Knee Deep In Muddy Water...

WE'RE STILL SCRATCHING our heads over the direct delivery of CAP water in 1993. How could city officials fail to see that fiasco coming?

In a few years, Tucson Water customers may be scratching their heads a second time. Despite having voted in 1995 for Proposition 200, the Water Consumer Protection Act, we're likely to be drinking Central Arizona Project water once more. The question we need to be asking ourselves now: How can this be happening again?

Feature The Tucson City Council today is still operating under a 1989 long-range water plan geared to providing the cheapest possible water for the largest possible population. Outside of meeting federal standards, the quality of that water--how many total dissolved solids are in it--isn't an issue.

The official Council policy mandates the direct delivery of CAP water to customers someday. The water projects the Council has approved since 1995 can all be used to do exactly that.

If you don't want to drink CAP water, it's critical to know why this is happening and what other choices we have.

AT THE HEART of the issue is the deeply entrenched policy on every level of Arizona government which encourages and accommodates an ever-expanding population.

State law also strongly encourages the use of CAP water for drinking. Furthermore, city government is under pressure to demonstrate a real use of its CAP allocation in the next few years in order to protect its Assured Water Supply designation from the state, key to achieving massive future growth in Tucson.

Without the Assured Water Supply status, restrictions on growth could be required in the Tucson Water service area. To prevent that from occurring, the city is pursuing its current water direction.

At the same time, however, the City Council majority insist they are complying with the requirements of Proposition 200. George Miller, Janet Marcus, Shirley Scott and Fred Ronstadt support a CAP "storage and recovery facility" in Avra Valley nicknamed CAVSARP which will allow for many wells in the central part of the city to be turned off.

Plus, they've approved a few other projects which use CAP for non-drinking purposes. On maintaining current water quality, however, they are mostly silent.

Over the next few years, you'll hear them say repeatedly that the mandate of Proposition 200 is being carried out. Judge for yourself after a review of some of the projects the city and other governmental agencies are currently involved with.

Central Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project

Current Estimated City Cost:
$73 million
Projected Completion Date: 2003

THIS IS THE largest and most controversial of the projects the city has developed to demonstrate compliance with Proposition 200. Put simply, CAVSARP is about pouring CAP water into a number of man-made basins in Avra Valley, allowing it to percolate deep into the groundwater table, and then pumping it out from nearby wells.

The city is under pressure from the Arizona Department of Water Resources to quickly develop CAVSARP. A pilot test at the site is currently underway and the project will be expanded later. Water is expected to be piped from the facility by the end of 2000 with completion of the entire project by 2003.

Plans call for this site to handle up to 60,000 acre feet of CAP water, out of the city's annual total allocation of 148,420 acre feet. After it's pumped out of the ground, the water will be sent to the city's treatment plant for the addition of chemicals to combat acidity problems. It is those problems that Tucson Water officials currently blame for homeowners' exploding water pipes in 1993.

City officials have yet to decide what other treatment the water will undergo. Deputy City Manager John Nachbar says, "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires that the water be disinfected, but we don't know where the disinfection will occur." Nor does he say how the disinfection will be accomplished.

In early May, Bruce Johnson, Tucson Water's lead administrator, said of CAVSARP water, "It will reflect whatever the quality of the water is you are putting in at the surface. Right now CAP water is, I think, an average of 650 (total dissolved solids index) in the Tucson area, so you'll see a transition over some period of time. It could be 18 months to two years that that water quality will move from 220 (current Avra Valley TDS standard) to 640 or 650." That level of total dissolved solids is, of course, almost identical to the CAP water quality which voters rejected in 1995 when they approved Proposition 200.

During a discussion of the project in May, Tucson Mayor George Miller summarized the Avra Valley water quality issue: "The law (Proposition 200) said that we weren't to be drinking this (CAP) water. But actually, by recharging it as we were asked to do, we will be drinking it."

Supporters of the Water Consumer Protection Act repeatedly point out that CAVSARP is not an in-stream recharge project, which they favor and which the Proposition intended. In their opinion, the proximity of the wells to the recharge basins is also a major problem. They believe the CAP water will not have a chance to mix with groundwater to produce a better quality product.

While touted by city officials as a response to Proposition 200, the concept behind the costly CAVSARP project has been planned for years. Long before 1995, the city proposed directly injecting CAP water into the aquifer and then recovering it at a new Central Avra Valley wellfield. In 1994 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation suggested the possibility of a CAP "Underground Storage and Recovery" project in Avra Valley.

