Sunday, December 28, 2008

(Tucson) Community Forum on Land Use Planning

A few weeks back I attended a forum (here in Tucson) put on by the Urban Land Institute that was called: "Crafting Tomorrow's Built Environment", a community conversation on regional land use. The forum was developed primarily at the behest of the Tucson Regional Town Hall and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, local heavy hitters in the areas of economic development, policy, and strategic planning.

The main speakers at the event included Grady Gammage Jr., from the Phoenix law firm of Gammage & Burnham and the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University and Robert Grow, another attorney, from Salt Lake City and the main organizer for Envision Utah - a process recently undertaken to plan future growth in the Wasatch Front area of Utah.

The main message presented was that if Tucson really wants to plan for future growth in the region (or even within individual cities/towns), the best approach is to think big. As in big picture, grand ideas, comprehensive - a "visioning" process, as Robert Grow calls it to distinguish it from a mere planning process. Another key message (not embraced by all in attendance) was that the region will continue to grow - the only real question is how and where that growth will occur

There seemed to be consensus among the attendees that this visioning process is what the Tucson region should pursue. It was probably a pre-determined outcome - the folks in attendance were likely there because of their preference for managed growth (myself included). But I think the visioning process is not really about planning growth (why its not just called a comprehensive plan) but rather about the community deciding how it envisions its overall appearance at some future date in terms of housing, transportation, open space, sense of community, arts, entertainment, etc. This vision is then used to guide the growth planning process.

So what is going to come of this? At the end of the day, plans were somewhat firmed to develop a process whereby the community would be given input on how such a visioning process could be instituted in Tucson. After the process is instituted, discussions would presumably begin looking at how the process would occur, who would be involved, and what the outcome would be. This is supposed be kicked off in early 2009 with a series of public meetings.

What is this process likely to entail? I think everyone is waiting to find out the answer to that. I could sense the tension in the room between the people who would like to see this handled by a small, select group of power players - the usual political, financial, construction, and other growth industry representatives - and those who want an opportunity for input from all (especially community activist and environmental groups, who with some honesty, often feel excluded from these processes).

One of the main examples from the Envision Utah process was the need for an inclusive process creating buy-in from many segments of the community. It sounds really messy and time-consuming, but a sense of community consensus is the only way this type of process can be successful. The hardest part is that it requires that everyone come to the table with an open mind and willingness to listen to the concerns of all parties, especially those they don't agree with. Also, everyone must be willing to compromise and accept that they will not leave the process believing they have won a victory - everyone should feel like they have accomplished something and given something up at the end of the day. Successful compromise results in no clear winners or losers - except the community as a whole should be a clear winner in this case.

I'll be discussing this more as the visioning process begins to unfold.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

AZ Corporation Commission approves CC&N for Pravada development near Kingman

From the Las Vegas Review Journal (read the article here):

The Arizona Corporation Commission, by a 4-1 vote shortly before 11 p.m., approved a Certificate of Convenience and Necessity for the Perkins Mountain Utility and Perkins Mountain Water Company to serve the 25,000 home and golf course development called Pravada.
Commissioner Kristin Mayes cast the dissenting vote after failing to pass an amendment that would have stalled construction of the golf course until enough homes were occupied to generate effluent to water the course. She said it would be "immoral" for Rhodes to waste groundwater on a golf course in the parched desert.
Chairman Mike Gleason and Commissioner Jeff Hatch-Miller said there is nothing wrong with using groundwater for the course. Both said Rhodes and his staff had proved a sufficient water supply and that he is legally entitled to use the resource to build an upscale development unrivaled in the area.

Issuance of the Certificate of Convenience and Necessity (CC&N), along with favorable determination of adequate water supply from the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), gives the developer the green light to begin construction of a water system for the development (which also requires permits from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to actually begin serving water to residents).

This development has been very contentious because the area where it is being built has no access to renewable water supplies and groundwater is pretty deep in many areas. A new development with 25,000 homes is undoubtedly going to result in water level declines throughout the area, which will disproportionately affect individual homeowners on private wells who may lack resources to deepen their wells. Unfortunately, under Arizona water law, those people have no legal recourse to fight this once the development is approved and they start pumping - their only option is to try to stop the development in the first place, which many of them did. It's just awfully hard to stop progress and that is how this development is viewed by many in Northwest Arizona.

This has also been an ongoing issue of contention on the Commission. Commissioner Mayes has been a strong proponent of water conservation and preventing the use of high-quality drinking water supplies to irrigate turf. Other members of the commission have supported this stance, but not as staunchly as Mayes. Next year, a couple of new commissioners will be taking over for Mike Gleason and Jeff Hatch-Miller (as well as Bill Mundell). Two of the new commissioners are democrats, who will likely support Kris Mayes in her efforts to conserve water in rural Arizona.

