Questionable Authority

Despite David Modeer's denials, other local water executives say the Tucson water director proposed to start a regional water authority

Plans for a regional authority that would allow local water companies to combine forces in the hunt for additional water resources--and perhaps consolidate other operations--are spiraling down the drain.

Representatives of local water companies involved in the effort say the proposal for a Southern Arizona water authority came from Tucson Water Director David Modeer, who has downplayed his role in the effort.

News of the proposed authority first surfaced at a November Tucson City Council meeting, when Ward 4 Democrat Shirley Scott asked Modeer what he knew about the "purpose of a Southern Arizona water authority."

Modeer told Scott: "I know not what you are speaking of."

Scott had come to the council's afternoon study session with documents related to the proposed authority, including a draft of proposed bylaws and articles of incorporation. The articles of incorporation listed Mayor Bob Walkup as one of four incorporators.

The proposed board of directors was comprised of four unnamed individuals who would represent the Town of Marana Municipal Water Department, Metropolitan Domestic Water Improvement District, the town of Oro Valley and the city of Tucson.

The paperwork also contained a provision allowing for "members," without further explanation as to how membership would be determined.

The articles of incorporation would allow for the proposed agency to develop projects to deliver wholesale water and to acquire, develop, store, treat, conserve and transport water supplies.

Modeer had been directed by the mayor and council to cooperate with other area water providers in identifying and pursuing additional water resources to bring into the area. As part of that effort, Modeer apparently began quietly meeting with several local water providers to design and develop plans for the creation of regional water authority, whose precise nature remains hazy.

The proposed organization would have the ability to develop and manage water resources and coordinate the management and conservation of municipal water supplies in Southern Arizona.

Asked if these concepts were tantamount to creating another water company, Tucson Water staffer Dennis Rule, who worked on the proposal, said, "You've got to remember: This is just a draft."

At the November council meeting, Modeer told the council that Tucson Water had met several times with water providers from the town of Oro Valley, Marana and the Metropolitan Water District during the past 18 months to discuss the best way to cooperate in pursuing additional water resources to bring into the area .

"That's been the extent of our discussions," said Modeer. "So, I don't know what (a) Southern Arizona water authority is. Someone is getting mixed up with Southern Nevada Water Authority. It's never (been a part of) any discussion we've had."

Scott later said, "It's not my job to embarrass city staff in public, but he could have said, 'I really don't have the details, but my staff does, because they have been working on this for some time at my direction.' But he didn't do that."

Scott added that Modeer didn't have clearance to create a new water authority.

"He was only given direction by the mayor and council to work cooperatively with other water providers to identify and bring back new water resources to the city," Scott said. "He bypassed the process of going to the mayor and council for direction and simply proceeded with his idea to create a water authority. City staff do not make policy for the city. Policy is the exclusive job and the responsibility of the mayor and council."

After the conclusion of the November study session, Modeer told Scott and her top aide, Byron Howard, that the water authority wasn't his idea, according to Scott.

But Mark R. Stratton of Metro Water said the idea came from Modeer. Stratton sent a memo last month to Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry explaining that he approached Modeer in 2003 to determine whether he could purchase CAP water directly from Tucson Water.

"Modeer stated he would rather focus on a regional water authority that would assist the whole region in identifying and acquiring new water supplies as well as helping to manage and deliver those supplies," according to Stratton.

Brad DeSpain, the director of the town of Marana's water division, said he's upset that Modeer has not taken responsibility for the creation of the draft to incorporate a water authority. DeSpain said it was Modeer's idea from the start.

DeSpain said he attended his first meeting last year, on March 31, at Tucson Water. At that meeting, DeSpain recalled that "Modeer stated he would rather focus on a regional water authority ... that would assist the whole region in identifying and acquiring new water supplies as well as helping to manage and deliver those supplies."

Jim Cavanaugh, an assistant superintendent for the Flowing Wells Irrigation District, attended the same meeting with DeSpain in the place of his manager, David Crockett.

"Mr. DeSpain's notes are correct to the best of my recollection," said Cavanaugh.

DeSpain said the Tucson model is a failure, explaining that Marana officials who reviewed the draft bylaws and the articles of incorporation concluded they were riddled with governance problems.

"As it stands, it won't work for us," DeSpain said. "But the concept of a water authority is still valid."

In an effort to keep the idea of a regional water authority alive, DeSpain wants to bring together an inclusive grouping of Southern Arizona water companies for new discussions on how to realize broad cooperation between the various entities.

The discussions should include all the local jurisdictions, including Pima County, the Bureau of Water Reclamation and various tribal interests, DeSpain said.

"Tucson Water would be welcome to participate if they are interested," said DeSpain.

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