Nachbar denies the project was planned before the passage of Proposition 200. He says the Bureau of Reclamation proposal was from the feds, not the city. "It is not true that CAVSARP was planned before 1995...," Nachbar says. "No CAP storage and recovery project was planned for that location prior to 1995."

Technically, that's correct: The city's pre-Proposition 200 CAP storage and recovery project was planned a little further south than the present site.

But CAVSARP is certainly not a response to the water-quality issues raised by Proposition 200. The Proposition prohibits the city from directly delivering CAP water to customers unless it meets the high quality standards of present day Avra Valley groundwater. By using this "pour, pump and then treat" approach, the city avoids that quality requirement while maintaining its flexibility to eventually return to the direct delivery of canal water.

Pima Mine Road Recharge Project

Current Estimated City Cost:
$9.5 million
Projected Completion Date: Sometime after 2000

FOR ALMOST 10 years, this basin recharge project has been in the planning stages. It was first funded by the city in 1992, three years before voters approved Proposition 200. Yet Mayor George Miller points to it as evidence of the city's commitment to the Proposition.

The project is now in a pilot mode and will receive 10,000 acre feet of CAP water over the next two years. Officials hope it will eventually be capable of recharging 30,000 acre feet a year.

At the dedication ceremony in May, Rita Pearson, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, encouraged Tucson to "continue to pursue endeavors which will lead to direct delivery of CAP water to residents."

Terminal Storage, or "Lake Tucson"

Current Estimated Cost:
$82 million
Projected Completion Date: Pending

THIS PROJECT WAS a key component in Tucson's pre-Proposition 200 CAP water delivery plans. The reservoir would provide a back-up supply of water when the canal from the Colorado River is out of service because of routine maintenance or emergencies.

When plans called for Tucsonans to be drinking CAP water, system reliability made sense. There were other, less expensive, methods to provide it than the lake, but since it was to be a "gift" from the U.S. taxpayers, many local leaders supported the project.

With the passage of Proposition 200, however, terminal storage was no longer needed because recharging CAP water would store water underground rather than on the surface. Yet rather than aggressively attacking water quality and affordability issues after the passage of the Proposition, protecting the lake topped the City Council's water agenda.

In April the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation completed its final Environmental Impact Study for the proposed project. The report acknowledged major changes had taken place recently in Tucson's water situation. It concluded, "Reclamation intends to make no decision regarding implementation of this project unless/until it is clear Tucson will resume direct use of CAP water."

TARP Water

Current Estimated City Cost:
$2 million
Projected Completion Date: Unknown

PROPOSITION 200 REQUIRES the city to "use only groundwater from unpolluted sources as its potable supply for a five-year interim period." But water contaminated with the carcinogenic industrial solvent TCE is still delivered--after processing to remove the TCE--to many Tucson Water customers. The water is first processed at the Tucson Airport Remediation Project (TARP) facility on the southwest side of town.

In 1996 the City Council voted to develop a joint recharge project with Pima County to use TARP water in the Santa Cruz River. To date however, the project remains in the planning stages.

The provision of Proposition 200 concerning TARP expires in November 2000. So with a little more delay, city officials will be able to avoid this recharge project.

In-Stream Recharge Projects

Current Estimated Cost: Unknown
Projected Completion Date: 2001

SIMPLY PUT, THERE are no city-planned, in-stream CAP recharge projects in the works--except one in the very preliminary planning stages. Tucson is pursuing several small in-stream projects, but they'll use treated sewage effluent, not canal water. Thus, it will be years--if ever--before the city treats CAP water in what proponents of this method say is a cost-effective, environmentally friendly fashion.

The City Council has authorized using 15,000 acre feet of CAP water for in-stream recharge projects. That limit was based on information provided to them which indicates only a maximum of 17,000 acre feet of the water can possibly be recharged on an annual basis in the area's major streambeds. Supporters of Proposition 200 vehemently challenge that assertion, citing the example of natural recharge after recent rains.

The most likely use of any city CAP water for an in-stream recharge project is being planned in the Santa Cruz River between Pima Mine Road and Valencia. According to Brooks Keenan, director of Pima County's Transportation and Flood Control Department, this cooperative project between several governments is two to three years from development.

Enhanced Treatment of CAP

TO ADDRESS CAP water-quality issues, several options have been proposed. One was Miller's suggestion to filter the water through membranes.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been leading a study on the feasibility of membrane filtration. Chuck Moody, project manager for the Bureau, says a draft report should be completed by the end of September.

This process can radically improve CAP water quality, but the cost is steep. A recent estimate put the price tag at between $35 and $80 million annually. That would mean an increase of $11 to $24 in Tucson Water's average monthly household bill.

