Watery Grave

Bureaucrats Thwart A Voter-Approved Clean-Water Plan.

ANOTHER VOTER-approved initiative recently expired without ever being implemented. Those responsible for its demise showed no remorse at its passing.

In 1995, almost 41,000 people, 56 percent of the voters, backed the Water Consumer Protection Act. Two years later, over 46,000 people reaffirmed that support. Despite that, a key provision of the act never has been, and never will be, fulfilled.

The first clause of the act states, "The city shall use only groundwater from unpolluted sources as its potable water supply." Though written in general terms, the provision was specifically aimed at the Tucson Airport Remediation Project (TARP). This southside facility was built to satisfy a 1991 legal settlement to clean up groundwater contaminated by the suspected cancer-causing industrial solvent TCE. Since 1994 the project has processed 7.3 million gallons of water a day, or 8 percent of the city's potable water supply, before returning it for drinking purposes.

Many people who fear TCE, however, are wary of the TARP project. They object that the parties responsible for putting the TCE in the ground in the first place and then denying for decades that it harmed people--Hughes Aircraft, the U.S. Air Force, Tucson Airport Authority and the City of Tucson--were the members of a committee overseeing the project. They wanted to stop the use of TARP-treated water for drinking purposes, and the voters agreed.

The authors of the Water Consumer Protection Act were naive enough to believe that if the measure passed it would actually be implemented. Thus, they included a statement to encourage use for the TCE water only "for a five-year interim period," trusting that the government could easily comply with the will of the voters by that time.

How wrong they were. Five years have now come and gone since the act was adopted, and the TARP project continues to operate as usual.

After the 1995 vote, the City of Tucson initially looked like it intended to comply with the new law. While admitting that the 1991 legal settlement took precedence, the City thought it could devise a plan to satisfy both mandates while also meeting the federal Environmental Protection Agency's requirement that all four members of the TARP steering committee agree with the changes.

By September of 1996, the Tucson City Council had narrowly approved a proposal to build an in-channel pilot recharge project in the Santa Cruz River that would use some of the TARP water. The estimated cost for the two-year test was $450,000.

Over time, 25 meetings were held to explain the idea and receive public comments. Some neighbors of the TARP facility complained that the water in the riverbed could help breed mosquitoes and would be an attractive nuisance for children. Others, however, supported the project, saying the will of the voters had to be followed.

In July of 1998, almost three years after the adoption of the Water Consumer Protection Act, the council again directed the recharge project move forward. As Tucson City Manager Luis Gutierrez told the council, "To comply with the act, the non-potable use or recharge of TARP water must be implemented as soon as possible."

But Walter Burg, chief executive officer of the Tucson Airport Authority, threw up numerous roadblocks. First he said the TARP steering committee he chaired would not discuss any other use for the treated water until the City assumed financial and liability responsibility for the proposed changes.

But even after City staff informally agreed to those demands, Burg still refused to have the steering committee discuss the recharge project. Which isn't surprising, since according to the Tucson Airport Authority's director of environmental services, Fred Brinker, "It is our position that the highest and best use of the water is for drinking water."

Burg next wanted to wait for a public hearing on the proposal, which was held in January of last year. At the meeting, Carol West, then head of the Tucson Regional Water Council, blasted the recharge project idea, saying it "risks the loss of a valuable, high-quality water supply" and "is a waste of money."

Then-Mayor George Miller, though never a supporter of the Water Consumer Protection Act, took a much different view when he said, "The voters of the community passed a law in November of 1995 and I certainly was not going to say that I did not like it and try to change it at this point. I thought that would be absolutely wrong. ... I do not think that once people have voted on a law, a legislative body should try to change it."

At the conclusion of the public hearing, the council for the third time voted to proceed with the recharge project, and directed its staff to meet with the TARP steering committee. But that meeting was never held and the issue quietly died over 18 months ago.

There were two reasons for the total abandonment of the recharge idea, according to one City Hall source. First, the 1999 city elections brought Carol West and Bob Walkup onto the council. That change, and the apparent lack of support from a council majority for continuing with the recharge effort, meant that after the election, "there were no more discussions about the project," according to the source.

Walter Burg hammered the final nail into the Water Consumer Protection Act coffin when he insisted that another TCE-related legal matter be resolved before the steering committee would even discuss the proposed recharge project. That resolution didn't happen until February of this year, and since it would require yet another nine to 12 months to comply with EPA paperwork regulations to change the use of the TARP water, the act's five-year deadline would have passed by the time the application was completed. Based on that, city staff unilaterally killed off the recharge project without even notifying the City Council. The will of the voters had been thwarted.

So water from the TARP project continues to be used as drinking water, even though a large majority of voters five years ago decided differently. What civics lesson should that teach us?

City Council member Jerry Anderson, a longtime supporter of the Water Consumer Protection Act, says, "There are many examples in Arizona, both locally and statewide, where voters can't trust politicians to follow through with voter-approved propositions. Bureaucrats look to get around measures instead of complying with them. Voters should know that it is better to have some elected folks watch-dogging to get these issues completed."

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