Water Log

IN 1993, MASSIVE flooding changed the course of the Mississippi River. The same year, Colorado River water poured into Tucson's delivery system, arriving in thousands of Tucson homes and businesses as a brown, stinky brew that blew out pipes. But unlike the Mighty Mississippi, the future course for direct delivery of Central Arizona Project water hasn't changed at all.

In 1995, 41,000 people--more than 56 percent of the voters--demanded a change in the direction for CAP water when they supported Proposition 200, the Water Consumer Protection Act. In 1997, 46,000 voters--59 percent of the total--repeated that demand even louder. But the course of treated Colorado River water remains the same as it did in 1993: It is almost certainly headed back to our homes.

Since the passage of the Water Consumer Protection Act, the city government has done very little to abide by the spirit of the law. Of the $88 million attributed to the Act in the Capital Improvement Program budget for the next fiscal year, almost 95 percent will implement projects planned long before the adoption of Proposition 200.

Feature In 1996 the Tucson City Council did, however, adopt a resolution in response to the Water Consumer Protection Act: "The Mayor and Council of the City of Tucson hereby reaffirms its commitment to the enhanced treatment and direct delivery of high-quality water, including Central Arizona Project water, consistent with the water quality requirements of Proposition 200 as an important component of the City's overall water resources plan, and for the development of an implementation plan for such treatment and delivery which will successfully accomplish the direct use and terminal storage of CAP water."

But Proposition 200 encourages alternative, non-drinking uses for CAP like recharge or use by farms and mines, not the direct use of CAP water. In addition, the need for a terminal storage lake was eliminated with the passage of the act.

If CAP water is to be supplied to households while the Water Consumer Protection Act is in place, the law sets quality standards similar to those of existing groundwater from Avra Valley. But the city's policy calls simply for "enhanced treatment" of CAP water without defining what that is. The resolution shows just how ambivalent water policy in our community has become in the last few years.

A DECADE AGO, the course of local water planning was much more straightforward. The state's Groundwater Management Act of 1980 required the city to meet the goals of "safe yield" by 2025. The law focused on the quantity of water to be used, not its quality.

"Very little was said about water quality. Supply of water was what we were concerned with," says Tucsonan Bart Cardon, one of eight people who hammered out the groundwater law in a long series of closed-door sessions. He remembers another detail from the discussion: "Golf courses were hands off. Nobody talked about interfering with development and growth."

It's no surprise that water quality wasn't an issue in those negotiations. CAP water was not going to be much different in total dissolved solids (TDS) than the surface water being served in the Phoenix area, so it was assumed that if the water was fit for Phoenicians, Tucsonans would accept it too.

In Tucson, however, there would be a substantial difference in TDS. Tucson's groundwater has a TDS level of around 300 parts per million. Canal water weighs in at approximately 750 parts per million. The difference was known to cause problems. One report summarized the situation: "The urban user (of Colorado River water) incurs additional costs due to more frequent replacement of plumbing and water using appliances, use of water softeners and the purchase of bottled water."

But elected officials and others making decisions about Tucson water issues in the 1980s heard only that the public preferred not to improve the quality of CAP water--a conclusion based on a phone survey of 400 households.

Most of those responding to the survey did not want to pay more for quality treatment at a central water plant. But then, they weren't told about the composition of CAP water, or what it would do to their plumbing.

Those additional, ongoing costs were never explained to Tucsonans. Instead, as one University of Arizona author wrote, "Water officials...tended to argue that whatever inconveniences result from the slight decrease in water quality is more than compensated for by having access to this new water source."

Then came the summer of 1993. Bursting water pipes and thousands of irate citizens eventually forced the City Council to turn off CAP, at least temporarily.

But to this day, a majority of the Council still does not give water quality serious consideration. Instead, they continue to go by the book: "The Tucson Water Resource Plan 1990-2100," which focuses only on the quantity of supply and the cost of delivering water. The quality issue is ignored.

When work began on preparing the long-range plan in 1988, some basic objectives were obvious. The need to accommodate 2.8 million people in the metropolitan area by 2100 meant that Tucsonans would begin drinking treatment plant-processed Central Arizona Water very quickly.