In some respects this is just another way that Las Vegas is dealing with their chronic water shortages. There isn't enough water to build houses for these people in Nevada, but the Vegas area wants to keep growing. [Check out this NY Times article from this past Aug.]Why not put people in houses in Arizona, use the water there, then have them commute to Vegas and Henderson to work and contribute to their economy. And to sweeten the pot even more, this development gets subsidized by all U.S. taxpayers because what really makes it feasible is the new bypass and bridge being built by the feds near Hoover Dam. Pretty clever, huh?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Using Water Policy to Manage Growth - Nevada edition

From the November issue of Water Strategist (sub. req'd, but free 2 issue trial available):

Washoe County, Nevada voters convincingly approved an initiative measure that ties regional planning and growth to available water resources...
The measure requires the amendment of the Truckee Meadows Regional Plan (“TMRP”) to require future land use and water requirements in the county are in balance.
The practical impact is to have regional planners plan for 200,000 more people in the county for a total of 600,000 persons based on current water use and available water.

In theory, the measure requires county planners to create a plan for full build-out of the county. What's interesting about the measure that was approved is that the ballot initiative was only one sentence long:
"Shall the Truckee Meadows Regional Plan be amended to reflect and to include a policy or policies requiring that local government land use plans be based upon and in balance with identified and sustainable water resources available within Washoe County?

Stating it in such simple terms will create extensive work for lawyers and planning administrators in that area, working out how it should be implemented. I suspect it was stated simply in order to garner support. It could be interpreted to require something pretty similar to what is required in Arizona under the "Growing Smarter Plus Act", requiring counties and municipalities of a certain size to include a water resources element in their general plan. This is required to consider how much water is available and how much growth it can support under given conditions, but also includes a provision for demonstrating how additional sources of water may be obtained if projected growth will outstrip existing supplies.

The Washoe County initiative makes no reference to supply augmentation, merely referring to "identified and sustainable water resources" available in the county. That could be interpreted to place a pretty firm cap on future growth under one possible interpretation. Look for lots of litigation to spring from this measure in the future.

Addendum (1/19/09):
After doing some additional reading it seems that local law in Washoe County requires dedication of water supplies to the county before a new development can receive water service (this was noted in the WS article). This ensures that water supplies are available to serve new development - but says little about sustainable water supplies, that is determined by the State Engineer. However, I'm not sure what this means for developments that will be self-supplied for water service. In that case the developer would still need to find available water - either by application to appropriate available water or by purchase of existing rights. If anyone reading this knows what laws/regulations apply to developments in Nevada, or Washoe County that will be self-supplied for water I would love to hear from you.

Arizona Supreme Court to Address Significant Water Law Issue

Earlier this year the Arizona Court of Appeals rendered a decision on a case that purports to consider the issue of whether water rights can be reserved in a sale of property, permitting the seller to retain the rights to market groundwater from the property in the future. Shaun McKinnon, of the Arizona Republic, is reporting on his blog that the Arizona Supreme Court has agreed to consider a renewed appeal on the matter in the coming year. His characterization of the case (and the Court of Appeal's from what I can tell) gives the impression that actual "water rights" to groundwater are associated with the property. I'm afraid I have to take exception to that characterization.

Because the property at issue in the case (in the Big Chino valley, north of Prescott) is not within an active management area (AMA), under Arizona law the right to pump groundwater from beneath the property is held by the overlying landowner, subject to the reasonable use doctrine. This means that the only "rights" to groundwater associated with the property, are the rights of the landowner to pump water for reasonable use on the property. In that sense the plaintiffs in the case are correct - the seller could not really reserve groundwater rights as part of the sale. But the sellers did not reserve rights to groundwater here. They reserved the right to earn the proceeds from the sale of groundwater pumped on the property. If I remember my first year property class, this could be construed as a profit a prendre (old French for right of taking; typically called a "profit" for short). A profit is a nonpossessory interest in land, permitting the holder of the profit to remove natural resources from the land of another. In this case it would be a profit in gross, which is held separate from ownership of land and is transferable.

For some reason the court never even mentions the possibility that this could be a "profit", instead referring to what the defendant's owned as actual water rights. It would be interesting to check into the law in Texas, a rule of capture state, to see if they permit any reservation of rights to groundwater separate from ownership of land. It has always been my stated contention that the reasonable use doctrine, followed in Arizona outside of AMAs, is essentially the same as the rule of capture, but with modest limitations on transportation of water from the parcel it was extracted from.

Personally, I think the court got the ruling correct. In fact, I think it would be a good thing if actual property rights in groundwater existed in Arizona, but that would require overturning existing precedent. I suspect that the AZ Supreme Court will affirm the court of appeals ruling, but they might be persuaded by a public policy argument (that appeared to be unconvincing to the appeals court) because this could lead to speculation in groundwater rights. On the other hand, possibly not, because of the statutory restrictions on transporting groundwater from outside an AMA into an AMA. This would appear to limit the opportunities to speculate in this manner.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

and still more on using water policy to manage growth

The City Manager of Tucson took some steps during the past year that he insists do not amount to using water policy to manage growth, but it sure looks like a step in that direction.

