Ducey's water grab threatens the bulk of desert ecology | What the Devil won't tell you
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What the Devil won't tell you

Ducey's water grab threatens the bulk of desert ecology

Streams don't have to be flowing rivers to be vital to state's environment, economy

I was walking the land that is now the La Encantada mall with one of the developers on a rainy day in March 2001. Mitch Stollard – a central casting Texan, which confused me because he was from Sierra Vista – pointed to a ripple of water sheeting over sand between ocotillos and sniffed “that would be one of them there navigable waterways, according to the folks at the Eee Pea Ayyy (Texan embellishment added).”

He was joking, I would have to gather. Rather, he was exaggerating to prove a point that I had heard before. It reminded me of the “trout study” required of the Rio de Flag snaking through downtown Flagstaff down to the Northern Arizona University campus. The Rio de Flag was in constant danger of flooding because it was a ditch that occasionally drained water. But it was in no danger of drawing the interest of anglers.

I point this out because Gov. Doug Ducey's effort to get control of Arizona's waterways isn't completely nuts. Our desert reality is different from the Appalachian ecology of Pennsylvania or Minnesota's 10,000 lakes. Our rivers and streams aren't rivers and streams in the traditional sense because this isn't Ohio.

Arizona's watersheds don't look like the water courses of other states, but that doesn't mean they deserve any less protection. They may need more, albeit different, safeguarding.

Specifically, Ducey wants control over which waterways get protection and which don't. It would make sense that a governor seeking a more realistic environmental policy that wouldn't require trophy fish studies in ditches or have to prove you can't paddle a steamship from Swan Road to First Avenue.

Tony Davis, the Rain Man of western environmental journalism, laid out the legal case in the Arizona Daily Star.

The argument comes down the the 10th Amendment, which reserves powers to the states that are not assigned to the federal government. Ducey wants control of the waterways by the powers vested in him by the U.S. Constitution. As a general rule, those who espouse "states rights" aren't concurrently trying to protect the environment. Developers find these regulations that protect waterways cloying but developers in a state that has grown from 3.6 million to 6.8 million residents since 1990 can hardly call these restrictions debilitating or even daunting. They're barely a speed bump.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry laid out what is likely the real plan to me after a memorial service for local political legend Emil Franzi last week. The state wants oversight so it will have the power to close its eyes.

Arizona conservatives have run this place for the better part of five decades and don't have a long history of seeking actual environmental protection. Arizona has sued the EPA over rules regulating ozone, nitrous oxide and waterways. That's just since 2015. The state is asking for powers to regulate discharges and dredging but has never gotten around to regulating dredging.

If Ducey is simply seeking a more rational approach to water regulations in Arizona, that's one thing. If he's looking to be a shill for developers and do for the Clean Water Act what the state did to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, then he's messing with all of us.

At the same time, developers are messing with their seed corn for the highly understandable wish to operate without rules. We should care about our aquifer – absolutely – but we should also care about what makes Tucson's desert such a wonderful place and just how at risk it is from short-term greed.

How the water flows

Arizona's desert landscape is the called “basin-range.” and here is a quick and dirty geological explanation of how it works.

If you want it all to make sense, drive back from Globe and as you motor through the Pinal Mountains, you will see a mountain rising off to the left. Honestly, you can't miss it because the mountain looks cleaved into a cross-section. The strata lift parallel and straight upward along the inside of the mountain. It looks for all the world like a giant table of land tilted over and thrust upward. The mountain was obviously formed when a chunk of bedrock just tipped over.

In the desert, the basins are dry, except where the water winds its way down off the mountains into the valleys. Water doesn't, of course, just sheet down the mountain. It weaves through cuts and courses that form what looks like braids.

Just like everywhere else in the world, these streams drain into rivers; the Santa Cruz and San Pedro rivers once flowed year round through Southern Arizona. But with the growth in human populations, the water table got sucked down below ground level so it no longer flows on the surface other than after big rains like we're getting Monday afternoon..

To Ducey's "credit" (I suppose) he's not asking for control over rivers where the water intermittently flows year-round. Just because he doesn't see the water in what looks like a ditch, doesn't mean it's not important.

A little means a lot

But the waterways Ducey is discussing are worth so much more than what they are worth in other parts of the country. In the desert, water is life. These riparian areas, whether navigable or ephemeral, account for just one percent of the surface area but support the 60 percent of desert wildlife in Arizona.

So Ducey and developers are playing with biological fire if they are frustrated with the fuss and muss of protecting watersheds against discharge. According to the Nature Conservancy, Arizona has already lost 90 percent of our riparian habitat.

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This is why, while we may not give two shakes about the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, which may or may not be an endangered species, we do care if it loses its habitat because that is what makes the Sonoran Desert so freaking gorgeous and livable.

The critter? Critters go extinct all the time (and the owl has plenty of population in Mexico). On the other hand, the habitat can only go extinct just once before Arizona resembles the Sahara.

I spent years covering this stuff and I can tell you developers like flat land for mass-production homes. They love the soggier parts of the desert for the real pricey projects.

Name the spots with the most expensive real estate in Tucson. The Catalina Foothills come to mind — Pima Canyon, in particular. Colonia Solana in midtown. Oro Valley. They are all riparian habitats and are lush and flush with wildlife.

Part of Pima County's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan was to direct growth to less environmentally sensitive areas — like the creosote flats along Houghton Road. Folks, there's a reason growth had to be artificially directed toward the creosote flats. Who wants to live in a creosote flat when there's a sweet arroyo cutting through the back yard with a bunch of cool vegetation?

To the degree that Tucson's economy is tied to its "oasis in the desert" quality, local riparian areas make for a better economy. Flat barren landscapes don't really sell themselves as a destination. Just looking at the Arizona Office of Tourism's numbers in 2015 shows Tucson and Southern Arizona got an injection of $3.4 billion in direct spending by visitors. Those tourists were more likely to hoist on a backpack than haul around golf clubs. I'd love to see the study about how the rich folk with cash who live in the Foothills (braided wash central) add to the economy but there's, as of yet, no such an investigation.

And even if it weren't, water isn't like Vegas.  What happens to the water on your property doesn't stay there. It flows — or doesn't — downstream to your neighbors. Hence the term “water war.”

Hey, we only need to remember the EPA itself spilling pollutants into the Animas River in Colorado to see a whole bunch of Navajo in Shiprock and right-wingers in Mohave County throw a hissy fit.

Water is that one issue that evolves — in political terms in geologic time — and the media doesn't do a good enough job covering this one issue vital for the survival of desert communities. Conservative governors asking for control over how to best protect water is sort of akin to atheists asking for control over how religious liberty gets administered.

Developers' worst enemies have been themselves during the last 40 years. The real estate industry has a history of creating its own bubbles that burst all over them.

A true player wants the ball in his hands to win the game. A true player working for the other side wants the ball thrown his way so he can drop it and throw the game. We should be dubious about why Ducey wants this ball thrown his way.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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1 comment on this story

Jul 20, 2017, 9:41 am
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Chuckelberry is the perfect “ball player” for Ducey.

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Click image to enlarge

Jordan Glenn/Arizona Sonora News

The San Pedro River, east of Tucson.