The water plan had five primary goals. They were to 1) comply with the Groundwater Management Act while 2) reducing groundwater pumpage as soon as possible. The plan also sought to 3) maximize the use of CAP water, to 4) reuse or store effluent and 5) "to be flexible in responding to changing conditions."

The goals of the plan were based on several key assumptions which quickly proved incorrect. The predicted extremely rapid rate of population increase didn't occur; and Tucson Water never became the only provider of water in the region. Instead, a number of upstart water companies have emerged since 1989.

The plan also assumed CAP water would flow smoothly through the city's water delivery system. The cost of that mistake alone totals in the tens of millions of dollars.

The planners also hoped conservation would continue, with a substantial increase in effectiveness. Eventual water usage would be reduced from 160 to 138 gallons per day per capita. In reality, water use has been increasing for the past few years, up to 171 gallons a day in 1996 and 169 gallons in 1997.

The "Beat the Peak" program is now perceived by many Tucsonans as a sham, intended to give water to new suburbs for more swimming pools, golf courses and lawns. As County Supervisor Sharon Bronson puts it: "Right now people say, 'Why should we conserve, when conservation means greater increases in population and a decrease in our quality of life?' "

But there is one assumption from the plan that has not changed since 1989. Everyone knew then the cost of the CAP delivery system needed to accommodate new population growth would be spread out over existing Tucson Water customers.

Although newcomers would require the new water facilities, there was no thought of charging some kind of water impact fee on new homes. Instead, the only impact fee the city government would charge ironically turned out to be the one levied on current homeowners and businesses by the CAP's property damage.

The 1989 plan recommended a variety of sources to meet the demand for water in both the short and long term. Through 2025, direct delivery of CAP water was to be the primary supply.

After that, excess CAP water which had been recharged for storage purposes in places like Avra Valley would be recovered. Additionally, reclaimed sewage effluent would eventually be treated for use as drinking water. And a return to large-scale groundwater pumping was scheduled to begin after 2025.

THE LOCAL WATER policy landscape has obviously changed dramatically since the adoption of the long-range water plan. The most notable change has been voter approval of the Water Consumer Protection Act.

Before the passage of the proposition, the central part of the city was nowheresville to Tucson's big-money people, who made their profits by developing for new population growth on the fringe of the community. But to many of us it was home, and still a place of pride. The vast majority of Tucsonans voted to back their town when they overwhelmingly supported Proposition 200.

For the past three years, the public, through the ballot box, has played a role in the process of determining water quality. But the end may be in sight: The provisions of Proposition 200 might be terminated in November of 2000 with voter approval.

As Deputy City Manager John Nachbar puts it, "The strongest interpretation (of Proposition 200) is that the heart of the Water Consumer Protection Act goes on indefinitely until the voters decide otherwise. That means no direct delivery of CAP that is not at Avra Valley standards."

But that hasn't stopped the city from devising a scheme intended to send CAP-like water back to our homes. At the same time, the water projects the city is now implementing can easily be converted for the direct delivery of CAP water if that becomes possible again.

The majority of the City Council--Mayor George Miller and councilmembers Shirley Scott, Janet Marcus and now Fred Ronstadt--are very careful about which water projects they support. Projects which can't be used for the direct delivery of CAP water just don't get funded.

Miller declared in a 1996 letter that the city intends to resume direct delivery of canal water "within the next five years." Only last month, he again said that the city's ultimate goal was the direct delivery of CAP water to Tucson Water customers.

"I think the majority of the Mayor and Council definitely hope that (Proposition 200) will go away," says City Councilmember Jerry Anderson, an opponent of direct delivery. "They hope that with a very positive public-relations campaign they can convince the community they're recharging and doing what the proposition specified...I think with the sunset of Proposition 200 in the next few years, we will see a return to direct delivery of CAP."

IF THAT HAPPENS, the question of who'll bear the individual cost of CAP water will have to be answered. With the experience of bursting pipes and appliances in 1993 and 1994, the debate over who should pay the price for the relatively poor quality of CAP will once again become an important community issue.

