There's something fishy going on at the old Roger Road sewage treatment plant, or at least there could be if Pima County and UA can agree on a deal that would net taxpayers millions of dollars.
A proposal from researchers in the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences suggests transforming the decommissioned wastewater treatment plant into a state-of-the-art research station that would become a fish hatchery, farming tilapia, striped bass and eels.
The county currently has $32 million budgeted for the demolition of the treatment plant, which was built in the 1950s.
UA professor Kevin Fitzsimmons, who worked on the nine-page proposal, envisions a public-private partnership between the university and private commercial groups. It would be a pact to grow fish as well as possibly omega-3-oil-rich algae in the concrete holding tanks, rent out the old administration building as office space to the Audubon Society, create organic fertilizers from fish waste, grow small amounts of produce as well as provide a place to conduct groundbreaking research into practical uses for reclaimed water.
Reclaimed water, he says, is the only "new" source of water and there is strong interest in the private and scientific communities in the safe use of treated sewage water.
"We have to use what (water) we've got," he says.
Fitzsimmons teaches and does research into the production techniques of farming both tilapia and shrimp in the desert and in integrated systems.
On Monday, a professor from Kentucky State University who has some small-scale successes in turning decommissioned treatment plants into operational fish farms is expected to tour the site.
University of Arizona labs have taken samples of the tilapia grown in the Kentucky farms, and Fitzsimmons says he would have no problem eating a fish grown in a former treatment plant using reclaimed water from the new treatment plant next door.
"They are cleaner than any fish from the wild," he said.
Over the long term, the research station could generate actual revenue from the sales of fish and eel meat.
A commercial fishery in Maricopa County reportedly gets $2.50 per pound for live tilapia and sells nearly 40,00 pounds a week, according to the memo sent to County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
The UA researchers have told the county they have approached the largest fish farm in the state about a possible partnership at the site, and were told there is interest in a partnership to supply the Tucson area with fresh fish.
However, the first few years would likely focus on hatching fish and studying them, with the fish being shipped to other fish farms in the state to be grown to their full size.
A final decision about the fate of the Roger Road facility is still several months away.
Fitzsimmons says he and his colleagues are still getting advice from outside groups as well as evaluating the potential startup costs for the site.
A decision would also need to be approved by the Pima County Board of Supervisors.
Contact reporter Joe Ferguson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4346.