So here’s how it went down:
In December 2007 the city manager stated that the previous city policy to extend Tucson Water service to any development - outside the present Tucson Water service area, but sufficiently close to existing infrastructure to be hooked up – that requested it would be replaced by a new policy whereby service would be denied unless the development was within the existing committed service area of Tucson water. Incidentally, he dropped this change on a newly seated city council with very little, if any, prior warning. The new policy has since been implemented at the expense of 4 proposed developments – two residential and two commercial – as reported late last month in the Arizona Daily Star (here). A few days later an interview with Hein was published in the Star (here) in which he defended the policy, placing the impetus for it, in large measure, on the dispute over who owns reclaimed water coming from the Marana treatment plant. This makes sense not just because the city should have a formal policy in place to decide where water service should be extended to (with the effect of guiding future growth to some extent) but also for other reasons, such as the simple fact that the city does not want to provide water to new development that will not be contributing to the city’s reclaimed water portfolio by sending their wastewater to a Pima County treatment facility. This is where the city manager’s mention of Marana becomes really significant. While the city is rightly concerned about losing the rights to effluent created by water they are supplying they are also reluctant to lose effluent to other jurisdictions that are not contributing to the water rights settlement obligations of the city (this is a very complex agreement between the City, the Tohono O'odham Nation, and the federal government that requires the city to compensate the tribe for stealing their groundwater for many years by placing wells next to the tribes boundary). Nonetheless, I would look for a requirement that the development be hooked into the Pima County sewer system to be a requirement for obtaining Tucson Water service in the future.

Hein says he wants to wait until the joint City/County Water Infrastructure, Supply and Planning (WISP) study is completed later next year before reevaluating the policy. He further claims in the interview that he is not making new policy on water service, he is merely undoing what had been the de facto existing policy – provide water to pretty much anyone who asked for it. One of the objectives of the committee studying water and wastewater infrastructure is to develop some sort of community consensus about how future growth in our community should be planned and implemented – which includes setting some policy for expansion of Tucson Water service beyond the existing committed area. Chris Avery (a city attorney currently assigned to Tucson Water) wrote an opinion outlining the city's obligations to provide water to areas outside the current obligated service area, which can be found here. He pretty much says that unless the area is completely surrounded by the Tucson Water service area or city land, there is no obligation.
This also provides legal cover for the county because local governments are permitted to impose moratoria on development under certain circumstances for a limited amount of time under state law. This isn’t truly a moratorium on development, but could be construed as such if a developer wanted to take the city to court. Given the current outlook for growth in this area during the next year or so that shouldn’t be a problem because there are very few developers looking to get their projects approved at the moment. Nonetheless, the developers of at least one of the projects that was denied water service has given notice to the city that they may pursue a suit, apparently based on the idea that as an infill development adjacent to existing Tucson Water service area, the city is obligated to provide water service. The developers of the two industrial parcels say the city’s new policy amounts to reneging on previous promises to provide water to the properties.
So what happens if the city stands on the denial of service? Will the developments go forward anyway? They certainly can and that is where the city policy could have adverse consequences for the region. The development is required, under state law, to have a proven 100 year water supply. The easiest way to do that is to sign on with an existing water supplier that has the proven supply already. But the developer could also create their own water company, drill wells, and supply the development with groundwater. This would require enrolling the development in the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, which would assume the obligation of offsetting the pumping with the development by obtaining and recharging renewable supplies – but the recharge would likely not mitigate the actual pumping occurring for the development, therefore localized groundwater depletion would occur.

Look for this to be a contentious issue for the city council during the coming year. Signing on with Tucson Water used to be a fairly simple and straightforward way for new developments to meet the assured water supply requirements of state law. Obviously at some point the city has to start saying no, but before they start doing that wholesale there has to be some greater level of coordination among jurisdictions in the area as to how growth is going to be accommodated. This means no easy answers will be available.

update on City/County water study

If any readers are wondering why no posts on this topic for a while, it's because the information gathering portion of Phase I is complete and the committee is focused on drafting the report. This involves a series of all day meetings occurring once a month. There was one in Nov. and the next is scheduled for Sat. Dec. 13, from 9 am to 3 pm, at the Tucson Assn. of Realtors, 2445 N. Tucson Blvd. I spoke with a committee member earlier this week who told me they would be discussing the definition of sustainability to be incorporated into their report at the Dec. meeting.

Coming up (when I find the time) I'll be posting on the recent decision by the Tucson City Manager to deny water service to several new developments around the city (late to the game on that one, I know) and the recently completed Town Hall meeting on future regional land use planning.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Water Efficiency info at your fingertips

I was recently clued into this site, courtesy of the good people at Aquafornia. This site includes a library of water efficiency related resources that should be bookmarked by anyone with an interest in sustainable water use practices. I haven't had a chance to search through it very much yet, but plan to jump in during the next few days.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Radical? ... I don't think so.

