The Arizona Daily Star has recently filled a real vacuum in local civil society by encouraging Tucsonans to take a closer look at what kind of place they want to live in the future. I have quibbles, of course, but they are to be commended for acting as a catalyst and resource for a community faced with some serious choices. There are deep divisions about our future course between those who seek to manage growth (either more or less) and those who believe the facts indicate that we are far past their point where we can just grow smarter, we need to stop growing.
The Star certainly provided some interesting raw data to chew on from their survey earlier this month. Admittedly, some of the questions were intolerably leading and biased, or just plain dopey. But there is some gold in there. I found some insights into Tucsonans' attitudes toward water, transportation, and development.
Read more about what I see—and failed to see—in the data...
Most people recognize that Tucson is very dependent on a fragile and finite water supply, and most believe that our water supply is unsustainable or insufficient for our current rate of growth. Most believe that within 15 to 25 years, water will significantly impact southern Arizona's growth and economy.
Where they begin to get sketchy and unrealistic is, of course, what to do about it.
Asked to prioritize possible solutions nearly half of folks (41%) wanted to limit home construction as the first option. Many fewer saw the best measures to address a limited water supply as water efficient building codes (13%), drinking treated effluent (8%), raising water rates (6%), or buying out farmers and retiring their land (5%). Some of these priorities got more adherents as 2nd or 3rd order options, but those options that are likely to have the greatest impact and are most cost-effective stayed unpopular options.
The most effective and one of the most cost-effective options is to restrict and/or retire farming. The vast majority of our region's water use goes to agriculture. In Arizona, farming just doesn't make much sense, especially when it competes with urban areas for water resources. An acre-foot of water used for urban residential and industrial uses has a much higher economic value than were it used for agriculture. Yet buying out farmers and retiring the land from agricultural use, which is where more than 80% of our water goes, never rose above 6%.
The two mutual reinforcing measures of adopting
water-efficient building codes and charging more for water are potentially very effective to encourage using what we have more efficiently. Both would
have a major impact on the way we use—and frequently waste—water.
The bad news is that building code changes have their greatest impact only in new construction, which most folks seem to want to limit. None-the-less, even in existing structures, higher water rates would encourage the adoption of water-saving practices and equipment. Paying more for water isn't popular (never rising above 10%) but it would be very effective: we value and conserve that which we pay dearly for.
Though not many people chose the 'toilet to tap' approach to extending our water supplies (topping out at 11%), the survey indicates that a surprising number of people are open to the idea. Fully 51% of people believed that wastewater can be made safe to drink, but only 39% were willing to belly up to the toilet themselves. Still, almost 4 out of 10 is a surprisingly high number, which seems likely only to grow as our situation becomes more desperate. Most people (51%) are also prepared to pay more in order to ensure that wastewater is reused appropriately.
There is a lot of simplistic and misdirected thinking about how to make better use of our water, but there are signs that the political and economic will is present to address some of our most knotty water problems if people continue to become more educated about water issues.
Of course, none of this addresses what is perhaps one of the least understood aspects of the water crisis in Arizona: we are already deeply in overdraft in most of our aquifers, and digging ourselves ever deeper into water-debt.
When faced with the prospect of not being able to find sustainable water supplies for new developments due to the imposition of a Active Management Areas (AMAs: the more populated areas of the state where one must certify that new development is not mining ground water for its supplies), the development lobby got the legislature to give them a big water credit card called the Groundwater Recharge District (GRD).
I'll post specifically about the GRD at some point in the future, but suffice it to say that the GRD give developers 100-year Assured Water Supply certifications without the need to actually have any water. The developer can mine ground water to supply his development as long as he promises that the new owners will eventually pay it back through recharge somewhere in the same AMA. Note it doesn't need to be recharged as it's used, in the same place the water is mined, and it is not the developer who pays for the recharge—it is the homeowners, and they probably aren't even fully aware that they are on the hook for making payment on the big water-debt, which could cost them thousands of dollars as available water supplies continue to shrink.
The use of the GRD to make it appear that many new developments around the state (tens of thousands of housing units across the state) have an assured supply, when, if fact, they only have a big water credit card that will have to paid off someday, is an issue that isn't even addressed. Were more people aware of this problem, the percentage who want to stop new development, already a large plurality, who probably be much, much greater.
Already we face the very real prospect of tumbleweeds blowing through the streets of ghost-developments standing out on the edges of cities across Arizona 10 or 20 years from now as folks are forced to stop groundwater mining and are left holding massive water-debts for groundwater recharge that they can't possibly pay, or even find any available water to fulfill. They'll just walk away, and leave all that housing stock, which we now think of as the sine qua non of economic growth, standing abandoned in an unforgiving, waterless desert.