Those indirect, or "hidden," costs of CAP can range from a few dollars to several thousand per household. As the 1993 experience showed, the impact of the water is impossible to predict.

Despite that, the city government constantly proclaims that its aggressive program to replace 200 miles of water mains will do much to fix the water-quality issue. According to them, it is simply "the brown water problem."

But what about the hundreds of miles of pipes in our homes, especially the older ones? There is only silence from the city. No provision has been made for counteracting the severe damage that will result from the reintroduction of CAP water.

A number of elected officials and others continue to push against the rising tide of public opinion. They advocate for a return to CAP for drinking purposes.

Carol West, the director of the Tucson Regional Water Council, says her group believes that direct delivery is more efficient and cost-effective than other potential uses of the water.

"People may not oppose direct delivery (of CAP water) if they are assured it will be of high quality," says Lois Kulakowski of TRWC. She knows the public expects to continue drinking groundwater, but she believes there is no chance the quality of CAP water will be improved through recharge.

TRWC, which last year supported the repeal of Proposition 200, wants to see a voluntary pilot re-introduction of CAP water sometime after 2000. The group believes the test should only occur if incentives like reduced water rates are offered to the affected customers. The city would also have to assure it would respond quickly to any problems caused by the return to CAP water.

West believes the water-quality standard for this pilot project should be determined by the community through the city's "At the Tap" project. That $658,000 public relations program is expected to be completed later this year.

Rich Wiersma, a longtime opponent of direct delivery and the executive vice-president of Citizens Alliance for Water Security, adamantly disagrees with TRWC. He dismisses "At the Tap" as "just another way for the city to try to convince people that chemically treated CAP water is what we want to drink. The city should stop trying to convince us to drink CAP water and ought to get busy following the law (Proposition 200)."

WIERSMA THINKS THE city, by not using most of its current CAP allocation, is wasting the water. He'd like to see some of the CAP water the city presently isn't using recharged in streambeds like the Rillito. One of the advantages of recharging CAP now, Wiersma says, is that the river water could be quickly put to use by storing it in the aquifer.

The late George Barr, a longtime member of the state's Central Arizona Water Conservation District Board of Directors, was an outspoken critic of city water policies. He thought the quality of CAP water would undoubtedly be improved by recharging it in streambeds. In 1995 he observed, "The dilution effect of mixing 60,000 acre feet per year into a 60,000,000 acre foot groundwater reservoir is so large that it would take decades to make an impact on the salinity of the groundwater."

Austin Nuñez, the chairman of the San Xavier District for the past 11 years, takes a different perspective on the use of CAP. Because of severe groundwater overpumping, hundreds of sink holes and dry wells have occurred on Tohono O'odham land south of town, devastating the farming community.

Asked if the Tohono O'odham are in support of direct delivery for Tucson Water customers, he replies, "That's a tough one. If the treatment plant issue and the corroding of the pipes hadn't been the case, we had hoped the city would use CAP water for all its domestic water use.... People need to make sure that they find a way to replace groundwater that is depleted. It does affect us, in that every drop that is taken out depletes our area."

Today, the community is in a holding pattern over these water quality issues, without any leadership from the City Council. The majority--Miller, Marcus, Scott and Ronstadt--votes to implement projects in the name of Proposition 200, but those projects can easily be used to return to direct delivery of CAP when expedient.

Tucson's elected officials have also failed to update the 1989 water plan to reflect today's new realities. Instead, they have responded through a public relations campaign to advertise their "recharge" projects.

What these ads don't say, of course, is that those projects were planned long before the adoption of the Water Consumer Protection Act. This kind of deceptive advertising only adds to the appearance that the City Council is stalling in hopes that Proposition 200 will go away.

But our water quality debate hasn't run dry. While the water experts and the daily papers urge us to accept lower standards, there's still a chance the City Council will change course and find a way to use CAP water without forcing it into our pipes--and down our throats.

Next week: The Weekly examines the city's CAP water projects and other options which could abide more closely to the intent of the Water Consumer Protection Act.

Molly McKasson served on the Tucson City Council from 1989 to 1997. Dave Devine is a frequent contributor to The Weekly. Both endorsed Proposition 200 and continue to support it. TW

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