A recent article in Popular Mechanics suggests 6 radical solutions to water shortages in the Southwest. I guess if you are discussing strictly engineering solutions, those might be the most likely candidates. But those are ideas that have been under discussion for some time now and could hardly be considered radical. What about pricing water to reflect its true societal value? How about reallocation of water among use sectors, i.e. agricultural to municipal - which would be a natural result if water was priced sensibly and real markets existed. What about strict conservation measures? Not just reuse of existing water supplies, but e.g banning most outdoor water uses (where most water is used in arid areas) or tiered pricing structures create strong disincentives for excessive water use (as some cities such as Tucson now have in place). Now those are ideas I would call radical.
Their suggestion that removing salt cedar will increase supplies is debatable. Some recent studies (such as this) have indicated that salt cedar actually uses less water than many native tree species. I think the jury is still out on that assertion, but in any event my guess is that the possible gains from riparian modification are overblown.
Look for plenty of discussion on the topic of supply enhancement as long as drought in the Colorado River basin continues.
Speaking of which, I hope plenty of people saw the program on PBS recently about water supplies in the Southwest (called The American Southwest: Are we running dry?; it was on the local PBS station in Tucson last Thursday). It's message was slightly alarmist, but some good points were made.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

More on using water policy to manage development

I've been catching up on some other people's blogs lately and gathering loads of interesting and useful information. This post is from David Zetland's Aguanomics blog and contains links to some interesting policy proposals by Don Wood of the Pacific Energy Policy Center.
I think his proposal on implementing "net zero (water use) impact" development is interesting and ties in nicely with the City of Peoria's "Principles of Sound Water Management", which I previously posted on.
The main problem I see with his idea is that it will surely lead to more expensive housing (at least in the short term). Maybe longer term, innovation will create more affordable housing that meets the LEED standards he recommends. Or maybe that problem has already been solved? I'd love to hear from anyone that knows more about that than I do.

Shameless self-promotion

A short article based on one of my law school research projects has been published this month in Southwest Hydrology. The paper looks at the effect of differing legal regimes on the behavior of groundwater pumpers in adjacent areas of eastern New Mexico and west Texas. The paper can be found at the above link in the "On the Ground" section, under Property Rights and Groundwater Use.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The realities of using water policy to manage growth - post-Prop 207

This is a topic that I have been looking at sporadically since I completed a research project on it for a class in law school. First some background - Prop. 207, the private property rights initiative passed by Arizona voters in 2006 limited the ability of local jurisdictions to implement new regulations that would restrict development of property. When the value of property is diminished by such regulation, the property owner has a right to be compensated for that decrease in value. The important catch (for my purposes here) is that the property owner must have vested rights to develop the property in a certain way before the regulation is implemented. In the past, most developers secured water supplies for their developments after getting approvals from zoning boards, county supervisors, etc. where a change to the comprehensive plan or existing zoning was necessary. That meant the development was pretty much a done deal by the time the developer put plans in place to secure water supplies. Therefore, the development was entitled to have the necessary water regardless of what that meant for other water users.

Recent changes to land use policies in many areas have created requirements that developers submit details on the proposed water use associated with a development prior to obtaining necessary land use approvals. This allows local government to either deny approval to development that would have a deleterious impact on water supplies, or (more likely) to impose certain requirements on the developer - i.e. conservation, water use limitations, water recycling requirements. This is the sort of policy that Pima County recently included in an amendment to their comprehensive plan. Not only does this policy give the county more of a say in the type of development that occurs, where it occurs, and how much water it will use. Perhaps more importantly, it places the water supply analysis before any land use approvals, which prevents the developer from obtaining vested development rights, thereby avoiding the risk of any takings claims (pursuant to Prop. 207) against the county.

This is a very significant development in the creation of sensible land use policies that provide necessary links to water use policies that had been lacking for far too many years. And in my opinion it's more than a little ironic that the policy was likely developed (at least partially) in response to a voter initiative intended to protect the rights of private property owners and limit the ability of governments to impose limits on the ability of property owners to develop their land as they wish. For that reason alone, Prop. 207 may have been a good thing.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

City/county water study committee update

This week's meeting is tomorrow, Oct. 15, at the Manning House at 6:00 pm. The topic is possible additional water supplies for the region. I've expressed my feelings on this issue previously - see my 9/10/08 posting.
But it's still a useful topic to consider - if only to show that additional water supplies will be difficult to obtain and expensive in the future.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

City/county water study committee update

next meeting - Wed. 10/8/08 at 6 PM at the Manning House in downtown Tucson.
Topic for discussion will be city and county water conservation programs.

