'Trust Us'

The Growth Lobby's Attempt To Privatize Tucson Water Proceeds Apace. Here Are Several Reasons Why That's A Very Bad Idea.
By Paula Huff

LONG BEFORE Tucsonans found themselves gagging on it, Southern California natives knew what Colorado River water was like. By the time the water travels all the way to its final destination and gushes out of their taps, it's a nasty brew laden with chemicals, minerals and metals.

Even today many people in Orange County limit their hair-washing to every two to three days because the water makes hair flat and stiff, as though it were rinsed with acetone.

Apparently the planners of the $5-billion Central Arizona Project had never encountered Colorado River water at its Southern California terminus--if they had, perhaps the CAP would never have made it off the drawing board.

When that same awful CAP water reached Tucson several years ago, it reacted with the city's rotting water delivery pipes to cause brown stuff to spew from taps all over the Old Pueblo. Many local residents referred to the CAP gunk as "Tucson tea."

A huge outcry ensued, and the voters approved Proposition 200, the Clean Water Initiative, to prevent such a disaster from occurring again.

But instead of chalking it up as a miserable failure and junking the whole idea of drinking CAP water--which was originally envisioned only to supply irrigation to farms, by the way--Tucson's leaders merely shut off the CAP flow to city residents "pending improvements."

They had other water problems to deal with, after all. The biggest of which is something called "backflow."

Backflow occurs primarily in the summer months, when the demand for water is greatest. Tucson's potable water supply is normally under pressure directly from the city main. But when too many people are using too much water, the water pressure drops to dangerously low levels.

In Tucson's water system, as dumb as it may sound, cross-connections exist between the sewage system and the potable water supply. When the pressure in the city main drops to a level lower than the pressure in the sewage line, raw sewage is sucked into the potable water supply.

Most homes and businesses in Tucson, including hospitals, have these cross-connections. It's been a common way to hook up plumbing long before the local population got big enough to put a strain on the city's water main pressure. But the fact that there is a backflow problem here doesn't seem to bother developers, since cross-connections are a cheap and easy way to plumb a building.

If you're lucky, you can tell when backflow is happening by a "swampy" smell in your tap water. In lab analyses, this backflow water sometimes shows the presence of e.coli (fecal coliform) bacteria--a serious pathogen.

To remedy the situation, the water must be heavily chlorinated. Unfortunately, the byproducts of chlorine are trihalomethanes, which cause more than 10,000 bladder and rectal cancers each year in the United States, according to the Natural Resource Defense Council.

But if the water isn't saturated with chlorine, the e.coli wreak havoc on the intestines of those unfortunate enough to have imbibed. Public health experts estimate that in the U.S., one in four cases of "stomach flu" is directly attributed to contaminated tap water. The other three in four cases are caused by contaminated food, such as rotten meat.

Intestinal diseases are not communicable. You can't "get the stomach flu" from someone else. What we normally call "stomach flu" is actually bacterial contamination caused by eating or drinking something putrid.

SO SOMETIMES YOUR tap water smells like sewage, then a couple of days later it smells like a swimming pool, and the shower leaves your skin feeling dry and itchy. So big deal.

Because Tucson Water is a public utility, you're always free to drop by its public information office, located on the third floor at 300 W. Alameda. There, you can obtain information about whether water in your area has recently tested positive for fecal coliform bacteria, and you can find out how much chlorine was used to kill the pesky critters. It's all public record, after all.

Unfortunately, it may not be for long.

Tucson Water officials and some members of the City Council--most notably Mayor George Miller--are saying it might be better if the utility were no longer public. In other words, there's a move afoot to privatize the entity that handles Tucson's most vital resource--a resource which directly affects your health.

That's because Tucson Water officials don't really want you looking at their records.

As long as the utility remains public, you may ask for and receive any information you wish, although it can be a difficult task wrenching it from the bureaucrats' clutches. As it stands right now, if tests show contamination of the water supply, the public utility must inform the City Council, the media and the public. If Tucson Water is privatized, the utility would be under no such obligation, since it would no longer be regulated by the City. When was the last time you heard SunTran officials--to name another private/public hybrid company--list their screw-ups?

The Tucson Airport Authority is another model of a private organization conducting the public's business. Like SunTran, TAA officials are under no real obligation to hand over information upon demand by the press, the public, or anyone else.

And recently Tucson Water has gone to great lengths to become a private utility.

The Citizens Water Advisory Council (CWAC), which is dominated by pro-growth members from the Phoenix area, is currently interviewing candidates to serve on its Citizens Management Oversight Subcommittee (CMOS), which will "study privatization issues and give CWAC some credibility," in one CWAC official's words.

Five candidates were interviewed at a recent CWAC session. Before the interviews, the CWAC's Tarke Sweet read the goals of CMOS, which included "ferreting out conflicts of interest" among potential subcommittee members. In other words, all the candidates must have the same opinion about privatization. CMOS, therefore, will be nothing but a group of yes-men to help push privatization through, no matter what the public wants.

In the near future, Tucson voters will be asked to decide whether to privatize Tucson Water. If we know what's good for us, we'll fight any plot to strong-arm us into closing the public records about our water supply.

Our health may depend upon it. TW

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