Some 80 feet wide and 336 miles long, the concrete canal is a feat of monumental proportions. But depending upon your perspective, it may also be a monument to human folly, for within this system of aqueducts, reservoirs and pumping stations resides the illusion that our thirsty state can grow forever.
Future and folly were both on display when four candidates vying for the four Pima County seats on the 15-member Central Arizona Project board hashed over growth and water policy. (Six candidates are running for those four seats; land-use attorney Steve Lenihan and Pat Jacobs were not present.) The Sept. 9 forum was hosted by the green-minded group Sustainable Tucson, and the repartee was lively. But amidst all the upbeat chatter about Colorado River flows and conservation, about recharge and discharge and desalinization, the candidates failed to address two simple notions: that perhaps our dry desert isn't the perfect place for 11 million people, and maybe we shouldn't spend billions of dollars trying to make it so.
However, it wasn't for lack of audience efforts that these worries went unanswered; the issue simmered palpably through the mixed crowd of politicos, activists and working folks.
Among Pima County's four representatives, only Carol Zimmerman is running for re-election. A Tucson political consultant, she has ties to Augusta Resource Corp., the Canadian company hoping to dig a mine in the Santa Rita Mountains. In 2006, the governing board and Zimmerman approved Augusta's request to purchase CAP water for part of its planned operation.
There were a smattering of questions about Rosemont--and a $200 campaign contribution to Zimmerman from Augusta Vice President Jamie Sturgess. Another candidate, Arturo Gabaldon, was questioned about his negotiations with Augusta in his role as president of the Community Water Company of Green Valley. Last year, Augusta and the Green Valley company were working on a deal that would have the mining firm fund a $15 million, 9-mile CAP pipeline almost to Green Valley, from the current terminus at Pima Mine Road.
A terse Gabaldon denied any conflict of interest, saying that Augusta already had permission to draw water, and his company simply wanted the Canadian firm to recharge CAP water "into the area of hydrological impacts. And they said yes."
But most audience questions nudged the panel to take a strong position on growth. Ron Proctor of Sustainable Tucson was the moderator. "How can water policy be used to limit or control growth," he read from a note card, "to ensure a more secure future for our region?"
Zimmerman denied that the board played any role. "CAP is a wholesale deliverer of water," she said. "What we do is sell it to our customers. ... So the policies around how that water is used, we very firmly believe, need to be up to the jurisdiction, to the individual community, about what they're going to look like, how they're going to grow.
"CAP isn't using water as a manipulative tool to control growth," she continued, "... but to make sure that the people who are here ... people who will come, and our next generation, will have a reliable source of water."
Next up was candidate Warren Tenney. He's assistant general manager of the Metro Water District, a public provider serving northwest Tucson. "Central Arizona Project's responsibility is to ensure that there is water," Tenney said. "And I want to ensure that there is water in this region, whatever is decided locally, whether it's to continue to build homes or not build homes."
Sharon Megdal, another board candidate and director of the UA's Water Resources Research Center, said she hoped to approach the issue philosophically: "The question is asked a lot: Should water or should not water limit growth?"
But it's not the role of utilities "to determine how a community grows," Megdal said. "We provide water to meet demand. That's true for private water companies and publicly controlled water companies."
Still, she did concede that water decision-makers "need to participate in the (growth) debate."
Gabaldon said that the enemy is us--or at least those of us tending toward reproduction. "Growth, it will come from children being born here. It's not an issue of preventing it. The issue is, 'Are we going to grow smarter?'"
But his comments drew an indignant snort from Bob Cook of Sustainable Tucson. "I'd like to clarify something," Cook said, noting that the local birthrate accounts for less than 25 percent of our growth.
"Population growth is part of our economy, part of our economic development," he said. "We're talking about competing economic development strategies when we're talking about the use of water for managing growth. So I think we need to properly frame this question as an economic-development one. And it's certainly a public-choice question."
In other words, maybe part of the public would prefer not to grow--and to avoid the resource shortages, infrastructure costs, environmental damage and congestion that growth entails. "Population growth into the future at the rates we've had it may not be the best economic-development strategy going forward," Cook said. "I think all of these things are up for scrutiny."
While Sustainable Tucson argues that we need to be weaned from growth before life here becomes abysmal, that's not a policy issue most planners are eager to talk about. "Growth is inevitable" is the usual mantra from officialdom. Yet to others, that posture simply reflects a lack of leadership. And they say that the predicted doubling of Southern Arizona's population may be impossible to sustain, anyway.
But this collides directly with the CAP's very own "vision" statement, which notes that the canal "will enhance the state's economy and quality of life and ensure sustainable growth for current and future populations of Arizonans."
Wishful thinking? Mostly likely. According to a recent report by the National Research Council, Colorado River flows fluctuate much more drastically than previously thought--and the river is subject to harsh and extended droughts.
All of which made the candidates forum--and the sanguine discussion of conservation and growth--rather surreal. Standing outside afterward, Sustainable Tucson activist Tres English shook his head. "It's a bait-and-switch," he said. "They're just emphasizing conservation of our current water use so that we can give that water away to someone else. And actually, you won't be saving a single drop."