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Tucson Opinion: Let’s choose a path toward local water sustainability
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Tucson Opinion

Tucson Opinion: Let’s choose a path toward local water sustainability

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

We are members of the Tucson community writing to remind readers that a thriving Tucson area depends on a secure water future. Recent articles in this paper have highlighted the unusually low water levels along the Colorado River, which have triggered reductions in the delivery of Central Arizona Project water beginning in January 2022. The clock is ticking, and now is the time for us to demand that our local leaders protect the community from water scarcity by adapting design solutions to meet this moment.

Even though Southern Arizona is facing water supply shortages, local leaders continue to issue new permits for residential development and water service. At the same time, calls for water conservation are met in some circles with skepticism as to why we should conserve water if it only benefits more development and increases our risk of a local water shortage.

This situation forces the question: Can we build our way out of our water crisis? As professionals with backgrounds in urban design, architecture, residential development, water conservation and watershed planning, it might surprise you to hear us say this, but the answer is a tentative yes — if our construction designs for both existing and proposed development solve problems instead of causing them.

Let’s embark on a path toward local water sustainability in our design processes that is both holistic and collective. This path will build resilience into our water supply system, recharging groundwater and benefiting our rivers and community connections. A secure water future will be clear in restored groundwater levels and a renewed heritage of flowing rivers and productive floodplains.

The goal of living comfortably on the water available in our regional watershed is possible, especially if we begin taking steps now. Tucson has a significant amount of water available in the form of natural recharge, rainwater, stormwater and safely treated effluent. Water is a finite resource, and once we realize the concept of “waste” water is an illusion, we can make decisions based on the total amount of water available in our urban environment.

First, we can reimagine our communities and homes by retrofitting existing designs. Watershed Management Group’s Living Lab and Learning Center in midtown Tucson is an example of how existing developments can be retrofitted to be fully supported by rainwater and graywater and soak up excess stormwater to help recharge the aquifer.

We can fully support native plant rain gardens through harvested rainwater, nourish our vegetables from rain tanks, and modify our patterns of water use indoors — which on a mass scale, could cut Tucson’s water demand in half. Reuse of graywater — gently used water from sinks, showers, tubs and washing machines — also decreases demand for potable water.

At the same time, reusing water supports the growth of shade trees, lowering urban heat stress, creating more vibrant community spaces and wildlife habitat, and reducing local neighborhood flooding. Thanks to Tucson Water’s innovative incentive programs and the newer Green Stormwater Infrastructure program, we as a community can accelerate modifying our existing developments to realize these benefits. These efforts must also prioritize marginalized community areas to achieve overall water resilience and community health.

With an integrated design, new developments can also use significantly less water. A new community, Campus Farm Green (being developed by one of the authors), is designed to capture and return more water to the ground than it buys from the water utility, while creating homes that can be sold for a profit at market prices. We recommend adding water conservation, water harvesting, and reuse requirements to new development, restricting water service outside of Tucson’s established service area, and setting aside conserved water for that non-rainy day to ensure the health of our natural and human communities into the future.

We have all the tools we need in hand: it’s time for our local leaders to make progress in using them.

Catlow Shipek is with the Watershed Management Group. Courtney Crosson is an assistant professor with the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture. Dante Archangeli is with Tucson Artisan Builders.

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