Perpetual Commotion

Urban Sprawl Urban Sprawl Continues Its Relentless Attack On A Unique Desert Environment.

By Margaret Regan

EVEN BACK IN the 1950s, when Tucson was feverishly transforming itself from sleepy town to metropolis, when the Sunshine Climate Club tried to lure as many new people to the Old Pueblo as possible, even then, there was dissent.

Trouble was, the town was so ga-ga over growth that people didn't even recognize an opposition voice when they heard one.

Take the case of Joseph Wood Krutch. An eloquent naturalist from New York City, Krutch had retired to Tucson in 1952 to live in the desert he so prized. It didn't take long for him to become dismayed by the city's eastward gallop toward the Rincons, by the tract houses sprouting up all over the flat desert valley. In a speech in 1956, he took the boosters of the Rotary Club to task.

Currents "Whenever I see one of those posters which reads 'Help Tucson Grow,' I say to myself, 'God forbid,' " he said. "I suggest that the Rotary Club adopt a new motto: 'Keep Tucson Small.' " Krutch's sentiments were so rare in those boom days that The Arizona Daily Star reporter on the scene was bewildered. Perhaps, the reporter wrote, Krutch was "speaking more or less in a humorous vein."

Comedian Krutch was not. He was one in a long line of resisters to Tucson's growth, said historian Michael F. Logan, who told the Krutch story in a lecture last week at the Arizona Historical Society. Author of Fighting Sprawl and City Hall: Resistance to Urban Growth in the Southwest (University of Arizona Press, 1995), Logan said that Tucsonans have been arguing about change and development almost as far back as the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, when they bickered more about military outposts and acequias than about zoning and owls.

"I look at communities as being in flux," Logan said. "They're always contested terrain."

The contested terrain of Tucson, of course, continued to fall to the bulldozer despite Krutch. The anonymous tract houses of his day are now in the city's inner ring, and what was pristine desert then has given way to seas of pink-tile roofs and taco-deco strip stores. The naturalist's own piece of desert heaven now lies beneath the Crossroads Festival shopping center at Grant and Swan, Logan said.

A LANKY NATIVE Arizonan who once presided as a lifeguard over the UA's old Student Union pool, Logan is now an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. When the UA pool was drained and shut down, he signed on for a doctorate in history and took as his subject the rapid urban changes he'd seen himself.

"I was here in school (as an undergrad) in the late '60s...We used to go plinking with .22s at the end of Campbell." The great-grandson of pioneers who settled near Nogales, Logan remembers his own grandfather "farming down on the Santa Cruz. I can remember riparian areas disappearing in my lifetime."

Water--its presence and absence--is the underlying theme in most of the arguments about development.

"You can't understand Tucson without understanding the Santa Cruz River," said Logan, whose next book project is a history of the river. "The river and town are intimately related."

The dry Santa Cruz, a "surrealistic river" whose only riparian areas now lie by sewer plants, once flowed perennially through the Tucson basin. It's about half a million years old, but only in the last 200 have people managed to turn it bone dry. A Hohokam population estimated conservatively at about 10,000 lived along the river some 3,000 years ago with little or no impact on its flow. But the Hohokam had neither industry no domestic animals. The waters of the Santa Cruz first declined in the 1760s, Logan said, after the Spanish came with their cattle, horses and sheep.

Anglo industrial culture really marked the beginning of the end of the living river. With the steam technology of the 1880s, "pumps started lifting the water up," Logan said. "The 1880s saw the first water system. The city went into the business of delivering water. The 1880s and '90s brought the first irrigated farms. Previously, farmers used canals that relied on surface flows. Farming spread because of the use of wells with pumps."

The river died and the water table beneath the city dropped. In 1880, the water table was at surface level; by 1940, it tumbled to about 20 feet below. By the '50s, just when the post-war boom was beginning to accelerate, the "the decline was visible, alarming," Logan said.

That didn't stop the Chamber of Commerce from putting out pamphlets incongruously promoting Tucson as a desert city with no water problems at all. Happy residents were pictured lounging at poolside, and frolicking on lush watered lawns. There was plenty of water in the short term for industry, for agriculture and for suburban living, and the Central Arizona Project would take care of water in the long term.

Nevertheless, the city was finding it expensive to bring more and more water to more and more people. In 1959, leaders tried to jack up water rates by a stiff 33 percent. Property owners were outraged, and sued to put the issue on the ballot. Even then, Logan said, the "supply of water was not the issue. Rates were the issue."

By the 1970s, though, resisters started looking at the problem at its source. The Slow Growth Movement, led by Pima County Supervisor Ron Asta, was the first organized voice against the construction joy ride. Pushing for infill housing and an end to subsidies for suburban sprawl, Asta "was going to use water rates as a tool to slow growth," Logan said.

Asta's idea was that if you used a little bit of water, your rates would be on the low side, if you used a lot, your rates would go up. And if you lived far from the source of water, out in the 'burbs or the foothills, you'd have to pay "lift rates," extra fees to accommodate the cost of getting the water to you. Needless to say, business and property owners howled, and the tenure of the Asta-crats was short-lived. Asta failed to win a new term; three allies on the City Council were booted out of office in a landslide recall vote.

"The politics of pain were a tough sell," Logan said. "The political resistance to sprawl reached a peak in the 1970s and died down. And Tucson continues to sprawl." And though he estimates that about 30 to 40 percent of the populace typically votes against development, a majority of Tucsonans have long believed that "if the city stops growing, it dies. Growth is not only desirable, it's imperative. Those who resisted were characterized as eccentric, weird."

YET THE RESISTERS have had some modest successes over the years. Devastating as urban renewal was to the city's historic center, the plan that prevailed was an improvement on the original, which would have bulldozed from Congress clear down to 22nd Street. Logan credits the scaling back to the protests of barrio residents. Anti-tax crusaders have joined with environmentalists in repeatedly voting against a cross-town freeway. Residents furious about pipes destroyed and appliances ruined by CAP water have steadfastly refused to allow the CAP water back into their houses.

Krutch, who argued that if we can't stop growing at least we should save some wild desert preserves, would be pleased that Pima County voters last year approved a bond package to buy open space outright. And today, unlike in Krutch's day, in all the bitter disputes about owls and annexations and the new county rules about washes and hillsides, people at least know what growth resisters are talking about.

"The environmental voice gets listened to," Logan said. Even if it doesn't prevail in the debate, "it's a player in the process." TW

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