Friday, September 10, 2010

Fun article recently in Inside Tucson Business

I recently ran across this article that happily combined two of my favorite topics – water and downtown redevelopment. Oh what fun. The general premise is that the only thing lacking from our recent downtown redevelopment efforts (which if you're from Tucson, you know have been mostly laughable) is water. Of course – splash it and they will come, right? So what sort of brilliant ideas have these folks come up with to add water to our moribund downtown, thereby creating green shoots of life?

The first guy wants to build a canal running from just south of downtown to a spot about 4 miles north of downtown. It would run east of the freeway that generally follows the path of our currently dry Santa Cruz riverbed – except the riverbed is west of the freeway. According to Mr. Rose, who came up with this idea, it doesn't make sense to just use the existing riverbed to create this man-made river for, among other reasons the fact that it's west of the freeway. I guess the whole idea is that this is meant for downtown, which is east of the freeway. But downtown is only about ½ mile of the route of this canal and he envisions a canal that would run for about 6 miles – some of it through, frankly, some currently butt-ugly parts of town. He's right, though, that putting the water in the river is a bad idea because the channel capacity is needed to convey our infrequent flash floods.

But building a 6 mile canal, 8 feet deep and 25 feet wide just doesn't sound like the right way to go about adding a water attraction to downtown. Let's start by looking at the water involved: the capacity of a canal like he envisions is just over 6.3 million cubic feet – in water terms that requires about 145 acre feet to fill up. But this will be a recirculating system, so in addition to the water in the canal you will have water being pumped from the northern terminus of the ditch back to the south, where it will go into a holding pond before travelling back north. Let's just say conservatively that the whole system will have about 300 acre feet of water in it. Mr. Rose further states that because it's essentially a closed loop system there will be minimal water lost to evaporation – huh? Is this canal going to be covered by some sort of enclosure to maintain a sealed environment? Cause that will bump the cost up considerably right there. No it will be an open canal, as will the holding pond. And because this is southern Arizona it will lose several feet of water to evaporation each year. He's talking about a lot of water for this ditch. And the only way you going to do that is by using reclaimed water – which precludes most human recreation in that water – something I think would be necessary for this to work. You need people fishing, kayaking, swimming – not just walking or riding a bike along the canal, looking at the nice water. Something similar to this (but on a much smaller scale) was proposed and partially built along the west side of the Santa Cruz river back in the late 90s and it was conceived (I believe) to be a part of the redevelopment of the area west of downtown, which is still ongoing. Mr. Rose wants to do something like Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio, but the fact is, this is Tucson, not San Antonio. And what makes the Riverwalk work is not so much the river, but everything along the river. You don't just re-create downtown San Antonio in downtown Tucson – you need to re-create downtown Tucson first.

The second idea I actually kind of like – it's bold, although like the first, not real original. But I like the idea of tearing down and replacing our current convention center, which looks pretty dumpy these days even with the recent upgrades. A large, impressive fountain would be a nice addition to downtown – not something overly garish like the one in Fountain Hills, outside of Phoenix – but something with enough heft to make people say wow when they turn the corner and see it for the first time. It also proposes bringing some much needed development to downtown. The problem is finding investors to actually build something that impressive downtown. Maybe in another 10 to 20 years when some of the smaller development project in downtown have proven its viability, but the only way something like that gets built any sooner is with public money and that's the huge problem we are trying to deal with right now. But this guy has at least put a little more thought into his project than the first guy – even putting together a website.

The last idea really doesn't even belong here. It's not an idea that specifically includes a water element to make it successful. It has a grass element that heavily depends on water to remain attractive. The guy pitching this idea claims it has a dual purpose – recreation fields that would bring people downtown and groundwater recharge. OK, sure having soccer tournaments downtown would bring people down there but what would they bring to downtown? Parents with their kids don't spend a lot of time in clubs or fancy restaurants – they go to IHOP and Applebee's – is that what we want downtown. He says downtown is the best location because of access, I say availability of land is important too, when you're talking about large open fields for sports. Plus when our new convention center, hotel, and multi-use development goes in downtown that land will be much too valuable for soccer fields. But let's talk about his idea that the fields can also serve to recharge the aquifer. The article says this would occur by irrigation water draining off the fields into the river. Why would you want to irrigate the fields so that excess water drains away and enters our rivers? Are you going to be applying fertilizer or pesticide to these fields at any point? Why not just build the fields so that excess water percolates through the soil beneath the fields and recharges the aquifer? Having it drain into the river just provides further opportunity for the water to evaporate or be transpired. Finally, the only reason you would pursue recharge as part of this project would be to earn groundwater storage credits. But at present the statutes governing recharge facilities do not have provisions for recharge from overwatering of soccer fields. At best this would be a managed recharge facility that earns credits for 50% of the water that can be shown to be entering the ground. But I guess you need to provide more than just grass if you want to stick your straw in our limited water supplies for a new project.

In general, a pretty silly article. But I guess when the economy is in the toilet and everyone is out of town for summer vacation, this is what passes for news in a publication like Inside Tucson Business. I think I might propose an idea to install a massive misting system downtown that would cool the entire area by 10 degrees in the summer, making it much more attractive for new development. That might get my name in the papers. And I swear it won't use that much water.