Principles of Sound Water Management - courtesy of the City of Peoria

I recently returned from the Arizona Hydrological Society Annual Symposium in Flagstaff where I heard one presentation of note that I wanted to talk about here. Bradley Hill - currently with the city of Flagstaff - talked about his recent work in Peoria, where they developed several policies for managing the water resources of the city. The policy that he covered in his presentation involved a rather unique (to me at least) method for linking land use and water supplies. If you are interested in the document that lays this out it can be found on Peoria's website at:

The general gist of the document is the establishment of a metric for analyzing changes to land use in the city that looks at how much water use would increase on the parcel by changing the land use, then calculating the increased value to the city (in terms of tax revenue, jobs, etc.) from the land use change. These numbers are used to measure the $ value/gallon of increased water usage for the change. It's a way of objectively valuing new development and its impact on water supplies. It's probably not perfect, but is something that should be looked at and refined in other places to develop a highly valuable policy tool for ensuring that the most value is obtained from new development when it alters water use patterns.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Local water study committee update

I have managed to make it to the two most recent meetings and it has been getting gradually more interesting. The presentations last week, on climate change and related water resources planning impacts, were both excellent and very informative for people who have not followed the scientific developments and predictions for the Southwest. At this week's meeting I was only able to stay for the first presentation, describing the importance of considering the environment in water resources and land use planning. The second presentation on local environmental impacts and planning efforts relating to water resources should have been interesting and was timely considering the discussion of the committee members that morning.
There was a motion to expand the Phase I study area to include parts of eastern Pima Co. outside of the combined Tucson Water-Pima Co. Wastewater service area. The motion was to only include those areas not currently served by a water provider - and there was some confusion as to what that exactly meant - but the overall intention was to look at areas where there might be important riparian resources that would need to be protected from future development. This is an important idea that needs to be taken into consideration, but I'm not sure if it's appropriate for Phase I - the inventory phase. However, there is probably some value in at least putting those sensitive areas on a map for future consideration - most likely in Phase II. There has also been some indication at both meetings that other water providers are starting to show an interest in getting involved in the process - I believe that the more entities brought to the table in this effort, the better the final product will be.
As to Phase II, the committee chair presented (I think for the first time) a proposed structure for the Phase II portion of the study. It was a very rough outline, but the broad goals it presented were very ambitious. And I believe they represent what most people felt would be main purpose of this effort - considering the changes that would need to be made - ordinances, policies, and comprehensive plan amendments - to achieve what is envisioned for the future growth of our community. Big stuff, but it is still early in the process. We'll have to see how this develops as Phase I approaches the wrap-up point.
As always - info on the study is available at their website:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Some Thoughts on Water Allocation and Perceptions of Shortage

After listening to a discussion by candidates for the board of the Cental Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD - the folks who run the CAP) and presentations on the challenges posed by climate change to water resources planning during the past few days I feel like I have been bombarded by elaborate plans to exploit new sources of water in the future to meet the burgeoning needs of our arid state. Then I pause and think back to some of the earlier presentations from the City/County Water Study Committee that painted a fairly rosy picture of the water supply situation in the Tucson area - which I mostly agree with. The truth is - we have lots of water available in Arizona, at a reasonable cost, which is unlikely to run out in the near future. We don't need to find new sources of water and it's unlikely that we will find significant new sources of water (unless you take the position that price is irrelevant). The problem we have around here is that the water is not always put to the highest value uses. A lot of it is being used to grow low value crops, like cotton and alfalfa. I know, commodity prices are high right now, but in the long term it makes much more sense to grow those things elsewhere - where you don't have to use valuable water supplies for irrigation in order to do so.

I posed the question to the CAP board candidates that maybe we should be looking at reallocation of existing water supplies before we commit ourselves to building nuclear power plants in Mexico that will power massive desalting facilities. Of the four candidates present, one understood the question but deftly sidestepped the issue, two flatly stated that reallocation was a non-starter because of the mess it would create (but they were assuming that the question referred to simply taking away water rights from one party and giving them to another), and the fourth never even addressed the question in his rambling response. Anyway, the idea that reallocation of water should not even be on the table is pure bunk. There should be ample opportunity for cities or communities to enter agreements with agricultural users to free up irrigation water for municipal uses - all you need are two willing parties and agreement on price.

In a sense, this is what is already occuring in the cleverly named Groundwater Savings Facilities, where farmers agree to purchase subsidized CAP water, use it for irrigation in lieu of groundwater they are entitled to pump, while a nearby water provider (who provides the subsidy for CAP water) accumulates groundwater credits (that otherwise would go to the farmer) that can be used to permit future pumping. As was pointed out at the forum, this is a particularly good deal because it uses lower quality CAP water for irrigation, while permitting use of higher quality groundwater for residential uses.

It's quite possible there is not much excess water in the ag sector that could be moved to other uses through such agreements, but because so much water is used by ag a very small reduction in that sector could provide a very significant amount of water for the municipal sector - which should serve to minimize the economic disruption caused by decreased irrigation.

Additionally, the most likely scenario in which CAP would need to secure additional supplies to meet its obligations, would be in the event of long-term drought leading to cutbacks in Colorado deliveries, under the recently completed Shortage Sharing Agreement among the Colorado basin states. And what is the result when that agreement kicks in? Water deliveries to ag users are cut back first, so that CAP's municipal obligations are not threatened. This sounds like reallocation of water between use sectors to me. In a really major drought, where these shortages occur for several consecutive years, farmers will be going out of business in large numbers, resulting in permanent reallocation - which should eliminate the need for supply augmentation.

