October 26 - November 1, 1995

Haven't We Been Through This Once Already?

B y  D a v i d  D e v i n e

REMATCHES ARE COMMON in the sports world. Sometimes political opponents compete against each other twice. But rarely do ballot initiatives appear more than once, especially eight years apart.

However, that in some ways is what's happening now with the "Water Consumer Protection Act." This initiative, put on the ballot by the signature of thousands of registered voters, is in many respects the offspring of the 1987 "All Recharge" initiative. But there are substantial differences.

The 1987 ballot measure sought to prevent the construction of a treatment plant for CAP water, instead directing that the water be recharged into stream beds. The goal of the effort was both to prevent chemical treatment of the water by allowing the soil to clean it of contaminants and to save taxpayer money.

Despite leading overwhelmingly in early polls, the initiative was outspent 10 to one by opponents, and the result was a two-to-one defeat on election day.

Several major arguments against that initiative were put forward by the consortium of car dealers, land developers, bankers and attorneys formed to oppose it. These included that recharge was an experimental system, that the initiative would limit the options of the city to deal with water issues, and that some chemical treatment of CAP water was going to be required. Marybeth Carlile, executive director of the Southern Arizona Water Resources Association, labeled the initiative an "expensive experiment." Car dealer Buck O'Reilly said it "could give us lower quality water at a greater price."

So the 1987 initiative was defeated and Tucson Water was free to develop the multitude of uses for CAP water that had been implied.

So what did they do? They built and opened a treatment plant. Besides that, officials gave a lot of excuses about why recharge and distribution of the water to farms and mines just couldn't be done. In other words, consumers would have to drink the stuff because no one else wanted it.

The results of this effort, as we know, were dramatic. Brown water, broken pipes, skin rashes and eventually a shutoff of the treatment plant. The Tucson City Council and officials of Tucson Water kept asking for more time and more opportunities to solve the horrendous problems, until some politicians seeking re-election decided it was in their best political interest to stop the experimenting and just shut the thing off until after their jobs were secure for another four years.

The problems that occurred with CAP water were exactly what supporters of the 1987 recharge initiative had predicted. Rich Wiersma, director of the group "Citizens for CAP Recharge" wrote of what would happen if the initiative failed: "Salty Colorado River water would be sent directly from the treatment plant into Tucson's domestic water supply. Consumers would be forced to either drink this degraded water or buy expensive bottled water." C. Brent Cluff, hydrologist and one of the founder's of the recharge movement, added the city would use an "all-treatment system."

Another prediction by the supporters of the initiative concerned what would happen when the treatment plant didn't provide an acceptable product. A newspaper story said, "Some critics of the city plan say the costs of treatment could multiply tenfold or more if the city's treatment strategy fails to work, forcing the city to resort to more exotic--and costly--treatment strategies."

The treatment plant strategy did fail, so what did the City Council and Tucson Water officials do? They've resorted to examining exotic and costly alternatives. These options are laid out in "Tucson Water Phase Plan and Timeline, 1995-2002." While this plan supposedly represents an alternative to the current water initiative, it's really just another frantic effort to preserve the philosophy that CAP water must be used mostly for drinking in Tucson.

But in typical political fashion the plan doesn't come right out and say that. Instead, in the best bureaucratic manner possible, it calls for things like "continuing to study blending of CAP water and groundwater" and "examining the use of membrane treatment." Both of these techniques are highly experimental and are ways of delivering CAP for drinking purposes. In fact, until recently even Tucson Water staff was very critical of the proposed membrane system because of its unknown capabilities.

In addition to being experimental, unlike recharge which is being done in many places in this country, both of these systems are costly. This is especially true for the membrane proposal. So, to appear to be holding the cost of a proposed new membrane treatment plant down from the hundreds of millions of dollars it's expected to cost, pro-CAP forces are promoting the idea of having a private company build and operate the system.

Privatizing a water treatment facility will allow the cost of the new plant to be stretched out over many years, thus lowering the short-term cost to water ratepayers but greatly increasing the total cost of the project. It would also eliminate the need for holding an election to approve the water revenue bonds which would be required to build such a facility if Tucson Water were in charge. After all, some City Council members must think, why should the voters of Tucson have a say in the quality and price of the water they're provided?

One of the ironies of this privatization scheme is that it contrasts so sharply with the unanimous opinion of the City Council when it comes to garbage. In that case they insist the government must control the disposal process. Guess water just isn't as important.

So while the city's new water plan is based on experimental technologies, has no cost figures attached to it for the proposed membrane treatment facility and will require the use of CAP as drinking water, the opponents of this year's initiative have brought out the same anti-CAP arguments they used in 1987. Two of them stated in the publicity pamphlet for this year's election, "The cost to the consumers is unknown and the quality of water is not assured."

The supporters of the initiative say their anything-but-drinking-water plan for CAP will cost less, continue the supply of the high-quality water that residents are accustomed to, and use the proven means of natural recharge and agricultural irrigation to bring the community into balance from the overpumping which has plagued Tucson's history.

Unlike in 1987, however, the opposition to this year's water initiative has been less than energetic in campaigning against the measure. After failing to keep it off the ballot by legal means, the opponents were late in developing a strategy to defeat it on election day. Meanwhile, initiative supporters, thanks to the financial generosity of car dealer Bob Beaudry, launched an aggressive advertising campaign to convince voters to support the measure.

This year's water initiative offers a variety of uses for CAP, is well financed, and has already overcome a legal challenge. Plus, there's the dismal performance of Tucson Water in supplying a CAP product that was repugnant to consumers.

Will these changes mean election day results will be different this year? We'll see on November 7.

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October 26 - November 1, 1995

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