Josh Brodesky: Destiny, power are at center of stink over wastewater plant

2011-06-05T00:00:00Z 2011-06-05T18:15:42Z Josh Brodesky: Destiny, power are at center of stink over wastewater plantBy Josh Brodesky Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 05, 2011 12:00 am  • 

The wastewater treatment plant in Marana is a small but impressive sight to behold - just not to smell.

Its filters, skimmers and pumps sift through grease and waste, duckweed and dirt.

Water is separated from sludge here. Brown, turbid water is made clear.

Flushing is something easily taken for granted. But seeing the steady trickle of all of those flushes become clear water is amazing. Considering what flows in and what flows out, it's even beautiful.

This small plant at the northern edge of the county, with its 1,500 sewer connections, has become an unlikely crossroads of destiny and power. The destiny, of course, is Marana's. The power is the county's - and longtime Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's.

Marana, with its visions of growth, wants to build out across the valley and into neighboring Pinal County. But to control its own destiny, it must control its own sewage.

Only in Arizona can one town's destiny be inextricably bound to sewage.

"The reason they want the plant is because in Arizona, the law is the treater of the wastewater owns the effluent," Huckelberry told me.

And effluent has value. It can displace the use of drinkable water for irrigation. It can replenish aquifers and generate state credits. It can help to assure water supplies for the development Marana craves.

"The county keeps looking at today," Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson said. "I think the town of Marana has a pretty good record of setting a long-term vision, and going after that."

For years now the two entities have been fighting over this small plant, haggling in court, jousting in the media. Marana has attempted to annex it, although a Maricopa County judge shot down that attempt, saying the plant is intended to serve more than Marana residents.

And now there is Senate Bill 1171, which demands the county sell Marana the plant for the existing debt on it, and not its present value.

This law might be Marana's savior, but it's also problematic and raises all kinds of questions.

The county has invested $24 million in the plant, but only owes about $15 million. Why should Marana get a discount at everyone else's expense?

Will the Marana law lead to the breakup of a regional system that has 11 plants across the county?

Will it stop the county from investing into the system, if another entity can just take a plant?

"Are we going to change how we do business regionally?" said Jackson Jenkins, Pima County's wastewater director.

"It's not just a Marana issue, but what happens if Vail wants to incorporate and take the plant out there? If you are using the entire regional group to pay for it or contribute towards it, are you not being good stewards of their money and investment?"

We were standing in the middle of the Marana plant on a windy day. Sewage was flowing all around us. As effluent goes, the Marana plant produces top-notch stuff. It's A+ quality effluent with a B+ permit to save money, Jackson said. You can use it for anything except drinking. But it's also low flow.

Through a series of upgrades and add-ons in recent years - in anticipation of the housing boom - the Marana plant can handle 700,000 gallons of sewage a day. But right now barely 230,000 gallons a day pass through the plant. Big portions of it sit idle. The flow is so low, the effluent has a hard time reaching the Santa Cruz River, which means it doesn't produce recharge credits to meet the state requirement to replace water pumped from underground.

So, in a narrow sense this fight is over a small plant that doesn't generate any recharge credits and doesn't come anywhere close to meeting its relatively low capacity. But it's really about the future.

"It's all about the long-term management of water resources," Davidson, Marana's town manager, said. "Today is going to be much simpler to deal with than tomorrow."

Davidson said he believes Marana can handle wastewater more efficiently than the county. He believes that for the town to grow, it needs to control all of its water resources, which are few and far between. And he believes taking over the debt is fair because that's what the county did when it took over the city's sewer system - although most county residents lived in the city then, and the city participated willingly in the merger to help create a regional system.

Not to mention, after the county takeover, all city residents continued to fully benefit from the system they paid for.

Will Marana finally get its way and ride the sewage wave to sprawldom?

A judge will decide - again.

Until then, look deep into your toilet bowl. You might see the glimmer of destiny. Or you might see the power of Chuck.

"It's all about the long-term management of water resources. Today is going to be much simpler to deal with than tomorrow."

Gilbert Davidson

Marana town manager

Contact columnist Josh Brodesky at 573-4242 or jbrodesky@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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