Bringing Water to Arizona Desert Proves Costly for Tucson Residents

Voters approve bond to solve corrosion from Colorado River water

SEVEN months after complaints of brown, smelly water, burst pipes, broken appliances, ruined carpets, and dead plants forced the city to take thousands of customers off of Central Arizona Project (CAP) water, Tucson voters have approved a $114.5 million bond issue for the water department.

City leaders say the May 17 vote is proof that, despite its problems, Tucsonans realize that it is neither cheap nor easy to water the desert. State and federal laws mandate that Tucson stop depleting its groundwater by early next century, and the CAP, a concrete aqueduct that carries Colorado River surface water 340 miles across the desert to Tucson, Phoenix, and other Arizona users, is the city's only alternative.

``The system is broken, it's going to cost money to fix it, and the voters saw the importance of doing that,'' City Councilman Bruce Wheeler says.

Bursting pipes

For now, the city is investigating a variety of options to make CAP water more palatable, including blending it with groundwater or building a filtration system. A study of the options and their costs is due early next year. The successful bond election also means that Tucson can begin replacing 200 miles of old water mains that have proved vulnerable to the ravages of CAP water.

The $4 billion CAP project, although a technological and political triumph for Arizona, plunged Tucson into crisis soon after half the city, about 84,000 homes, began receiving water from it in November 1992.

Thousands of customers, especially those in older homes, found their pipes and appliances could not take the sudden switch from ground to surface water with almost three times the mineral content. The corrosive CAP water loosened sealed rust, causing pipes and water heaters to burst and flood homes.

``They told us it would be hard, but not this hard,'' says Elinor Marcek, who claims $3,000 in damage to pipes in her home. Ms. Marcek, one of 47,000 customers still on CAP water, headed a group opposed to the bonds.

Other residents have complained of tap water that smells like rotten eggs and looks like iced tea. They say it has given them skin rashes, stained their laundry and fixtures, corroded dishwashers and evaporative coolers, and killed plants and fish. Despite city assurances that the treated river water is safe, many CAP recipients now drink bottled water.

In October, after almost a year of unsuccessful efforts to solve the rust and corrosion problems, the city switched about 37,000 of the worst-affected customers back to groundwater and indefinitely shelved plans to put the rest of Tucson on the CAP.

The problems have cost Tucson at least $720,000 in damage claims and forced Michael Tubbs, the head of the water department, to resign. Mr. Tubbs lost credibility after it was revealed that the water department ignored warnings that towns in Texas and California had had similar experiences when switching from ground to surface water in the mid-1980s.

The crisis also prompted the city to reexamine its decision to serve treated CAP water directly to customers. Some citizens' groups have proposed using the CAP only for irrigation and recharge and returning residential users to groundwater. Others have proposed subsidizing nearby mines and farms to buy Tucson's CAP allotment. In an ironic twist to the situation, many Arizona farmers continue to pump groundwater because it's cheaper than CAP water.

Depleted groundwater

But city officials say they doubt using the CAP only for recharge and irrigation will stop depletion of the groundwater, which Tucson must do by 2025. Moreover, Tucson, the CAP's largest municipal customer, must demonstrate its commitment to using all of its allotment, or thirsty cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas may try to claim it.

``If the city had not made such a visible commitment to the CAP, the canal may not have come here,'' says John Jones, acting director of the water department. Arizona battled California and Nevada in court for years over its share of Colorado River water before construction of the CAP finally began in the early 1970s.

Marcek and others on CAP water say they are happy, at least, that Tucsonans appear willing to share the cost of improving the water system. But they are angry about serving as ``guinea pigs'' while most residents still get groundwater.

``We pay the same bills as people getting good water, and that's not fair,'' Marcek says.

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