Do Or Dry

The City Needs To Get Its Water Policy On The Right Track.

By Molly McKasson and Dave Devine

The true West we see reflected in the waters of the modern irrigation ditch...It is simplified, abstracted water, rigidly separated from the earth and firmly directed to raise food, fill pipes and make money.

--Donald Worster in Rivers of Empire

ARIZONA AT THE beginning of a new millennium is reflected in the waters of the Central Arizona Project canal. In Tucson, we've been told for years that CAP equals population growth which equals more development which means more money, at least for a few. The result for many, however, has been a declining quality of life with increasing poverty and continuing disinvestment in the central city.

Currents How have we as a community allowed this costly project which supplies a low-quality product to get so deep into our lives? For a handful, it's pure greed. But for the majority of us, it's aquifer guilt.

We know the desert can't handle so many of us. In the back of our minds is a nagging understanding that water flowing down our drains and water to keep a spot of green on our patios is causing the precious Sonoran Desert to dry up even more. And it is.

To ease our guilt, we were eager for awhile to conserve water. Until it became apparent that the gallons we saved were simply reallocated to serve thousands of newcomers to the area.

We were betrayed by "Beat the Peak." But an even bigger lie is that CAP water is a renewable resource aimed at preserving the desert.

We stopped buying into that hoax in 1993. Since then, most Tucsonans have vehemently rejected low-quality, heavily treated CAP water.

CAP water, however, is in the canal. State law says municipalities should use it. But we as a community don't want to drink it. So what are we going to do with our CAP water?

Proposition 200, the Water Consumer Protection Act, has given Tucsonans a window of opportunity to question this community's long-standing water priorities. Are we willing to continue to sacrifice quality for quantity in the name of economic development?

If the answer is "no," then the plan which the majority of the City Council has developed as a response to Proposition 200 must be rejected immediately. The Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project (CAVSARP) is a $73-million fraud. In a few years it will either be serving us CAP-like water or officials will discard it in favor of direct delivery of canal water.

In order to form a proper, rational water policy for Greater Tucson, we should instead strike a balance between the original agricultural objectives of CAP, the community's water-quality standards and the principle that growth should be paying its own way. At the same time, we must respect the natural environment, and the native people who depend on it.

Several alternatives are available for meeting these goals while fulfilling the intent of Proposition 200. These options, however, won't meet every aspect of either the state's Groundwater Management Act or the rules for an Assured Water Supply.

Our position, though, is that people, not pecan trees or putting greens, should have the best water. If the laws say otherwise, the laws need to be changed.

One approach for the future would be for Tucson to aggressively pursue supplying as much of its CAP water to the farms and mines in the Green Valley area as possible. This would require Tucsonans to reduce the cost of the water, but it would be a price worth paying. It could also help to replenish the water table under Tohono O'odham land in the San Xavier District.

Another choice would be to increase the role of conservation significantly. Cut out lakes, cut out grassy front lawns, require the 23 golf courses in the area still pumping almost 12,000 acre feet of groundwater to stop.

A final option is to maximize the amount of in-stream recharge of CAP water over the next few years. To further address any land subsidence in the area, additional recharge projects using reclaimed water could be pursued.

No matter what we do with it though, the price of CAP water will be very expensive. It's only fair that the new growth which has forced us into this water corner be required to pay most, if not all, of the costs associated with it.

In Tucson, however, the policy has always been to subsidize new growth. The current community pays to acquire and treat water resources needed for the future. The growth that necessitates those resources is only charged to "recover the capital costs associated with the design and construction of the water supply"--things such as pipes, meters, boosters and other hardware.

Even these charges are only imposed in five small portions of the entire Tucson Water service area. Presently they range from $188 to $405 per house and haven't been raised since the 1980s.

These tiny fees do not address the real cost of providing water or ensuring water quality for the Tucson of the future. We need impact fees which do that and which apply throughout the Tucson Water service area. In the central city where infill has community-wide benefits, the fee could be waived.

Scottsdale has a $1,000 water resource fee for each new home. Mesa imposes a similar charge. A recent survey of 20 communities nationwide showed the average water impact fee on a single family home to be over $2,500. Surely Tucson can show as much respect for its current residents by charging its new ones similar fees.

On September 14, the City Council is tentatively scheduled to hold a public hearing on proposed minor increases for some of the existing area specific water development fees. That isn't nearly enough.

City government must decide once and for all to stop subsidizing new growth at our expense. It must impose significant impact fees on new development and use the proceeds to reduce the cost of CAP on the community while insuring that high water quality standards are met. If that doesn't happen, then it might be time for Tucsonans to just say "No" to the CAP. TW

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