The bottom line on transportation is that Baja Arizonans remain welded to their cars. They don't much favor any policies that would provide them alternative modes of transport, either. Though they universally feel the our transportation system is poor and inefficient, they don't seem enthusiastic about much beyond more of the same. And though everyone feels guilty about their co-dependent relation with their autos, (even to the point of obviously lying about their willingness to use public transport—when asked if the often drive to places to which they could easily walk or take the bus, 81% said 'No'. Bullshit.), they aren't willing to get a divorce.
The one bright spot for alternative modes is the overwhelming support for the idea of a high-speed passenger rail service between Tucson and Phoenix (71%!). I don't know if people will actually get out of their cars to use it, but they sure like the idea.
People responded much less favorably to transportation solutions such as toll roads (37%), higher taxes for improved bus service (38%, probably because ridership is so damned low), or higher gas taxes to pay for better maintenance and improvements (43%, which is a surprisingly high rate of approval for a new tax). What most people really seemed to want is a cross-town freeway (61%), which is likely never to happen now that Tucson has developed without one.
Just 2% surveyed said they commute to work on public transit. That's incredibly low and represents both a problem and very rich opportunity for our policy-makers. Maybe it a sampling bias issue, but I have little doubt that it accurately reflects a very low participation rate in public transport. We need to do a better job of taking commuters out of cars and into public transport. Doing so would have major benefits: lower cost for the commuters, less pollution, less CO2 emissions, less demand for and wear on our roads, and less traffic congestion during peak hours.
The Brookings Institute recent completed a study of the cost of commuting and found—quite intuitively—that the working poor spends a much greater share of their income commuting to work than do better-off income segments: 6.1% of income of the working poor goes to the daily commute, versus 3.8% for the average worker. That chunk rises to 8.4% of income for the working poor who have to drive a car to work, which, in car-dependent Tucson, most do. We could significantly increase the usable income of the working poor if public transport in Tucson were more convenient, more ubiquitous, and possibly even free under a certain income level.
I am surprised and disappointed that the Star didn't see fit to explore people's attitudes toward light rail, street cars, and similar high-volume people movers. I have to wonder if that glaring hole was deliberate.
People are creatures who seem designed to encompass contradictions. We want to live in big houses, with big yards, with lots of privacy. But we want a short commute, more land devoted to open space, green belts, parks. We want to live near the excitement and stimulation of a great urban core, but we don't like to live in multi-family dwellings. We want our homes to be cheap as possible, and as low-density as possible, but we want high-quality materials, energy- and water-efficient design, and good access to public facilities. In short, we want it all.
Sometimes we can make comprises and balance our values and priorities to find a happy balance or mix that will satisfy most people. Unfortunately there is one contradiction that is almost impossible to overcome: supply and demand.
Survey respondents overwhelmingly say the less homes should be built in Arizona (69%), and a similar percentage want local governments to control sprawl by keeping some space free from development (62%), and most people say they will pay more for a house to accomplish those goals (62%). That's good because limiting new home starts, and the land available to develop will, in the long run, increase average home prices throughout the market, making housing more expensive for everyone—buyers and renters alike.
People aren't willing to reduce impact fees and taxes on new homes to help compensate (71%). In fact, they want to increase these costs still higher to prevent current residents from paying for growth. They aren't willing to compensate private property owners for restrictions on growth ((55%), though that is exactly what state residents as whole did not too long ago with Prop 200 (64%). Nor does there seem to be any appetite for programs to ensure there is an adequate supply of mid- to low-income housing (though that impression is exgenous to this data set).
Absent such compensatory policies, the only way to hold down prices is the opposite of what people want: higher density, multi-family structures, more infill, less open spaces. There's a certain irony to it all, isn't there? Yet folks favor steering development into infill and higher density (75% prefer this option to 17% who prefer continued sprawl) despite not wanting to live in such conditions themselves (63% would NOT want to live in multi-story, multi-family housing, and a 49% plurality don't even want to live in densely-spaced single family units with good access to parks and greenbelts).
There is a widespread understanding that we Baja Arizonans can't continue as we have been, even though people continue to behave and have life-style expectations reflecting a deeper belief that we can make a a societal change without it affecting anybody in particular. We want to continue having abundant clean water, but we don't want to pay any more for it. We want a cleaner environment and a more efficient transportation system, but we don't want to use it or pay for it—we love our SUV. We want to stop gobbling up the desert and sprawling toward every horizon, but we don't want to live cheek-by-jowl in the urban jungle. We want it all—and without any cost.
Our attitudes and expectations about growth and 'the good life' will have to change, and builders and planners will have to make density and efficiency more pleasant, to square this circle and resolve the contradictions between what we want from housing, transportation, and our water supplies, and what we will have to sacrifice to continue the experiment of urbanizing the Great American Desert, and the harshest part of it, the Sonoran Desert, in particular.
I applaud the Star, and I hope they continue to focus on educating the Baja Arizona public about the choices we need to make to create a more sustainable civilization here in our desert.