Water starts fires in Tucson election

  • Bob Walkup


TUCSON, Ariz. - Late one fall night in 1992, car dealer Bob Beaudry awoke to the sound of water gushing from a burst pipe. The water spilling into his basement, bedrooms and his front and back yards came from the Colorado River via the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a long-awaited, $4.7 billion concrete canal that runs 330 miles from the river through the desert to Tucson (HCN, 5/17/93).

CAP was built to cure Tucson of a half-century-old addiction to overpumping groundwater. For 45 years, city officials and the state's congressional delegation had lobbied Congress to build the canal. But when the water arrived, it came out of the faucet rusty brown and it tasted awful.

And, as Bob Beaudry discovered, it ate holes in pipes. He says he learned later that a chemical the city used to treat the water also left more than 100 of his goldfish impotent.

Within 18 months of CAP's arrival, tens of thousands of complaints from homeowners convinced the Tucson Water Department to turn the project off. In 1995, residents voted to ban the city from delivering CAP water directly to homes. Since then, city water officials have paid $2 million to homeowners to replace rotted pipes and ruined hot water heaters, and $200 million to replace city water mains.

But CAP is back. Tucson Water wants to let CAP water seep into the ground west of the city, blend it with groundwater and then pump it into city pipes. The proposal has evoked strong reactions, and this fall, they overflowed into two major elections. Some say the outcome of this protracted conflict will decide the future not only of the Central Arizona Project, but of Tucson itself.

A car dealer leads the fight

Bob Beaudry, galvanized by his experience with CAP water back in 1992, is determined to keep CAP water out of the city's water system. He has poured $300,000 into newspaper and TV ads to support a ballot initiative that would extend and strengthen the 1995 ban on project water.

Beaudry's Proposition 200 would forbid the city to deliver CAP water to homes unless it spent the megabucks necessary to treat the water to match the quality of its best groundwater. The proposal would require a 5-2 city council majority to raise water rates. It would also require the city to pour some of its CAP water into normally dry rivers and washes. That could recharge underground aquifers and battle subsidence and the collapsing, cracking ground caused by overpumping groundwater.

Excess CAP water can go to industry, says Beaudry, who has put more than $1 million behind anti-CAP initiatives since 1995. That would leave more pure groundwater for drinking. "If you had a king who said, "Give the best, purest groundwater to people and give the poorer quality water to mines, golf courses and other businesses," you could make it work," says Beaudry. "But if I were (king, and said) the citizens will drink (Colorado) river water and the groundwater goes to the farms and the mines, I wouldn't last five minutes."

Beaudry's proposition has drawn strong opposition from water policy leaders, politicians and businessmen who call it punitive, technically unrealistic and probably illegal. One of the major arguments comes from developers who say that without CAP water, their plans for subdivisions, suburbs and industry will dry up.

In order for the city to approve any new subdivision, it must have a stamp of approval from the state, confirming that the city has a 100-year water supply. But Tucson is pumping groundwater more than twice as fast as rainfall replenishes it. Proposition 200 would make it difficult or impossible to use its alternative to groundwater: CAP water.

Without CAP, Tucson doesn't have a 100-year water supply, and no water supply means no new subdivisions.

"The whole economic viability of this community would suffer if you put a limit on what areas can and can't be developed" because of a lack of water, says Elaine Nathanson, director of a business-funded, nonprofit local water advisory group called the Tucson Regional Water Council.

Sprawled if you do, sprawled if you don't?

Developers have a lot of clout in this booming town (HCN, 1/18/99), and many politicians have joined them in opposing Proposition 200. Not Democratic mayoral candidate Molly McKasson, a charismatic former actress and a longtime crusader against urban sprawl. As a Tucson city councilwoman, McKasson fought unsuccessfully to slap impact fees on new developments on the city's edge to pay for roads and water lines. Now, she supports Beaudry's Proposition 200, calling it an imperfect vehicle for sparking a debate over growth.

She contends that the city could support some growth by trading CAP water to neighboring farms and copper mines in return for their clean groundwater. By rejecting Proposition 200 and allowing Tucson to use project water, she warns, residents may unintentionally drive newcomers out to neighboring towns that still use clean groundwater.

"Proposition 200 is not the full answer," McKasson told a resident of one of the city's aging neighborhoods as she campaigned door-to-door. "But so far, we have not investigated all our options, and if we don't take this opportunity now, we never will."

In almost any other circumstance, McKasson might be a runaway favorite in a city with a nearly 2-1 Democratic voter registration edge. But the election may be close. McKasson has angered developers, bankers, car dealers, homebuilders, contractors and other business leaders, who say they'll spend up to $1 million on a "Stop Prop 200" campaign.

They have poured thousands of dollars into the campaign of McKasson's opponent, retired aerospace executive and Republican Bob Walkup. "Water is our number-one issue," says Walkup. During his stint as chair of the city's non-profit economic development corporation, many new industries chose not to locate in Tucson because of the water question, he says. "The vitality of our community demands a solid, long-term water policy, and everyone knows that."

Walkup and his allies argue that Proposition 200 would encourage growth, because if the city doesn't use CAP water, suburbs will. "Everyone complains about urban sprawl," said Rick Krivel, treasurer for the anti-Prop 200 Coalition for an Assured Water Supply. But if Proposition 200 passes, "we are going to be faced with sprawl like we've never seen."

Tony Davis reports on growth and development issues for the Arizona Daily Star.

You can contact ...

* McKasson for Mayor head- quarters, 520/326-8196;

* Elaine Nathanson, director of the Tucson Regional Water Council, 520/881-3939;

* Bob Walkup for Mayor headquarters, 520/792-4040;

* Bob Beaudry, 520/749-4500.

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