The University of Arizona

Conservation in Flagstaff | CLIMAS

Conservation in Flagstaff


This study examined the emergence of water conservation measures in Flagstaff, Arizona. During recent years, similar to many other non-metropolitan areas in the West, Flagstaff has faced on-going drought conditions, population growth, and an economy increasingly dependent on natural amenity values.

The purpose of this study was to learn how the community balances the competing demands for scarce water supplies that this situation engenders, particularly with regard to the implementation and support of conservation polices.

Research Methods

Two main research methods were used in this study. First, archival research of historic and contemporary climate, hydrology, economy, regulations, and population set the biophysical and socio-economic context of Flagstaff.

Second, a content analysis was conducted (fall of 2002–early 2003) using qualitative data from 30 interviews with area water policy makers, scientists, and community interest groups. Substantive statements about pressing water problems, their causes, favored management responses, information sources, and influences on the decision-making process were selected for analysis.The community interest groups included representatives from the following types of organizations:

  • conservation/environmental

  • economic development

  • forestry/fuels management

  • land development

  • significant industrial water users

  • large local employers

  • significant reclaimed water users

  • ranching

  • tourism/recreation


Interview findings indicate that three times as many study informants support conservation measures over supply augmentation policies, such as drilling new wells or tapping new water sources. Support for supply augmentation as an alternative means of coping with water scarcity is limited to a few (but quite influential) area water policy makers. The majority of informants who supported conservation measures supported some sort of water use curtailment method, such as limiting urban growth or implementing year-round landscape watering restrictions. The popularity of water conservation measures in Flagstaff can be linked to on-going drought conditions, population growth, a local political economy that is increasingly dependent on the value of healthy ecosystems to draw tourists and new residents, as well as an effective local social movement that has organized around the broader environmental movement and is questioning historical policies that deplete local water resources.

However, the study also found that so-called conservation measures promote three different ends:

economic growth by exploiting natural resources (i.e., resource instrumentalism); economic growth based on maintaining naturally scenic areas through more measured use of water resources; and tenets of the broad environmental movement (i.e., inherently valuing natural resources for non-human uses, like riparian or wildlife uses).

Although the latter two ends appear to overlap, the degree of support for conservation measures by those interested in preserving the scenery around Flagstaff will most likely depend on the extent that this industry maintains economic dominance in Flagstaff over the long term. This research highlights the necessity for community dialogue regarding the full implications and consequences of conservation measures.

Because drought conditions and population growth are forecast to continue in the future, these findings suggest that adopting and implementing a water budget and integrating long-term climate forecasts into the local decision-making framework would partially mitigate future conflicts among the water conservation faction in Flagstaff.