix Beautiful. That partnership was vital for the garden’s formation, and a model Whitesinger would recommend for other cities across America.

“We didn’t pay for the land. We didn’t pay for the water. We didn’t pay to set up the irrigation system,” says Whitesinger. “We could never be able to afford this type of land and cultivate it to be a garden. We’re just here to take care of it. We really rely on our partners to help us.”

Paying Homage to the Huhugam, Past and Present

The Huhugam peoples are credited with transforming an inhospitable desert into an oasis, redirecting water by digging hundreds of miles of intricate canals into the dry dirt lands of the Salt River Valley, ​​irrigating up to 110,000 acres between A.D. 1150 and 1450.

“Many archeologists, historically, did not acknowledge that the Hohokam were ancestral O’oodham. Too often, they were regarded as a vanished people,” says David Martínez, professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University.

Hohokam is a broader archeological term referring to the prehistoric farming people and culture of the region. Martínez, who has Akimel O’odham, Hia Ced O’odham and Mexican ancestry, says Huhugam is the preferred spelling among the O’odham communities

“It refers to our ancestors, the people of our Origin Story, who built the big houses, such as Casa Grande and elsewhere along the Gila River,” he elaborates.

Archeologists have documented more than 500 miles of Hohokam canals in the region, many of which were reused by colonial settlers centuries later. (Illustration by Robert B. Ciaccio, courtesy of Archeology Southwest)

Their descendants, some of whom still reside along the Salt and Gila rivers, are a part of a living history that is still celebrated centuries after Phoenix eventually emerged as the fifth-largest city in the U.S., in part thanks to the Huhugam’s creation of North America’s largest irrigation system at the time.

“These waterways not only provided water for as many as 50,000 people at one point in time, but also laid the groundwork for SRP’s canal system, which follows many of the same paths today,” says Patty Likens, a spokesperson for SRP. “Today, SRP and residents of the Valley can thank Indigenous people for the success of a water system that serves one of the nation’s largest metro areas.”

The Salt River Project supervises 131 out of the estimated 180 miles of active canals in Phoenix today, which are connected to the SRP’s Salt and Verde River watersheds. The parched Colorado River can suffer from four to five times more evaporative losses due to rising temperatures and climate change, as compared to the Salt River Project’s separate water supply.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s August announcement reducing Arizona’s water usage by 800,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River Basin bears little weight on SRP, which has “not experienced any delivery disruptions as a result of extreme weather” or forecasted reductions.

The provider maintains a close partnership with the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community and Gila River Indian Community, all of which reside in the surrounding Phoenix metro area and rely on their water services for agricultural, domestic and industrial uses by residents.

However, the Central Arizona Project (CAP), the state’s sole supplier of Colorado River water that flows through its 336-mile industrial canal to Phoenix, is already dealing with those cuts now.

About 80% of the state’s population resides in the city’s surrounding Maricopa and Pima counties, which primarily rely on the Colorado River, says CAP representative DeEtte Person.

They supply 36% of Arizona’s water from the Colorado River alone. Lake Mead’s tier-one shortage has caused CAP to offer only 30% of its supply to agriculture for the remainder of this year. Its entire supply “will be eliminated” for central Arizona agriculture by next year.

“It doesn’t make it any less painful. It’s just that it wasn’t unexpected,” Person says, adding that farmers will turn to pumping groundwater and fallow fields ahead of next year.

David Martínez is a professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University. (Photo courtesy of Arizona State University)

It’s a rippling effect that will certainly impact Indian Country, too. Nine tribal communities rely on CAP to receive 555,806 acre-feet in water, a portion of which is allocated for irrigation.

“It goes without saying that climate change impacts us all,” says Martínez, “which means that what the state of Arizona and the city of Phoenix does or does not do to address climate change has implications for Indigenous nations. It’s typically at a time of crisis when competing entities, such as cities and states, want to suspend the rules at the expense of smaller, less powerful entities, such as tribes.”

These communities have fought for water, and continue to fight for it today. Water rights, also known as Winter’s rights originating from the Winters Doctrine in 1908, legitimized tribal claims to water access, both on the reservations and in urban spaces. Current shortages as well as expected water cuts may disproportionately affect tribal and ancestral lands, which is troubling to Martínez.

“The Americans that settled the Gila and Salt river valleys, which we call the Akimel and Onk Akimel, took control of the canals left by our ancestors, our Huhugam,” Martínez says. “Places like Phoenix need to do more than simply honor the Huhugam, which they may limit to a land acknowledgment, recognition day or a piece of public art.”

The Phoenix government hasn’t offered an official land acknowledgment since the city’s incorporation in 1881, thus clashing with and actively undermining their past and present contributions in the Valley of the Sun.

Instead, he says, the city should acknowledge the Akimel O’odham peoples as an equally valued partner helping determine “the future of this land, be it economically, environmentally, politically and culturally.”

An Urban Partnership of Recognition and Respect

It was a decade ago when Keep Phoenix Beautiful President and CEO Tom Waldeck asked Native Health of Phoenix to help transform the remnants of a residential school into a flourishing community garden.

The 15-acre lot on the northeast corner of Central Avenue and Indian School Road, which once housed Phoenix Indian School’s hospital, would later become a healing space through a cooperative community garden between Keep Phoenix Beautiful and Native Health of Phoenix. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

“Native Health really got involved when they moved in across the street, and their offices looked right down on it,” Waldeck tells Next City. “They invested quite heavily on the property and it was tough for them to lose it as well.”

Founded in 1891 through an act of Congress, the 160-acre Phoenix Indian School was the only non-reservation school controlled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the state of Arizona, and closed its doors in 1990.

“It’s tempting to prevent blight, make empty lots active and useful to the community,” Native Health’s CEO Walter Murillo tells Next City. “The Phoenix Indian School was of particular interest to us.”

Little girls pray in nightgowns by the bedside while attending the Phoenix Indian School.(Photo courtesy of National Archives)

“Those old grounds were where the garden was going on,” says Murillo, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “We wanted to sort of honor the land and those people that have been there as part of the school but also have an appreciation of the area we’re in.”

Murillo, a former president of the National Council of Urban Indian Health, saw the potential of a mutually beneficial partnership built on respect. He soon put his engineering background to use on the project, digging canals by hand on a 15-acre corner lot, which once housed the school’s hospital.

“It’s farming, it’s labor. It wasn’t gonna be glamorous,” Murillo says. “We are out there some days irrigating waist deep into the mud when we’re just trying to set up the rows to do the planting.”

The Department of Interior eventually reclaimed the property from Barron Collier, a Florida-based real estate developer that failed to uphold the stipulations of a federal land exchange. That same company also signed a temporary lease, allowing Keep Phoenix Beautiful to plant in the first place. A complicated legal situation left the urban garden caught in the middle, abruptly displacing their partnership until they relocated their operations to West Pierson Street in 2017.

Today, that same lot sits empty once again. Despite a short-term setback, combining health and nutrition into their day-to-day holistic programming came naturally to Native Health and has since remained, even after the unexpected move.

“It was just a match. Once we opened that door, we found that it actually meshed very well with what we do,” Murillo says. “And it’s not just about food.”

“Urban Indian programs, even in the whole Indian Health System, have always been about prevention and health maintenance,” he says. “Social determinants have always been a natural part of what we do as health providers and fitting that into the culture.”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a national award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C. He closely covers Indigenous affairs, food and agriculture, politics and policy. His reporting has been honored by Native American Journalists Association and North American Agricultural Journalists, among other professional membership organizations. He also earned a master’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park in 2021.

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