I know - talk of moving water from ag to municipal is a tough sell politically. But to simply ignore the possible need to do so in the future to meet changing water supply needs is not just short-sighted, it may be dishonest to the voters.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Next meeting on Wednesday, 9/10

The City/County Water Study committee is picking up the pace on their meetings to complete Phase I of the study (the inventory phase). Even so, they announced at the last meeting that they were extending the completion date for this phase to Feb. 2009.
The next meeting is Wed. 9/10 at 7:00 am, at the Randolph Golf Course clubhouse. The main presentations will look at the uncertainties presented by climate change and water harvesting. The committee will also be seeking to finalize the study area - right now the proposed study area is the combined service area of Tucson Water and Pima County Wastewater - and give an update on participation in the study by other water providers in the area.
While I believe it makes sense to limit the study area as proposed for this phase, I hope that future phases will seek to apply the findings of the committee to other areas of the county. This would be in keeping with the idea of bringing other utilities and political jurisdictions into the study in later phases. We'll see how things go.

State Legislature Loses a Strong Voice for Sound Water Policy

I was greatly disappointed to read recently that Tom O'Halleran, a state senator from the Prescott area, was defeated in last week's primary elections. [check out] Sen. O'Halleran has been a strong proponent in recent years of legislation to permit local jurisdictions in rural areas of the state (areas not governed by the water use regulations of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act) to use water supply availability as a restriction on growth. This was very reasonable, and in no way onerous, legislation that simply permitted cities and counties in those areas to deny rezonings and plan amendments that would permit development in areas that lacked a firm, reliable water supply. Even that legislation was weakened in the legislature before finally passing.
His opponent in the primary expressed a desire to allow landowners to possess clear property rights to the groundwater beneath their property - rights that could not be restricted by government. This is a red herring. Real property rights to groundwater are not possible under the legal system applicable in areas of Arizona outside of AMAs. Groundwater is a common pool resource in those areas, subject to rapid depletion without some regulatory controls.
Hopefully, someone up there will assume the mantle previously worn by Sen. O'Halleran. Without a sensible voice on water policy our legislature has shown great reluctance to do anything helpful for rural water issues.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Next meeting on Wednesday, 9/3

The next meeting of the City/County water study committee is this Wed., 9/3 at Randolph Golf Course clubhouse. The topic for this meeting is "Land Use and Planning for Growth." The meetings should be pretty interesting from here on out - this is the real purpose of the committee. This should also be where we begin to learn where this committee might be headed in their ultimate recommendations. Hopefully there will be a good turnout.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The “New Oil”, or just the Same Old Water?

Well, unfortunately I''m laid up with a bum knee this week which has limited by ability to get around. This has resulted in me missing yesterday's City/County Water Study meeting (this week was mostly about population projections and available water resources to serve that population) and a brown bag at the Water Resources Research Center discussing policy updates at the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District. Instead I have been lounging around the house thinking about water supplies and economics as evidenced below.

Seems like every time I turn around someone else is proclaiming that water is the “new oil” – implying it is the next vital natural resource coming under ever greater supply constraints due to population and economic growth. The latest example is found in last week’s Economist in the first article in their business section – “Running dry” (can be found at ). There may be some truth to that statement – limitations on the availability of water, just like oil, can result in limits on growth and higher prices to sustain the standard of living we are accustomed to. Competition between water-rich and water-scarce areas is likely to increase in the future. But there are some significant differences between oil and water that make the comparison inapt.

First of all, oil is completely consumed when it is extracted and used – once used it cannot be recovered in any form (except by removing CO2 from the atmosphere or waiting for that CO2 to be taken up by plants, then geologically buried, compressed, and heated to form more oil – an admittedly time-consuming process). Water is not typically used consumptively, although it may no longer be available for use in the same location if used in a way that results in evaporation, transportation, or transformation (i.e. into corn or beef). It can also be lost by flowing downstream to another state or country or ultimately into the ocean. But water is never truly lost because it merely reenters the hydrosphere, or water cycle, to be later returned as rain or snow to a surface or groundwater reservoir where it will once again be available for consumption.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, water is almost never priced as a scarce resource – even in areas where it truly is a scarce and irreplaceable resource (such as where it is produced by mining groundwater reservoirs). While recent history has shown that oil is relatively price inelastic – demand is not significantly curbed by modest rises in price – it is nonetheless priced as a finite commodity, with price rising significantly as supply constraints become ever greater. Water is almost never priced to reflect its true value to the consumer (bottled water is one exception). Most domestically supplied water is priced in a way that reflects the delivery costs but there is no cost for the water itself – water is in most cases completely valueless. But consumers clearly place value on the availability of clean water – just look at what we’re willing to pay for bottled water.

