Thursday, October 7, 2010

Water Sustainability Policy in Action - Sort of?

Back when I started this blog my main objective was to report on the progress of an ongoing study by the City of Tucson and Pima County (where I live) that was intended to develop policies for a new water resources paradigm in this one little Sun Belt city, built up over the years on the promise of water - of sufficient quantities and suitable quality - to sustain whatever growth might come our way.  After two years, 36 public meetings, 14 technical reports, and one comprehensive summary of water/wastewater resources and infrastructure in the region, an amazing collection of city and county staff (prodded on by a 12 member citizen's oversight committee) produced a Phase II report that outlined a menu of 19 community goals with 56 specific recommendations for reaching those goals.  It was enormous effort that produced some impressive reports that could very easily have proceeded to sit on a shelf in someone's office.

But the process was designed from the start to prevent that from happening.  To the credit of our public officials and staff who work in the city and county departments involved in the study, they were tasked with developing a plan within 6 months for implementing those 19 goals and 56 recommendations.  The results of that effort were recently posted to the study website.

Having been involved in this process from the beginning - initially as an observer and concerned citizen, then as a member of the oversight committee during Phase II - I had very high hopes for this implementation document.  I have also been frustrated by the failure of this city and most southwest cities to make the connection between water resources planning and land use planning for so very long - leading to horribly planned and potentially unsustainable conurbations in the midst of deserts, completely reliant on imported water supplies that could become unreliable and extremely costly in a climate-and-cheap-power-constrained future.

Coming from that perspective, on my first read, I was pretty disappointed in what I saw.  It was mostly a collection of promises to study this, assess the feasibility of that, and a list of things that we were already doing or intended to do before this process even began.  On further reflection, I decided this rather tepid implementation approach was due primarily to current budget problems in local governments limiting available resources.  I think that has a lot to do with it.  But I think it also reflects what is commonly seen as the play-it-safe approach of public employees.  Radical ideas are not often rewarded in that setting.

I'm probably being too impatient with what is at heart a very political process, with the potential for some definite winners and losers.  But I believe there is good reason for some impatience.  We are currently in the midst of a near-standstill in property development around here due to the economy.  It's possible we will never get back to the kind of development pressures we were seeing 5 years ago, but I have no doubt that our local economy will pick back up and this region will see more growth in the future.  This makes now the ideal time to implement some of the policies that will help guide that renewed growth.  Otherwise we will just go back to playing catch-up all the time.  We will be trying to implement new policies while growth is occurring, always having to determine which projects those new policies apply to.  And some development will be rushed into the approval process to obtain vested development rights - creating the potential for too rapid development with impacts that are very difficult to mitigate.

I don’t have the answer for how the city and county can find the resources for a more complete implementation of the Phase II policies, but I know that waiting until the economy is growing enough to provide them with the fiscal stability to obtain those resources could add greatly to the cost of implementation.  We can still get there; it’s just a matter of how hard do we want to work to get there.  And what might be lost in the meantime?

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