Monday, August 11, 2008

The value of public opinion

There was an old joke going around in Arizona that to know if someone was a native of the state you just ask them what “CAP” stands for. If they answer “Civil Air Patrol” they are not from Arizona.

The “Central Arizona Project” takes water from the Colorado River and transports it to Phoenix and Tucson. It is moved in an open trench through several hundred miles of desert and, unsurprisingly, a certain amount of it evaporates. That means that the mineral content of it gives new meaning to the term “hard water.” The concrete sides of the ditch also means that animals which fall into the ditch can't get out, so they die and decompose, which makes the water rather nasty stuff by the time it gets to Tucson.

Prior to the CAP, Tucson was getting its water from an underground aquifer. The wells were having to be drilled deeper and deeper as the aquifer was being depleted, which was part of the urgency to bring the CAP to Tucson.

There was, however, controversy as to what to do with the CAP water, with two schools of thought in conflict. One group wanted to treat the water and put it directly into the water system. The other plan was the “recharge” group, who wanted to dump the water into the ground and allow it to replenish the diminishing aquifer.

The recharge advocates claimed that their plan was best because going through the process of being underground would naturally purify the water, removing the minerals and all of the dead animal mung. The mineral part seemed a little unlikely to me since the ground is full of minerals and the water currently being pumped out of the ground was full of minerals and already quite “hard,” but…

The opponents of recharge claimed that the water would not stay in our aquifer, but would be carried off into Mexico. They had no data supporting a “flowing” vs. a “standing” aquifer; no one at the time actually knew what the aquifer was doing other than that the level of it was dropping.

So they put the issue on the ballot as a referendum. Brilliant. Here’s a technical issue involving civil engineering and geology that the average voter knows absolutely nothing about, so we’re going to let them decide.

And of course they got it wrong.

Direct treatment won, and the water went directly into the system. It smelled horrible, tasted worse, absolutely no one would drink it or bathe their babies in it, few would bathe themselves in it, and it corroded the city water pipes to total destruction in a matter of months.

So now CAP water is sold only to farmers, which is what the CAP engineers had advocated all along. Fancy that.

Polls say that 80% favor offshore drilling for oil. I’m just sayin’.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:09 PM

    CAP to me means "Combat Air Patrol", which MomLee and Jayhawk will know immediately.

    My first thought was - is there a way to cap the CAP? Yeah, I know, capping the trench is akin to building the US-Mexico border fence, and is not likely. But I thend to think in engineering methodology, not in political speak.

    I laughed about the process being put up for a vote... just like what happens here in California. Put the important infrastructue stuff up for a vote. Put budgeting up for a vote. No wonder we're in a such a mess.