When Marana was abuzz with debate over a proposal to transform the historic Lazy K Bar Guest Ranch into a 178-home gated community, there was no shortage of environmental issues on the table:
Sinking wells and groundwater supply. Wildlife corridors. Open space protection and development. Historic preservation. Impacts to neighboring Saguaro National Park West. Traffic. Proposed density increases that some activists saw as out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood. Plans to reopen Scenic Drive adjoining the project site.
But the discovery that contaminated well water will serve the development was absent from the debate, which ended in May 2017 with a 5-2 Town Council vote to approve a specific plan and rezoning for the site.
By that time, Marana officials had known for nearly four months that a groundwater well that will ultimately serve the project was contaminated with two kinds of chemical pollutants that could cause cancer in people over a lifetime of exposure. But the pollution by 1,4-dioxane and PFAS compounds wasn’t discussed at the council meeting that was packed with people speaking for and against the project.
The burgeoning issue of water contamination seemed wholly separate from the Lazy K rezoning debate at the time, said town Councilman Dave Bowen.
“We were talking about a project that was years in the future, combined with the beginning of knowledge of the water problem that might or might not affect them, so that’s why it wasn’t brought up,” he said. “I would have certainly had no objection to bringing it up if I thought it had direct relevance to the homebuilders. But I didn’t.”
Another reason the issue didn’t come up is that while the town had earlier disclosed the contamination to Marana Water customers in mailed documents, the potential for contaminated water to be served to Lazy K Bar residents wasn’t disclosed in the town’s official staff report recommending approval of the rezoning.
Neither the head of The Planning Center, a consulting firm for the landowners proposing the project, nor two Tucson environmentalists who were deeply involved in the issue knew anything about the contamination at the time, they told the Star in late August.
Marana officials are now preparing a detailed treatment plan to clean up that well and five others in the town for the Town Council’s approval by early October, at a cost of $15 million.
Together, the six wells serve more than one-third of the town’s water customers.
The council unanimously directed staff to come up with the plan in mid-August, under pressure from residents in the contaminated Continental Reserve and Saguaro Bloom areas who are frustrated about the pollution. The council action came about a month after a detailed Sunday story about the contamination was published in the Arizona Daily Star.
But it’s not clear whether the pollution cleanup will be online by the time Lazy K Bar starts selling upscale homes priced at up to $600,000.
And critics of the town government — inside and outside Marana — say the town erred by not holding off on the 2017 rezoning until the water contamination was addressed.
“If the mayor and Town Council knew about the contaminated wells, how could they legitimately approve rezoning for 178 homes?” said Lazy K neighbor Ethel Coffey, who lives on Pima Farms Road in unincorporated Pima County. “That’s wrong. That’s horrible.”
Town Mayor Ed Honea emphasized the pollutants in the wells aren’t legally regulated by the federal government. That means they don’t have formal drinking water standards, although the Environmental Protection Agency has said it’s considering whether to put drinking water limits on the PFAS compounds.
“Nobody’s trying to hide anything from anyone,” Honea said. “Do we want to get it out of there? Yes. Are we going to get it out of there? Yes.”
But, he said, “As far as the federal government and state government is concerned, it’s not even a controlled substance.”
Honea said growth should not stop in Marana based on the water concerns. He said his friends who live in Saguaro Bloom and Continental Reserve aren’t as concerned as those being vocal about the water issue.
“There are contaminants in all water,” he said. “This is not Flint, Michigan. That water will make you sick when you drink a glass of it. My church is over there at Continental Reserve and I drink the water at my church.”
At Marana’s contamination levels, you must drink 2 liters of water a day for 70 years to have a one-in-a-million chance of experiencing adverse health effects, such as cancer, the mayor said.
Longtime Tucson environmental activist Christina McVie said she’s appalled at Marana’s actions, not just with Lazy K but at its failure to start moving toward cleaning up the contamination until very recently.
McVie noted that she’s a retired registered nurse who lived on Tucson’s south side during the 1980s, when groundwater pollution from trichloroethylene was discovered.
“In Michigan, they are declaring areas like this as Superfund sites,” McVie said. “This goes beyond Lazy K or any of that, although it’s completely outrageous that they didn’t delay permitting there and that they didn’t start cleanup immediately. ... I’m incredulous that they didn’t think it was a big deal.”
By contrast, the city of Tucson has gone to great lengths to address 1-4 dioxane, to the point of building a treatment plant to remove it from polluted south-side groundwater, McVie said.
She noted the Tucson City Council recently voted to sue Minnesota-based manufacturing giant 3M over its toxic chemicals, used by Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and other bases across the country.
Marana’s water contamination will actually be harder to clean up than Flint’s, McVie said. Marana’s issue wasn’t caused by lead in pipes mixing with river water; it’s lodged in the town’s underlying aquifer, meaning millions of dollars must be spent to remove it, McVie said.
At the time of the vote to approve Lazy K plans, the town’s water utility, Marana Water, had months earlier notified all of its customers of the contamination with detailed mailers, which were also sent to those living outside polluted areas.
Water Director John Kmiec had notified then-Town Manager Gilbert Davidson about the potential for water-quality issues in October 2016, after Kmiec learned about them from Tucson Water officials, Kmiec told the Star.