Furthermore, there's no accepted plan for disposing of the wastewater produced by filtration. This waste will total between 15 and 20 percent of the original water, and one study estimates the process will produce up to 346 tons of salt every day.

Sand filtration may present an inexpensive alternative to membrane filtration. Either slow or fast filtering is possible. The city has allocated $200,000 to study these possibilities in the next year.

In the early 1980s, it was assumed CAP water would be mixed with groundwater to improve its quality. Former City Manager Michael Brown was a major proponent of returning to blending after the 1993 catastrophe. But since he has moved on, the emphasis on this possible approach has been scaled back considerably.

Ground Water Savings Projects

THE STATE'S GROUNDWATER Management Act places the burden of using CAP water on municipalities, not farming and mining as was planned decades ago with the original canal concept. But despite the lack of legal incentives, some Pima County farms and mines have shown interest in using CAP water.

Currently, Marana-area farms contract for 14,000 acre feet of Tucson's allotted CAP water, which is sold to them at a reduced rate. Future use is expected to increase to 24,000 acre feet yearly. There are plenty of additional operations which could use CAP water:

• South of town, the Farmers Investment Company (FICO) has two farms totaling over 4,500 acres which grow mostly pecans. Annually, they pump between 25,000 and 30,000 acre feet of groundwater on the crops.

• The two copper mines near Green Valley each year use an average of 13,700 and 26,200 acre feet of groundwater.

• In addition, there are seven golf courses in the area which combined use approximately 3,600 acre feet of groundwater yearly.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources has commissioned a $297,000 study to determine the feasibility of extending a pipeline south to Green Valley from the CAP canal's present terminus at Pima Mine Road. A final report is due August 1.

According to a preliminary draft, "FICO had no water-quality concerns with using CAP for irrigating their two farms." The mines, however, have concerns CAP water delivery may not be reliable enough, and its quality may be too variable to allow for its use in their operations.

Officials also considered the possibility of delivering CAP water to residential customers in Green Valley. But "the general consensus among the municipal providers was that public opinion among water rate payers would not be supportive of direct delivery of CAP water in the near future." In other words, the retirees won't drink that stuff either.

The draft study has estimated the potential cost of four different CAP delivery scenarios. These range from $23 to $67 million and would deliver between 19,000 and 83,000 acre feet on an annual basis over 30 years.

Annual operational costs are estimated to range from less than $1 million to almost $4 million. In addition, variations in cost between less expensive groundwater used now and future charges for CAP would have to be addressed.

Numerous other water projects are also underway in the Tucson area. Among them are a 30,000 acre foot recharge basin for CAP water being built near Marana by a group of government agencies. And northwest side water companies are proceeding with plans to recharge CAP water in the Canada del Oro.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Department of Water Resources will soon be releasing a draft of its Third 10-Year Management Plan for the Tucson area.

And the city continues work on its "At-the-Tap" project with a water-quality report due by October. This program intends to use customer panels to define water-quality preferences. The city doesn't say what was wrong with the quality standards that 41,000 voters supported when they approved Proposition 200.

RAPID POPULATION GROWTH has supercharged Tucsonans' debate over water-quality issues. Maintaining current quality, or even coming close to it, will certainly be expensive. As groundwater wells are drilled deeper, the quality of the water grows worse. Treating CAP water to meet existing standards will also be very costly.

How much are we willing to spend, and who should pay to maintain our water quality, are questions the community needs to ask. The answer from City Hall, for now, is that what we can afford is a return to the direct delivery of CAP water in one form or another, paid for by everyone.

The community has only a few years to change this supply-side water policy. By 2000, the city will have all its water projects in a neat row and the pressure to drink CAP-like water from CAVSARP or to return to the direct delivery of CAP may be irresistible.

For now CAP water continues to flow back toward our homes and businesses. The alternatives are too expensive and impractical, say opponents of Proposition 200. The CAP water quality can be improved they insist, but they don't say how.

An all-recharge option for CAP water has its own potential shortcomings. Whether you recharge it in Avra Valley or the Santa Cruz, sooner or later our groundwater will take on CAP qualities.

Given current laws and the community's thirst for water, there are no easy answers. One thing is for certain: Improved water quality or no, any way the community uses CAP water will result in higher water bills.

Whether you must pay to replace all your home's plumbing, or the community pays for an enhanced water-quality treatment process, the ultimate price of Colorado River water will be very high for Tucson.

Next: In the last article in this series, the Tucson Weekly will review alternatives to drinking CAP water--and the related costs. TW

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