Water for the Southwest/Cities conserve. Giving up green lawns for cacti, wildflowers. To save water, Tucson returns to the `dry look'

When water rates first shot upward in the late 1970s, many people in this desert city just let their lawns go brown. Now, at a new housing tract southwest of town, front yards sport cactus, the shade of manzanita trees, the purple, orange, red, and yellow of desert wildflowers, and stone contours for channeling rainwater to plants.

``Grass is obscene.'' says the director of Tucson Water Department, Frank Brooks, in describing the new ethic of water-stingy landscaping. ``We live in a desert and we should act like we live in a desert.''

Tucson has the driest future of any city in the country. It sponges all its water from an underground aquifer that is steadily drying up.

But will water become a limit to growth in the West? Few think so, even here in Tucson, where some wish water scarcity would slow growth. Over the past decade, Tucsonans have cut their water use from 205 gallons a day per person to about 150 gallons -- a third the water use in Phoenix, Arizona's other desert metropolis.

For years, the city has been buying up surrounding farms and retiring the land -- 20,000 acres so far -- to save the irrigation water.

In about six years, the Central Arizona Project will reach Tucson with Colorado River water, but the underground water table will still be falling.

The city will need to pare its use down to 140 gallons per day per person to balance the water table.

Tucson learned saving water the hard way, but it learned fast. When the city council first proposed dramatic water rate increases about eight years ago, outraged homeowners ousted the whole group. Ironically, the new council found it had to hike rates even higher, albeit with more political finesse.

The rates have continued to climb at least 7 percent a year, and a water conservation ethic has taken hold of the city. Opinions differ on how Tucson has so successfully reduced its water usage. Mr. Brooks talks of changed attitudes and public education campaigns for water conservation. Others credit the rising price of water.

In the affluent El Encanto neighborhood, people can clearly afford the high price of watering their lawns if they so choose. Yet the pastoral desert look of cactus and tawny earth dominates their landscaping. Neighborhoods like this one are tastemakers for the rest of the city, according to some Tucsonans.

But word has not reached Winterhaven, a standard American suburb north of Tucson. Dave Furrey has the only front yard on his street landscaped in rocks and low-water plants. Why? Because there are no water meters in Winterhaven, so people don't pay according to their use, he says.

``People wake up to their pocketbooks,'' says Mr. Furrey, superintendant of Flowing Wells Irrigation District, northwest of the city.

Whether driven by fashion or economy, the arid look in landscape is important to Tucson's water use. Two-thirds of the city's water use is residential, and fully one half of that is used outside the home.

But businesses are also changing water habits. The most striking examples are new golf courses here. StarPass, a course currently under construction, will have only 90 acres of turf on its fairways and greens. The standard golf course has about 160. Everything else will be native desert.

The city requires golf courses and other ``turf industries'' to use reclaimed sewer water on their grass. By the end of next year, says Mr. Brooks, Tucson will be the nation's largest user of reclaimed water. By 1993, the city will be reclaiming 135 million gallons a day, 90 million of it drinkable. If the water is clean enough, the city may try channeling it back into the ground to boost the falling water table.

Industry is following the same pattern. American Pharmaseal, which uses large volumes of water to make rubber gloves, came to Tucson when water was cheap. As water became more scarce, the plant gradually cut its use in half, and it plans next year to begin recycling up to one half of the water it still uses, according to facilities manager David Hazelman.

``We joke about Phoenix being an oasis city,'' says Marybeth Carlile, director of Southern Arizona Water Resources Association (SAWARA), a business group promoting conservation. ``We're a desert city. We think that's what gives us our appeal. Twenty years ago we could have gone either way.''

Twenty years hence, according to experts in the Southwest, other cities, including Phoenix, may be going the way of Tucson. The value of water in Tucson, they say, could be a preview for many other Western cities, as populations grow and new water sources are harder to find. People in many cities throughout the West will pay more for water and treat it differently.

How to conserve water is not the only question here. Why conserve water has become just as important. Why should Tucsonans strain to conserve water so that developers can build more housing tracts?

It is estimated that this city's population will more than triple in the next 40 years, and quality-of-life issues like smog and traffic are nothing new.

``We can solve our water problem, which is what's constraining growth now. But then we've got air quality and environmental problems brought on by the growth,'' says Furrey.

Brooks feels that the city had better prepare for newcomers by making room for them at the water table.

Others say a city can influence growth by the kind of development it subsidizes or encourages.

Developers are often the scapegoats for a lack of vision among city officials, says Bill Estes, a major Tucson housing developer who is concerned about Tucson's quality of life.

But he adds, ``I think the city is only limited by the ideas and creativity of the city fathers.''

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