WATER IS THE third rail of Tucson politics. Ever since Tucson Water's disastrous delivery of CAP water in the early 1990s, the issue has been center-stage during campaign years.
Before the CAP debacle, the city's water policy, in a nutshell, called for direct delivery of treated CAP water to the utility's customers until at least 2025. Over that three-decade period, natural recharge would allow Tucson's sinking water table to recover so it could be tapped in the future to accommodate Tucson's continuing growth.
The architects of that plan neglected to consider one thing: that Tucsonans, long spoiled by high-quality groundwater, would simply refuse to accept direct delivery of CAP water. That's exactly what the people did, however, when the pipe-shattering, appliance-destroying, smelly, pukey H2O began pouring from their taps. In 1995, the Water Consumer Protection Act was passed by 57 percent of the voters, banning direct delivery of CAP water and leaving the city's water policy in shambles. A subsequent attempt to repeal the initiative, funded primarily by stuccodollars, failed in 1997 by an even larger margin.
With the Growth Lobby in one corner and a group of citizens primarily funded by car dealer Bob Beaudry in the other, the ballot battles have cost both sides hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the cost is still climbing -- this year, the Citizens Alliance for Water Security is pushing an initiative that will, among other things, force the city to attempt recharge efforts in the city's central well field.
Tucson Water has fiercely opposed such projects. Forced by the law to recharge CAP water, the water utility is instead spending at least $73 million on the Central Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project (CAVSARP), a recharge facility northwest of Tucson. The water is poured into the ground and pumped back out before it can mix with the deeper aquifer. In the next few years, Tucson Water hopes to blend this "recharged" water with groundwater for direct delivery. Under this plan, the utility can stop pumping water from the city's central well field, which has dropped a precipitous 200 feet in places over the last four decades of overdraft. Tucson Water Director Dave Modeer warns that subsidence could soon become a crisis if pumping continues.
As part of the public relations campaign to return CAP water to homes, this summer Tucson Water began delivering a blend of groundwater with CAP water from the CAVSARP project. This "Ambassador Project," which will cost about $2 million, will deliver water from trucks to about 80 homes for 90 days.
The blending policy is supported by a narrow Council majority led by Mayor George Miller, who is not seeking re-election. Miller's exit opens the possibility of a new Council majority, which could bring significant changes to the city's water policy.
Which brings us to the Democratic primary in the mayor's race, where four candidates -- former Councilwoman Molly McKasson, current Councilwoman Janet Marcus, longtime mover and shaker Betsy Bolding and real-estate broker Pat Darcy -- are vying for the chance to face a Republican candidate and Libertarian Ed Kahn in the November general election.
McKasson has been a vocal critic of the city's current water policy. She notes that pecan farms south of Tucson pump between 25,000 to 30,000 acre feet of groundwater annually from the aquifer, while copper mines near Green Valley use anywhere from 13,000 to 26,000 acre feet of groundwater. She says she'd push to use CAP water for those kinds of industrial purposes, while reserving high-quality ground water for the citizens of Tucson. For such a plan to work, however, taxpayers would have to foot the bill for expensive pipelines to carry CAP water to those users, who own the rights to large portions of the groundwater in the aquifer. Tucson Water ratepayers would also have to pay the difference between the cost of CAP water and the ground water, which now costs industry only what it costs to pump water from the aquifer.
McKasson supports recharge in riverbeds, but admits she's not certain how much water could be recharged in the central well field. "I'm not a technician," McKasson says.
McKasson opposes the Ambassador program as a pricey PR sham. She supports the November initiative and believes the City Council should retain control of the water utililty.
Bolding has no ready answer when asked about Tucson's water policy. While she says that Tucson Water "screwed up" the initial delivery of CAP water, she doesn't fault its current direction.
Bolding doesn't rule out direct delivery of CAP water, but she does have a caveat. "CAP water should never be delivered directly -- or blended -- to homes without sufficient pilot programs, testing and distribution studies to ensure that water is safe, reliable and tasty, and that it will not damage appliances, pipes, fish or other pets."
Bolding treats the CAP fiasco much as Tucson Water itself has: not as a fundamentally flawed policy, but as a public relations disaster. She says the water utility was arrogant in its approach. "Arrogance is a really hard thing to eradicate," Bolding says. "It's hard to win back the trust of customers, the good feelings of customers."
She supports the Ambassador program. "If they had done a few pilot projects in the early '90s, we might not have the situation we have."
Bolding opposes the November initiative and says the city should hand over the responsibility for handling water issues to an elected board.
"I think I would ultimately look at forming a water district that would include all of the Tucson Water ratepayers and that would have a board of people who are relative experts in the area of water policy and water management," she says.
As anyone who has followed her voting record knows, Ward 2 Councilwoman Marcus supports the city's current water policy. Even if the Water Consumer Protection Act were not in place, she says she wouldn't change a thing about the current plan to recharge CAP water at the CAVSARP facility and blend it with groundwater for delivery to Tucson homes.
Marcus thinks the City Council should retain its control of the water utility. She was a swing vote to launch the Ambassador Project and opposes the November initiative.
Real-estate broker Pat Darcy, a former ballplayer making his first run at public office, frankly admits he doesn't know what Tucson's water policy should be. He says he'd consider all options, from trades with industry to riverbed recharge to blending with groundwater for direct delivery.
He's critical of the Ambassador program. "That's not real life at all," he says. "They're doing a lot of advertising now, because people don't really trust them, hoping after time that will change."
He opposes the November initiative.
As mayor, Darcy would just as soon not have to deal with the issue. Instead, he has a sketchy plan to turn it over to an appointed board that would eventually have to stand for election. He thinks the board should have representatives from mining and agricultural industries, the city and county, and the environmental and hydrological communities.
"I'm not a hydrologist," says Darcy. "I've heard some of the candidates say things, and you talk to hydrologists, and they say, 'Well, I dunno if that's true or not,' or whatever. It's the same old Tucson. You've got one group here, you've got one group over here. You've got people in the middle saying, 'I wonder who's telling the truth here. What's going on? What's actually happening here?' I don't know."