I met Priscilla Robinson back in 1976, when i was a cub reporter for the Tucson Citizen and she was one of the more outspoken members of the Citizens Advisory Planning Committee. That was a city of Tucson body that was spending interminable days and weeks reviewing a proposed Comprehensive Plan that had raised lots of hackles in the business community and ultimately went nowhere.
I last communicated with her back in early May, in an e-mail exchange over her favorite topic -- water. This time, the subject was another endless debate, over whether pipelines should be extended to the Sahuarita-Green Valley area to send Central Arizona Project water to be recharged to compensate for pumping by the proposed Rosemont Mine and the Farmers Investment Co. pecan groves.
In between, she was a careful study in politics, power and water -- not necessarily in that order. There seemed to be no law, regulation or guideline about water that she hadn't helped pass or tried to kill.
Back in the 1970s, she came across to me as she did to many of the politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders and environmentalists with whom she worked: sharp, tough, firm, edgy at times, but also gracious, tactful and open to compromise. She proved a wealth of information about the city's planning and water policies -- information that proved useless back then as the comprehensive plan died a-borning but later was quite useful as I chronicled the city and county's growth and sprawl, and the ensuing citizens revolt against the blading of the Sonoran Desert.
She knew everyone in this valley who was worth knowing when it came to the environment and water. She was a master at using the press to get her message covered -- not in a crass or deceptive way like some politicians, but in a perceptive way in that she knew what reporters wanted and how to get it to them. She also knew when to release information and when to withhold it for the right effect. She was a woman of very strong ideals who sometimes seemed to prefer to deal with people of opposing views than her own allies because she enjoyed interacting with the power structure -- and beating them.
Perhaps most important to me personally, she gave me one of the biggest scoops of my life.
That happened back in December 1991, when I was a reporter for the Albuquerque Tribune, missing the Sonoran Desert, vacationing down here and struggling to figure out how to reconnect to this community.
Over lunch, she virtually threw at me a story that any Arizona journalist could have had for the asking, but was being largely ignored even as its drama played out at meeting after public meeting.
It was the near-financial collapse of the state's water lifeline and future, the Central Arizona Project. That was happening because cotton farmers who were supposed to support the project by buying water during its early years -- before cities such as Tucson had geared up for it -- were shunning the water because it was expensive and they couldn't afford it.
In 1991, as I recall, only 400,000 of the project's 1.5 million acre-feet had been put to use in Arizona, with the rest going to the hated Californians who used far more water than they had the right to.
As a result, there was plenty of angst among the state's water-power structure that the CAP could enter a downward spiral of declining use and higher water rates--which, it was feared, would discourage even more users from buying the water.
That, in itself, would have been a huge story. But Priscilla threw in an extra treat.
A long-departed University of Arizona economist, William Martin, had written a seminal study back in the 1960s warning that farmers wouldn't be able to afford the water -- just as Congress was debating whether to authorize the $3.6 billion project. Martin had been ignored, laughed at and villified back then by project partisans -- and was now proven right.
Priscilla virtually cackled at the whole scene, at the thought of the state's politicians trying to figure out how to bail out a project they used to beat their chests over. This story gave me thousands of words of copy in both the High Country News and the Tucson Weekly, and made Tucson more than just a vacation spot for me once again.
Yet in the end, Robinson also proved the ultimate compromiser once more.
She, like most of those associated with the project, supported a solution that gave farmers discounted water rates to keep them in the project, on the grounds that the project would be in much worse shape if they dropped out. Over the next decade, she emerged as one of the most forceful supporters of CAP, even as it became a bigger target for slow-growth environmentalists, because she felt that the area's water table would ultimately collapse without it.
In recent years, we kept in touch regularly, with phone calls and emails exchanged whenever I needed any history for a water story.
Her last sally, barely two months ago, was fired at "water follies" -- a loophole in state water law that allows FICO pecan grower Dick Walden--and other groundwater pumpers--to have CAP water put onto his pecan groves, and in return, whatever water user puts in that CAP gains credits allowing him to pump groundwater elsewhere.
"The whole issue is a mess," Robinson told me at the time. "The original groundwater law intended to try to preserve aquifers at some levels … and did not allow any credits for recharge outside of the aquifer being pumped."
Later, that law was amended, allowing recharge of CAP far from the site of pumping, she said. "The effect of this change was to abandon the idea of trying to preserve aquifers at some undefined level for some equally undefined future," she said.
At the same time, Robinson had little use for Walden's enemy #1 -- the proposed Rosemont Mine, a project that she denounced on several grounds, both economic and environmental.
Priscilla called things as she saw them--until her last breath.