People who live in water-scarce environments have always appreciated the value of water to society. Just look at the wealthy trading communities that clustered around water sources in the Middle-east or the American Southwest 1000s of years ago. For people in these areas water is not the “new oil,” its just the same old water. For people in the Eastern U.S. or parts of Western Europe that are facing water supply constraints for perhaps the first time ever – sure water may seem like the new oil. But it’s important to remember the differences between those two valuable liquids and develop appropriate responses to scarcity of each. Oil is destructible but also replaceable. Water is indestructible but irreplaceable. That makes a big difference in how you respond to crisis.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Getting back to local

OK, I have been straying from my local focus so far this week. Time to bring it all back home. The next city-county water study meeting is next Wed. at the Randolph Golf Course Clubhouse. This is another 7:00 am meeting (like the one I missed back in late June because I showed up at 6:00 pm). The main topic of this meeting is financial aspects of water and wastewater planning. While it all sounds quite fascinating - I think that rather than sit in a room and listen to people talk to me about project financing, I'll just read the documents posted on the website [] to get the gist of the presentations. The other key bit of business for this meeting is to go over their proposed August progress report. That is also available on the website.
In short, what I'm trying to say is that I'm not planning to go to the meeting. I know - this will make 3 consecutive meetings that I've missed. The thing is ... most of these meetings so far are just inventorying. The speakers are giving the committee members the lowdown on what water and wastewater assets we have. After a few more meetings they should start talking about what we are going to need in the future and what that future might entail. That will be the really interesting stuff. Hope to see some new faces out for those topics. Until then ...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Things must be pretty desperate in Nebraska

Here's a rather amusing bit of news that was posted this week on the US Water News Website - - about a couple of wiseguy water lawyers in Nebraska who filed an application to appropriate water recently discovered on Mars.

What would H.G. Wells think? Two veterans of the Great Plains water wars staked a legal claim recently to a new source of water — on Mars. "It's the best $10 we've ever spent," said attorney Don Blankenau of Lincoln. Blankenau and colleague Tom Wilmoth filed their permit application for Martian water with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, paid a $10 filing fee and went back to work. Mischief accomplished. The Phoenix Mars Lander this week touched and tasted Martian water for the first time. "We saw the story in the newspaper, looked at each other and said, 'Let's file an application to claim the water,'" Blankenau said. The men seek to tap water flowing in Martian rivers, not in reservoirs, and deliver it to Earth via an interplanetary pipeline. The eventual use of the water — domestic, irrigation or manufacturing — would be figured out later. Blankenau and Wilmoth noted that it could take 1,000 years to build the pipeline. Water might be delivered to Earth by Jan. 1, 3010, they said. They anticipate significant capital, operating and maintenance costs. "A private, state, federal funding partnership is likely," they wrote. Wilmoth said they made the claim during a summer lull in Nebraska's water wars.
Too bad Tucson Water didn't think of this.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

LA musings

OK time to do a little catching up. The bar exam is finally over, hopefully I passed and a job is soon to follow. But enough about my troubles. Today I’d like to share an example of poor growth planning that was in the LA Times on Monday, Aug. 4. What makes people think they can stop or slow growth by just telling it to stop is beyond me. This kind of ham-fisted approach to growth never works and always has unexpected and adverse consequences. Here’s what the Times had to say:

November is shaping up to be a pivotal month for cities grappling with growth and traffic … "These [initiatives] are examples of people frustrated with the consequences and trade-offs forced by economic prosperity," said Randall Crane, a professor at UCLA's School of Public Affairs … The constant search for revenue, prosperity and jobs -- in other words, growth -- explains in large part why Southern California looks the way it does: sprawly, congested and polluted (if you’re familiar with Prop. 13, this should make sense to you. I don’t want to spend time on that here but if you’re curious, check out or … Ballot measures intended to control or manage growth typically encounter stiff opposition from the building industry and chambers of commerce. Even when measures succeed, Pincetl said, they are "virtually futile" given the region's multiple jurisdictions and varying needs. Communities "can't control what's going on next door," she said … But community activists are determined to have a voice in matters that they say affect their quality of life … "Developers and their friends at City Hall want you to believe that runaway commercial development is good for our city," the measure's backers say in their arguments for the measure. "Big developers make huge profits in our city, while residents get stuck with -- and pay for -- the huge traffic mess they create" … Opponents -- including an odd-bedfellows alliance of businesses, developers, renters' rights advocates, environmentalists, preservationists and the school board president -- kicked off a campaign against the initiative at a rally Wednesday. They say it would limit the city's ability to collect revenue for schools, fire and police departments and other social services and to promote mixed-use projects and transit-oriented development with housing and shopping … The measure would limit new development of offices, hotels and stores to 75,000 square feet a year, about half the current rate. The Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, the group behind the measure, said schools, hospitals, low-income housing and other vital community-serving projects would be exempt … Although the measure's supporters invoke traffic as their key motivator, the initiative does not directly propose solutions to existing traffic problems. Rather, it aims to curb future commercial development that proponents say would exacerbate conditions on the city's already congested streets … Jeffrey Tumlin, a transportation consultant to the city, said many of the streets are filled to capacity at peak periods. At the city's eastern edge, freeway ramps have become bottlenecks … For four years, Santa Monica has studied its land use and traffic circulation as part of revamping its general plan, as required by state law every 20 years. In the last year, the city has held more than two dozen workshops and hearings to review proposals and get input from the public … On Thursday, the City Council endorsed the plan that emerged from the public process. It calls for "no net new trips" -- in other words, no increases in traffic … The council agreed that most future development should be concentrated around transit centers … Tumlin, the transportation consultant, said neither the ballot measure nor the city's land use and traffic plan could solve the traffic problem on its own … "To address traffic congestion," he said, "we have to do a lot of things and all at once. . . . The important thing is to put any new development where people can get around without a car."