When asked why the pollution wasn’t in the staff report about the Lazy K project, town spokeswoman Vic Hathaway gave a statement saying, in part, “Town of Marana currently meets all state and federal guidelines under the Safe Drinking Water Act for clean water.”
While the town notified Marana Water customers about the contamination, the Lazy K site isn’t yet connected to the water system and so isn’t a Marana Water customer, Hathaway said.
Details of how water will be provided to a new development and what infrastructure is needed aren’t typically discussed in a rezoning process, Hathaway said. Such issues are dealt with in a development plan and a water agreement, closer to when the council approves a final plat for the project showing its layout.
“Rezoning deals with permanent conditions and land use entitlements, and is not always immediately followed by actual development. Water quality is a fluid issue and not a constant condition, and as such is discussed closer to the time of actual development,” Hathaway said.
Activist Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, said the purpose of a staff report should be to let everyone know what the current conditions are on a proposed project site.
When groundwater is polluted, “if that’s not a current condition, I don’t know what is,” Campbell said.
Campbell and McVie said they had heard nothing of the pollution when they agreed to a compromise on the Lazy K deal. Right before the final council vote on Lazy K Bar, the coalition negotiated a last-minute deal with Lazy K developers that allowed them to support the rezoning.
Campbell and McVie said if had they known of the contamination back then, they would have pushed to delay rezoning and permitting of new development in that area until it was clear the pollution would be cleaned.
“Who wants to buy a house if they don’t know if the water is going to be polluted or not?” Campbell said.
Linda Morales, CEO of The Planning Center, which was hired by Lazy K’s property owners Jim Shiner and Peter Evans to design plans for Lazy K, first learned of the water contamination from the Star’s recent article, she said. She only learned of the connection to Lazy K when a reporter told her about it late last month.
“I was totally in the dark about this whole thing,” she said.
Morales, now working for Pulte on Lazy K’s landscape plans, declined to say whether the issue should have been raised in the zoning hearings, but she said she doesn’t believe it would have changed the outcome.
“In any case when we do a rezoning, we say to the water provider, ‘Is there capacity, are there lines to serve the site?’” she said. Water quality doesn’t typically come up, she said.
“There was definitely the presumption that we would have good municipal water,” she said.
Maybe that presumption needs to change, said Virgil Swadley, who lives in unincorporated Pima County not far from Lazy K.
He said if he’d known about the water issues, he would have raised them during public hearings on the development.
Water availability shouldn’t be the only factor discussed in rezoning hearings — water quality needs to be included as well, he said.
FOCUS ON SOLUTIONS
Gilbert Davidson, Marana’s town manager when the contamination was discovered and when Lazy K got council approval, said council members were notified immediately about the water contamination, first in November 2016, when the 1.4-dioxane results came in, and then in January 2017 when PFAS sampling results came in.
He questioned the relevance of connecting the water issue to the Lazy K decision.
“It just seems like you’re trying to look for something that doesn’t exist,” he said. “The response the town took was to properly let people know, ‘There’s an unregulated substance. We’re taking it very seriously.’“
Davidson said Marana staff was still trying to understand the water situation while Lazy K was being debated, and the focus was on finding a long-term solution, he said.
The water issue as it relates to that project wasn’t on anyone’s radar, he said.
“It’s not that it was being hidden,” said Councilwoman Roxanne Ziegler. “We had as a town notified our Marana water customers. In the discussion of Lazy K, it didn’t come up. Nobody brought it up. The town didn’t bring it up. The builder didn’t bring it up. People didn’t bring it up.”
Shawna Larson and Jack Ferguson, who live in Saguaro Bloom and Continental Reserve, respectively, said the council shouldn’t have approved the Lazy K rezoning until the water contamination was addressed.
“I used to work for an environmental organization and I’ve had cancer. I don’t want to drink contaminants in my water,” said Larson, who has water delivered to her family’s home. “I don’t think people should be paying Marana for polluted, poisoned water.”
There’s no logic to approving a development until the water is clean, Ferguson added.
“Clearly, I think the risk needs to be reduced or eliminated prior to anyone moving into those homes,” he said. “Just adding more people to the equation exacerbates the problem.”
Vice Mayor Jon Post said he can understand the Lazy K critics’ concerns, “but from a policy standpoint, one is a land issue, one is a water issue.”
Councilman Bowen said he doesn’t know whether the Lazy K developers would have been influenced by prior knowledge of the water contamination issue.
“We cannot have any idea. My sense is that they would have gone ahead with the project anyway, especially in light of the fact that the town of Marana is gonna clean up their water,” he said.
Barbara Rose, an environmental activist who led the opposition to the Lazy K development, said Marana didn’t respond with any urgency to the pollution until it was raised in the news.
“Now that it’s been outed in the news articles, Marana is doing its best to assure people that they’re on it,” said Rose, who lives in unincorporated Pima County just outside Marana. “If I’d have known about it, I certainly would have brought it up and I have a feeling that Marana would have had to respond two years ago, instead of just sending people notices.”
The town must start paying more attention to an issue that isn’t going away, Rose said.
“Marana boasts that it has plenty of groundwater to support its exponential growth,” she said. “But its water quality in general reflects its location downstream from just about everything that’s a potential pollutant.”