Monday, November 5, 2007

Prop 200

If the people lead, the leaders will follow. All too often in Tucson, our elected officials fail to address issues that concern voters. Various special interest groups respond by putting propositions on our ballots. Lots of money is spent on advertising, and the side with the most money usually wins.

No one is more opposed to the endless, reckless growth of Tucson than I am. While I do sell houses for a living, I draw the line at selling land and new construction. I am a house recycler. I think there are already more than enough houses in Tucson. If a buyer wants to build a new house, destroying wildlife habitat, wasting energy and building materials while contributing to urban sprawl, I tell him he will have to get some one else to help him with that.

Proposition 200 is on the November 6 ballot. It was written with the intention of stopping new home construction by prohibiting additional connections to Tucson Water's supply once "Tucson Water reaches an annual rate of water delivery to customers that exceeds . . .140,000 acre-feet per year," which is 4,000 acre-feet less than Tucson's allocation of Colorado River water. Except for the part about rejecting some of our allocation, limiting water service to available supply seems to make sense.

Unfortunately, the consequences of this statement were not thoroughly considered. Prop 200 does not define water delivery. Presumably, when he wrote the proposition, former state legislator John Kromko was talking about drinking water, but if we include use of reclaimed water (water that is treated and used for irrigation) the 140,000 acre-feet limit is reached a lot sooner, perhaps as early as 2009. There is no room for presumption when writing public policy.

Additionally, Prop 200 eliminates the $14 per month fee on our water bills that was initially called the refuse fee because it was associated with a new charge for garbage collection that was formerly funded by other revenue sources. Realizing a public relations snafu, Tucson Water changed the refuse fee to the environmental services fee, and revenue from the fee now supports $23 million worth of services that need to be funded somehow. Kromko doesn't state which city programs he wants to have eliminated so we can continue to have brush and bulky, garbage and recycling collection, landfills and groundwater remediation. He simply says the City will have to tighten its belt. Our overworked and underpaid police and fire departments are concerned that their already inadequate staffing will be reduced even more, and they oppose Prop 200.

For emotional impact, Kromko also threw in something to prevent treated sewer water (effluent) from being mixed with drinking water, even though Tucson Water has no intention of delivering water "toilet to tap" as Prop 200 so graphically describes it. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality does not allow direct delivery of treated effluent to homes. Recharge or infiltration of highly treated effluent into groundwater is permitted, but Tucson Water gave up that idea when the public howled. They may revisit this idea in the future, especially if we don't stop building more houses, the drought continues and global warming worsens. In other words, sooner or later effluent will become drinking water in Tucson, just as it is in many other western cities.

Prop 200 requires "the purest possible water". The word pure contains no measurable standards. Who will define purity? Lawyers. Who will pay for the highest level of water treatment? Tucson Water customers. Do we need and will we be able to afford water quality that exceeds EPA drinking water standards? No.

Prop 200 prohibits the use of effluent for some legitimate purposes, such as dust control, fire suppression, and wildlife habitat restoration. Prop 200 says effluent can be used for irrigation, but only enough to "sustain the vegetation". What does that mean? The lawyers will tell us.

Except for 10 days of assistance in an emergency, Prop 200 would prevent Tucson Water from delivering water to a "water distributor," a term that has no definition in water law. Does this means Tucson Water can't provide water to the University of Arizona, Davis Monthan Air Force Base or the VA Hospital? These are water service providers. Is a provider the same as a distributor? The courts will decide.

Kromko probably intended to prevent more than 10 days of assistance to utility companies like Metro Water. Do we really want to cut off the water supply on day 11 to our neighbors in need? Vague intentions have no place in public policy. The lawyers would have to sort that one out, too.

To get the City of Tucson's analysis of all this, click here. Of course, the City of Tucson has an ax to grind. Tucson Water is a City department, so naturally the City of Tucson doesn't support criticism of Tucson Water.

The Arizona Daily Star asked some independent water law experts to evaluate Prop 200. The experts concluded that Prop 200 is poorly written, uses terms that have no legal definition, and if passed, will not accomplish its objective of limiting growth. If developers aren't allowed to connect to Tucson Water's system, they will either drill wells, which could lower the water table, or they will build outside the Tucson Water service area, contributing to sprawl.

Molly McCasson, a former member of the Tucson city council, supports Prop 200. But her argument boils down to this: if Prop 200 passes, the City will be forced to deal with the legal quagmire that will be created by this confusing measure. I think this is the best argument in favor of Prop 200, because it is clear that Tucson Water and the current city council have no intention of dealing with the growth issue unless they are forced to.

Various environmental groups were asked for their views on Prop 200. Only the Sierra Club endorses it.

When evaluating a voter initiative, I think it's smart to follow the money. Usually, if home builders, car dealers and the Tucson Association of Realtors are in favor of something, it means more houses and more people, and I'm automatically against it. The growth industry opposes Prop 200, and they have spent over $700,000 to defeat it. So it's strange to find myself in agreement with these groups, but I have to say that Prop 200 is not the right way to limit growth.

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