As the quote at the end of the story indicates, managing growth is a complicated business, not amenable to quick and easy solutions. And especially not measures intended to shut it down completely. I know there are many people in Tucson who wish the city would remain the way they remember it always, but the simple fact is – a stagnant city is a dying city. There must be some growth to maintain a vibrant, livable community – but too much growth (what we often see here) can result in a vibrant, unlivable community. Not to mention local governments heavily reliant on growth for tax revenues, that have to deal with cyclical fiscal crises whenever growth slows down. Here in Tucson we often express a desire to not become another LA (or even Phoenix for that matter), but its important that we try to learn from what LA does wrong - and right - if we really want a better future for our community.

Friday, July 11, 2008

OK, looks like I blew it on this week's meeting. It was 7:00 AM rather than 6:00 PM. I couldn't figure out why there wasn't anything happening in the meeting room when I got there Wed. night. The next meeting is near the end of the month - July 23 - and it will be at 6:00 PM according to the website. I'll try to be more on top of things for that one.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

I'm still here. Just been too busy studying for the *&$% bar exam to do much in the way of posting. BTW there is another study committee meeting tonite (7/9/08) at the usual place and time - Randolph Golf Course clubhouse, 6:00 pm. I'll be there and hopefully within the next week post an update on the progress of this meeting and the previous one.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Next city/county water forum is Wed. 6/25

The next meeting is set for tomorrow, June 25, at 6:00 pm in the Randolph Golf course clubhouse, located at 600 S. Alvernon Way.
I'll be attending and will provide an update here later in the week.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Local water goings-on

I'll try to start things off here by posting some info giving my take on the ongoing joint county/city water and wastewater study committee. This is a committee, working with considerable community input, established by the city council and board of supervisors to assess our current resources and probable future needs in the water resources area.

Here's the link to the committee website, where you can look up agendas for future meeting, review the minutes of past meetings, and check out some of the presentations and documents they are looking at:

The committee has a monumental task in front of them. They have taken it on earnestly. But I fear they have been given very little guidance as to what the end result should be. As a result there are two likely results of the process - either too ambitious, in which case it will be torn apart by opposing interests (probably developers, but it's too early to start pointing fingers); or too timid, presenting some vague recommendations, that will seem pretty obvious, permit local politicians to claim to the voters that they are "doing something," but have no real impact on the problems we are facing. My vote is on the latter, but I tend to be a pessimist on these issues. I'm still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that something worthwhile will come of this process. Check back later for more.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Here goes!

I'm new to this, so bear with me while I work out some of the kinks.
I decided to start this blog because I have been living in Tucson for almost 25 years - initially as a student, studying hydrology, then as a consulting hydrologist (doing most of my work in California, but keeping abreast of water issues at home), and most recently as a law student. My foray into law school stemmed in part from my frustration at what I perceived to be a horrible disconnect between water law and policy, on one side, and the science - hydrology, hydrogeology, environmental science, however you choose to label it.

I had watched Tucson develop over those 25 years from a bustling town of about half a million to the current sprawling metropolis of over a million, wondering all along: how are we going to sustain this growth. Water law was set up largely to accommodate beneficial use of water. Farming, ranching, housing, mining - all forms of economic development are considered beneficial uses of water. Water for its own sake - as a component of a healthy environment - didn't even enter into the equation. To make things worse, the law and the governing institutions that controlled access to water, were typically completely separate from the law and governing institutions that controlled land development - a disconnect that was certain to result in catastrophe in an arid place like Tucson, so highly dependent on both water and development for its present and continued existence.

Don't take all this the wrong way. I am not a no-growther. I believe that development is necessary and in many respects a good thing. But it is my strong belief that growth should proceed in an orderly and carefully considered manner when its sustainability is dependent on a natural resource that is inherently limited and generally irreplaceable. That is what brought me to where I am today and what I hope to play a role in bringing about in the future. Growth policy - dealing with both water and land use - that results from a careful melding of good science and good law.

Next time I'll discuss some of the efforts currently underway in Tucson to bring this about. Specifically, the current effort by the city of Tucson and Pima County to develop a blueprint for the future growth of the metro area by combining planning efforts for both land and water.