Water and Sustainability In a Time of Uncertainty: Lessons for Tucson by Colette Altaffer, Neighborhood Infill Coalition

posted Tuesday, November 11, 2008        

“Water and Sustainability In a Time of Uncertainty: Lessons for Tucson” was presented by Colette Altaffer, Neighborhood Infill Coalition to the Joint City/County Water Study Committee on October 22nd. It’s a very clear summary of what we should be aware of as we move forward. What is at stake? What are the risks? Are there opportunities for smart solutions to our challenges? Who is going to do the work of building a sustainable community?


My name is Colette Altaffer. I am here to speak on behalf of the Neighborhood Infill Coalition. We are a group of community advocates who focus on quality-of-life issues in neighborhoods.

As we were thinking about water and sustainability and our neighbors, the recent financial meltdown was never far from our minds.

We’d been reading about a report which the General Accounting Office delivered to Congress in 1994, in which it warned that the unregulated derivatives market could produce the type of economic meltdown that we have just experienced.

Congress, of course, ignored those warnings and allowed the markets to continue as if the party would never end – until it did.

And we were struck by the parallels between the financial meltdown and Tucson’s own political climate – from the undue influence exerted on our politicians by special interests, to government’s failure to act in a way that protects the interests of all its citizens.

From this financial fiasco, we chose three lessons that Tucson could learn from and applied them to water and sustainability.

The first lesson – is Practice the Precautionary Principle. We’ve probably all heard the term, Precautionary Principle and it is defined many ways, but one of the most succinct definitions describes it as, “caution practiced in the context of uncertainty.”

When it comes to water, uncertainty is one thing Tucson has in abundance.

During these past few months, you’ve helped our community learn a great deal about water, and wastewater treatment, and the infrastructure that makes our lives here possible. But you’ve also shown that Tucson’s water future is fraught with uncertainty, and uncertainty leads to troubling questions.

For example:

∑ We’re told that Tucson sits on top of 60 million acre feet of water, but how accurate is that number?

∑ How much of this water is off limits due to pollution and how much do we have to keep in the ground to avoid the severe infrastructure damage that comes with subsidence?

∑ How much further can we extend our sewer system without dramatically increasing the water deficit that it already operates at?

∑ How can we create greater density within the city’s core without expensive upgrades to the aging and undersized infrastructure that this increased population will need to rely on?

∑ How do we pay for the exorbitant costs of desalinization, when a disproportionate number of our citizens are living at or near the poverty level?

It is crucial that we answer these questions before we continue with “growth as usual”.

Which leads us to our second lesson. Don’t paint yourself into a corner.

Our democracy thrives on having choices, but having choices requires flexibility.

Flexibility only occurs when there is enough room to maneuver, so we need to ensure that the recommendations we make and the actions we take, provide us with enough “wiggle room” so that our choices aren’t limited to crises-based decisions.

If we continue down the path of “growth as usual” and blindly pursue a megalopolis that stretches from Mexico to Prescott, we may find that the ability to choose is no longer ours, and a Federal judge, or even nature, will make the choice for us.

Democracy also thrives on all voices being heard, and this leads us to our third lesson. We like to call this the “all hands on deck” approach.

For too long, we have tolerated our political system, where we elect our representatives and then they largely ignore us while the special interests get their way.

This has recently culminated in Town Halls and Growth Forums that are controlled by these special interests, who mute the voice of our citizens and then represent the outcome as “community consensus”.

This needs to change. We can no longer accept that a handful of people know what is best for Tucson, while ignoring the vast, untapped resource that is our citizens. In our citizens, we have available to us a wealth of knowledge, expertise, life experience and creative energy, and we need to utilize that resource.

Sustainability isn’t just about conserving resources. It is also about utilizing those resources more efficiently. Just as we can no longer afford to have water flowing off our yards and onto our driveways, we can no longer afford to marginalize the talents and energy of one of our greatest untapped resources – our citizens.

If we are going to turn this ship around, we need “all hands on deck”.

This process has provided us with the opportunity to step back from the “growth as usual” abyss and assess the uncertainties of our community’s water future.

As you draft your report, we hope that you will draw from the lessons of our current financial crises and ensure that you practice caution in the context of uncertainty, avoid painting yourselves into a corner, and involve the entire community in achieving Tucson’s sustainability.

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