Date palm at sunset in Morocco

Mystery of the Desert

By Alison D. Elder

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A Life of Science: A Series by New Scientists

I would soon learn the improbable secret of that barren landscape. Groundwater.

The Carson Scholars program at the University of Arizona is dedicated to training the next generation of environmental researchers in the art of public communication, from writing to speaking. Partnering with, the program will present essays and other writing from students and alumni of the Carson Scholars Program—A Life of Science—with hopes of inspiring readers to understand not only research findings but the textures of the lives of scientists and others engaged in the crucial work of helping the planet along in an age of unprecedented change.

Science was not part of the state-mandated standardized test curriculum in Lubbock, Texas where I grew up. It was not a priority. Somehow, though, I always knew the answer to this question: “Where does Lubbock get its water?”

The Ogallala.

“What is the Ogallala?”

An aquifer.

I knew the answer to this question because my family had a well. I have permanent spots on my teeth from the hard water I drank growing up. My family never paid for water. We never received a water bill. When my parents built a house surrounded by cotton fields a few miles outside of the Lubbock city limits in 1992, they dug a well. Even with continued growth in the area, my parents’ well has never run dry, although their neighbors have not been so lucky. Cotton fields are being replaced by new housing developments complete with manmade “lakes.” A hole dug in the dirt, lined with black plastic, and constantly topped off from a well of groundwater.

Every time I visit Lubbock we take a walk around the ever-expanding neighborhoods near my parents’ home. My mother, the daughter of a skilled carpenter, always points out the beautiful brickwork of one large home sprawled across a two-acre lot. The house has been for sale for years. Real estate in the area is hot, but this house, with its large, green water tanks at odds with its otherwise perfect symmetry, cannot sell. “They have problems with their water,” my mom says. “A bad well.”


New "lake" in Lubbock, Texas
Creating a lake from groundwater in Lubbock, Texas. The basin was later lined with black plastic.
Photo by Rae Ann Elder.
After college I joined the Peace Corps. I was not sure what exactly to do next but wanted to see the world, learn a new language, and help people. I was thrilled to be sent to Morocco. Having lived in the desert my entire life, I was hopeful for a beach assignment and tried to make this subtly clear during training. My first week in Morocco, during a day off from training, drawn by the waves, I wandered out onto a pier during a “mini-tsunami.” An unexpected wave slammed into my body and launched me sideways off the pier and onto the supporting rocks. Rocks rolled over me as I scrambled up the incline and sprinted towards the beach before another wave could take me out. As I made my way back to the hotel, soaking wet in the January cold, I told no one of my experience. I was afraid it would harm my shot at a beach site.

I kept my beach surfing hopes alive a bit longer but somehow, that day, I knew. On site assignment day for the Peace Corps, the regional managers pulled up a map of Morocco: Alison Elder. Boudnib. Errachidia. Not the beach. Nowhere near the beach, but a desert town near the border with Algeria.

As I rode across the desert on the last leg of my 14-hour journey from the capital, one of seven passengers crammed in a 1970s Mercedes sedan, I looked across the rocky valley at the dry mountains in the distance. I would soon learn the improbable secret of that barren landscape.


Walking to a baby-naming ceremony in a neighboring village my first week in Boudnib, we crossed through lush oases of date palms, figs, olives, pomegranates, apricots, and grapes intertwined with earthen water canals sourced by shallow groundwater.   

Thud. The first rock fell. I was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. My companions were from the Ait Atta tribe with historic rights to the land we walked on, according to the Moroccan government. The rock throwers were from the Ait Chergoshian tribe that had been given rights to the land for sheep grazing by the French colonial government during the protectorate. After the discovery of groundwater under the land and the possibility for profit from agriculture, the rock throwers had started building mud huts and planting trees and date palms, staking their claim on the communal land.

We ran over the open desert in southeastern Morocco. Up and down undulations in the arid landscape and crisscrossing low, rocky areas where water only flows during the increasingly occasional rainfall events. I had never been so keenly aware of my surrounding geography. I was caught in the crosshairs of a conflict over land, water, and livelihoods.


Basin with water
Government-mandated irrigation basin in Boudnib, Morocco.
Photo by Alison Elder.

Running for my life from the angry rock slings of a tribal feud over water was a life-changing experience. When massive, irrigated farms started springing up all around my Peace Corps home, I was perplexed and wondered whether four inches of annual rainfall was enough to support the above-ground swimming pools lined with black plastic and mandated by the government to support agricultural intensification.


Suddenly communal land used for livestock grazing was being partitioned, plowed, and plundered for its water resources and tribes were turned against each other in the fray. Interviews and surveys with people across the community revealed a troubling trend of water going dry. Deeper wells were needed to access precious groundwater and the canals in the oases dried up. Fires in the oases and in date palm groves, once unheard of, have become a common occurrence.


The situation was heartbreaking. With the Moroccan monarchy so heavily incentivizing and profiting from groundwater-fed agriculture, there seemed little that ordinary people could do to stop the alarming trend.


Rock! I ducked my head and hugged closer to the wall. A heard a sharp whistle and then a crashing sound beneath me as my climbing partner dislodged yet another block of loose granite. Topping out on a first ascent of a dome in Arizona’s Cochise Stronghold, we summited at sunset and then completed our descent in the dark. Navigating by headlamp down the slick slabs of a waterfall that only flows during increasingly occasional rainfall events, I was keenly aware of my surrounding geography. I noticed more lights in the valley below than expected. On subsequent trips I observed a thriving valley of small farmers and ranchers, homesteaders, water-guzzling commercial nut farms, and a dairy. I was once again surrounded by a conflict over land, water, and livelihoods.


Pistachio farms in southeastern Arizona
Irrigated pistachio farms in the foreground of Cochise Stronghold in southeastern Arizona.
Photo by Christopher LaGow.

After the Peace Corps, I chose the University of Arizona in Tucson to study a master’s and then a Ph.D. in geography in part because it was in the desert. My dreams of sandy beaches and riding waves were replaced with a deep appreciation for the creative beauty of desert landscapes and a fascination with the water secrets that make them livable. In Morocco, it was easy to blame the monarchy for the exploitative water situation. It was a poor country with limited opportunities for development. But then, one day during graduate school, I discovered a New York Times Magazine article describing an uncannily similar situation occurring in southeastern Arizona. That is to say, in a democracy, near my beloved rock-climbing paradise, the Cochise Stronghold. Outside investors with the funds to dig deeper wells than local people were taking advantage of lax regulations to profit from groundwater, turning local groups who had lived in harmony for generations against each other. 

As I navigate this new chapter of my life, I am continually reminded of the threads of groundwater that brought me here and that make me want to stay. I am deeply attached to desert geographies and to the landscapes and lives fueled by groundwater. Through my research, I am working to better understand proposed solutions to groundwater challenges and how individuals, organizations, corporations, and governments can work together to foster a thriving desert environment for everyone.



Alison D. ElderAlison D. Elder is a Ph.D. student in the School of Geography, Development and Environment at the University of Arizona. Her current research examines partnerships and collaboration around urban river restoration in the United States.

Header photo, date palm in Morocco desert, by patrik_h, courtesy Pixabay. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.