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QUESTIONING AUTHORITY

Ever since we finally passed a half-cent sales tax to pay for transportation projects, people have been saying that the next big thing the area needs is a regional water authority that would take control of the water supply.

The talk got a little more pronounced during last year's fight over city Proposition 200, the failed initiative that would have limited Tucson Water hookups once the utility was delivering somewhere in the neighborhood of our Central Arizona Project allotment.

Since the defeat of Prop 200, we've heard a lot of different theories--some secretive, some cynical, some downright sinister.

We were most intrigued by the whispers about Tucson Water and Pima County Wastewater escaping the control of our elected officials and merging into a Borg-like entity that would assimilate the smaller water companies, one by one, growing stronger with each conquest.

But the Tucson City Council's reluctance to surrender control of Tucson Water kinda puts the kibosh on the whole resistance-is-useless routine. For now, anyway.

The council is in the midst of cooking up a study with Pima County regarding water and wastewater inventory and policy. City Manager Mike Hein is expected to deliver an outline of the scope of the study at the council meeting next Wednesday, Feb. 20.

The plan to have the county and the city work together brought a sternly worded letter of concern from the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Tucson Association of Realtors, the Southern Arizona Leadership Council and the other usual suspects.

The Growth Lobby gang complained that they felt left out: "It is essential to shared long-term success that public and private interests beyond the city of Tucson and Pima County have the opportunity to have meaningful input into the process."

Hein says the business coalition is overreacting. His proposed study is designed to get a handle on the state of the infrastructure and lay out some options so the council can make some clear policy choices about extending service areas and developing conservation strategies, and answer other questions on the horizon.

Hein says the city will welcome input from anyone as the study moves forward, so the Growth Lobby need not fret. "They're at every table I'm aware of," Hein says.

Is this the first step toward a New Water Order? Hein says any kind of agreement like that is years down the road, but once the Tucson City Council has resolved these questions, he'd like to expand the effort to the entire region.

"That's when it's going to get awkward," Hein says. "You can imagine we will have different values than Marana, Oro Valley and Metro Water."

With those issues still unresolved, Hein says it's premature to jump to the step of figuring out how to govern a new water authority.

"We're years from that point," says Hein, who adds that there are some advantages, from a managerial point of view, to unloading Tucson Water from city control.

The upcoming study is happening as the council is wrestling with raising water rates. The bad news: Tucson Water is asking for an 8 percent rate increase. The good news: Because of how the rate increase is structured, most of the hike will hit the highest water users, and the average user will see increases way below 8 percent.

We can count on a lot more water talk in the months to come. Councilman Steve Leal has recently grown concerned with several areas of water management, including the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, which absurdly allows developers outside of the city limits to pump water from underneath their developments and recharge water somewhere downstream.


MINE AND YOURS

Last week, a rumor surfaced that Pima County was dropping its 2-year-old lawsuit against the Arizona State Land Department that sought to cancel two mining leases approved last year for California Portland Cement. While Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry didn't return our call asking for an update on the lawsuit, he did issue a memorandum to the Pima County Board of Supervisors the day after the Weekly went to press last week in which he outlined a proposal to drop the lawsuit.

At the supes meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 12, more than five people who live in close proximity to the proposed mines begged the board to keep up the fight. The board, however, voted unanimously to drop the lawsuit and pursue other avenues outlined in Huckelberry's memo. Most of the discussion about the lawsuit was held in executive session, although board chairman Richard Elías says the board wants to fight, but it comes down to the high cost of a legal battle while the county is looking at a $16 million deficit this year.

The proposed California Portland mines are on some prime State Land Trust property southeast of Tucson above Vail. Empire-Fagan Coalition president Mike Carson says he was shocked by the news that the county was dropping its lawsuit. He says the coalition is beginning to run out of hope, and that they were counting on the lawsuit to prevent or at least delay mining in the Empire Valley hills and Davidson Canyon.

Without the supes pressing forward with the lawsuit, the coalition's last line of defense may be Gov. Janet Napolitano. From the coalition's perspective, the land department serves the governor, so the governor has the power to do the right thing--in other words, drop the leases and take a stand against the state laws. Land department folks have responded that there's little the governor can do, since the law is the law.

Huckelberry says the trouble with the lawsuit began on Nov. 19, 2007, when the county asked the court to let expert witnesses collect evidence on the mining property. The land department opposed the request, and last month, the court ruled against the county. In other words, the same court that gave the county permission to move forward with its lawsuit later said the county could not collect evidence to support that lawsuit.

"(F)rom the initiation of this case, the county has sought expert opinions on the relevant issues," the memo states. "... Without the sufficient evidence, the county is not in a position to proceed with the case, and is required to dismiss it."

However, the last two pages of the four-page memo refer to the next leg of the battle the supes want to fight.

California Portland is still waiting for the approval of a 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps rejected the cement company's first permit application, because the company failed to provide all of the requested information. The county plans to provide comments to the corps and notify the community regarding a public-comment period. California Portland needs that 404 from the Army Corps of Engineers before mining can begin.

There's also the possibility that the state would declare Davidson Canyon to be an Outstanding Waterway. The designation, according to the memo, prevents the state from issuing water permits that could degrade the waterway.

From the county's perspective, any protective measure is moving too slow. To speed up the process, Huckelberry recommends members of the public send letters to the Water Quality Division to move the process along (Joan Card, Division Director of the Water Quality Division, ADEQ, 1110 W. Washington St., Phoenix, AZ 85007).

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