Hard Water Decision

Is Tucson Water risking our health to save a buck?

By the time it reaches Tucson, our portion of Central Arizona Project water has meandered past uranium mines, septic tanks and tailings piles. And as Tucson Water prepares to introduce ever-larger percentages of this water to our taps, critics charge that we're becoming desert-bound guinea pigs.

But utility officials say they've learned from the debacle of the 1990s, when CAP water was sent racing through city lines, wreaking havoc on plumbing and household appliances. And this time, they've engineered a public buy-in for greater CAP-groundwater blends, in a campaign they're calling "Decision H20."

Here's the choice: Either Tucson Water can build a strapping $340 million treatment plant to remove minerals from the Colorado River water, or that water can be delivered, minerals intact, to our homes. The difference is measured in parts per million.

Minerals in the harder water range from magnesium and calcium to chloride and sodium. While mineral content is now about 325 ppm, that's expected to reach 650 ppm in about 15 years. With a plant, however, those mineral levels could be held at about 450 ppm.

Plant proponents say the facility could also clean CAP water if surges of hazardous metals or chemicals occurred.

There's a cost either way. If built, the plant's price tag would be passed to ratepayers. But if Tucson opts for the harder, mineral-heavy water, customers could expect to see annual their maintenance costs for plumbing and appliances rise an estimated $36 to $48.

According to Tucson Water spokesman Mitch Basefsky, the utility originally opposed building the plant. Since then, however, analysis has shown that construction costs and water waste from treatment aren't as substantial as once thought. Now, he says the utility is neutral, and will simply present its "Decision H20" findings to the City Council by January.

Either way, Basefsky says Tucson Water has "learned a lesson" from the 1990s debacle. Regardless of the chosen CAP-groundwater blend, the utility is using "corrosion control and monitoring to make sure that there isn't anything that's going to cause problems. There is not going to be a repeat of that."

Others aren't so sure. They include Paul Huddy, a physicist and chief scientist with the Tucson-based Solar Institute. Huddy has long agitated for more sustainable living and wiser water policies. He says foisting a mineral-heavy, potentially dangerous blend on the public accomplishes neither goal. "How much does it cost to do the job right and build the plant, as opposed to putting people at a health risk? There is something wrong with Tucson Water wanting to use its customers as water filters, when there are serious health questions that haven't been answered."

He fears that higher mineral contents could contribute to kidney stones and other organ problems. Huddy also worries that heavy metals leaching from old mining sites along the Colorado River could prompt a water crisis here. Without a plant, treatment options would be limited. "I've been on the Colorado a number of times," he says. "And I can tell you, it's the cesspool of the West."

By the time it reaches Tucson via the CAP, that water has already passed numerous mining dumps--including a 12-million-ton pile of uranium waste, sprawled across a floodplain only 750 feet from the river. If flooding occurred around the tailings pile, it could potentially contaminate the source of drinking water for millions of people in cities from Los Angeles and Las Vegas to Tucson.

Meanwhile, plans to move that dump are flagging. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy, Utah Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson noted the threat raised by repeated cleanup delays. "In 2006, intense summer thunderstorms twice resulted in flash flooding that eroded the hillside adjacent to the tailings site and the top of the pile itself, possibly endangering the stability of the tailings," he wrote. Any spillover, Matheson added, could inundate the river with radioactive tailings.

Against this backdrop, Huddy calls the use of CAP water foolhardy--particularly when it's not buffered by a treatment plant. "Think about the water going in and out of all those old abandoned mines, and around the tailings," he says. "It all ends up in the Colorado."

He says government is obligated to ensure safe drinking water. "That's why I think our leaders should insist that the water be treated at a central plant." Instead of worrying about real threats, however, he says Tucson Water is polling people on how the water tastes--with hopes to avoid building that plant. "It shouldn't be about what's cheapest for Tucson Water," Huddy says. "It should be about what's best and most cost-effective for the whole community."

But Basefsky says safety and cost efficiency is what his utility is trying to achieve. "We've had expert advisers from the Pima County Health Department checking whether increased minerals cause health problems." They studied everything from skin diseases and kidney stones to cardiovascular disease, he says. If there was any increase, the studies showed that "hard water was not causing it."

Meanwhile, regardless of concerns from Huddy and others, it looks as if CAP is here to stay. Tucson's annual allotment is 44 billion gallons. And as more of that water is tapped, the utility expects customer bills to average about $26 in nine years, up from $19 today. But if the plant is built, Tucson Water says the average bill will be about $33.

And either way, there's sure to be plenty of grumbling. In turn, that makes it ever harder to play the middle. No utility wants to hear the gripes when bills spike. Perhaps that's why--despite its officially neutral stance--Tucson Water's "Decision H20" Web site (www.decisionh2o.com) contains plenty of subtle spin.

For example, rather than delving deeper into what many believe to be a connection between hard water and the occurrence of kidney stones, Tucson Water cites unnamed "medical experts" as saying there's no connection. Then the question is deflected by saying: "Not drinking enough water, regardless of mineral content, can increase the risk, especially for those living or working in a hot, dry climate."

It also notes that medical studies show lower rates of heart disease in areas with harder water, although "there is no confirmed medical recommendation on this issue."

Either way, detractors such as Huddy remain skeptical. "Look, we have a choice," he says. "The community can spend money making a better central treatment plant. Or we can try to put it off and hope to get away with it."

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