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In Phoenix, Even Cactuses Wilt in Clutches of Record Drought

By Michael Wilson (The New York Times) - March 1, 2006

PHOENIX, March 9 — Thursday began like the 141 days before it, sunny and crisp, dust settling everywhere except on the record — set again — for the number of days without rain.

Phoenix knows all about dry weather. It is a place where children are drilled throughout elementary school to conserve water, where hotels boast of covered parking areas not to protect from rain, but to offer a bit of shade. Grown men spread lotion all over their bodies every morning. Noses bleed. Newcomers watch in horror as their hands seem to age right in front of them.

But even the desert suffers droughts, and this winter has brought a strong one, the fickle air currents pushing approaching storm clouds to the east. Until this year, the record for days without recorded rainfall was set in 2000, a measly 101 days. The recording instrument for rainfall is at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, referred to as “the bucket” by meteorologists, and drier than a Sunday morning during Prohibition.

“People are sort of losing their grip,” said Gary Woodard, who, as associate director of the University of Arizona Center for Sustainability of Semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas, is an expert on the region’s water. ” ‘Did you hear it’s going to rain tomorrow?’ Well, actually, there’s an 80 percent chance it’s not going to rain. People are getting very excited about very slim chances of rain.”

The drought has wreaked havoc on wildlife, which depend on the scant seven inches of rain that Phoenix gets in an average year, most of it in the three or four winter months.

“We have cactus dying from lack of water,” Mr. Woodard said. “We have well-established mesquite trees that are in a lot of trouble.”

Small animals are too dried out to do what comes naturally.

“None of the animals, none of the birds are having offspring this spring. No baby quail, no baby bunnies,” Mr. Woodard said.

An alarming result of the drought is the condition of the air. On Thursday, Arizona’s Department of Environmental Quality posted its 25th pollution advisory of the winter, a remarkable number. Last winter — the opposite of this one, with abundant rainfall — there were no such days. There is no rain to knock the dust and particles out of the air and wash them away.

“We’ve just had this large, dry, stagnant air mass hanging over the area since November,” said Steve Owens, director of the environmental agency. “It used to be, you’d come to Arizona if you had breathing problems because of the air quality. Now, I think you’d have physicians who would say, ‘Don’t come to Arizona.’ ”

The drought seems to promise a harsh fire season. Last year, relatively heavy rains fell all winter, prompting fast growth in trees and shrubs that now sit dry and cracked. “I don’t think I could have planned a better fire season,” said Tom Pagano, a forecaster with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. “A lot of people in that business are quite worried.”

The drought has not hurt the skin-care industry.

“You have to use lotion right when you’re out of the shower, when your skin is still moist,” said Mary Low, services manager at Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa. “People wear sandals, so the skin on the heels of your feet get exposed to the dry air. The skin on the feet gets dry and cracked. You have to use a pumice stone and put lotion on your feet.”

Another high-end refuge, Spa du Soleil in suburban Scottsdale, uses “medical grade oxygen” to infuse 87 vitamins straight into a customer’s face, said the spa’s director, Irene Kelly. “It really does keep your skin nice and smooth and plump and supple and hydrated,” Ms. Kelly said.

Tourists love the sunshine and high temperatures in the 60’s and 70’s. Local residents shrug, and click on the humidifier at night.

“You get used to it, and pray every day that it rains,” said Justin Hoiby, 27, an event planner overseeing a Western-themed company picnic — Pennsylvania executives racing in little covered wagons — in Scottsdale. It was Wednesday, and to the north, a huge, fat, gray-black rain cloud hung over the mountains, like a blimp over a sold-out stadium.

“I think it’s going to stay to the north,” Mr. Hoiby said, as the executives competed in a Wild West Olympics. “I’ve been watching it.”

And yet, closer it came, the cloud blocking the sun and kicking up a little dust, irritating some tourists like Mary Green, 67, visiting from Chicago. “Nice for them,” she said, looking over her shoulder at the grayness. “Not nice for a visitor who wants sunshine. It’s not going to last, that’s the nice thing.”

But did it ever arrive? A few raindrops hit a forehead and a windshield. A nearby gas station attendant, Robert Roe, saw it: “It came down pretty good for about two seconds.”

Jeff Grenfell, 41, a sommelier and chef, was hiking at the time. “I got a few drops,” he said later.

Rain!

Not quite. None hit the bucket at the airport, according to the National Weather Service. The dry streak did not end, and a record-setting 142nd day continued, with no precipitation in the 24-hour forecast.

The record number of days in Phoenix with nothing more than trace amounts of rain (defined as less than 1/100th of an inch, but more than a drop on the forehead) is 160.

Whether that record will be broken in 19 days is unclear. Forecasters are calling for a relatively high chance — 50 percent — of rain this weekend.