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Budget cuts a threat to water supply

Kendrick Wilson

By Kendrick Wilson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday Feb. 22, 2002

Drastic budget cuts are all too familiar words nowadays in the Arizona Legislature. But other budget cuts are taking place besides university funding and pay raises. They may not be as sensational, but one in particular could affect everyone in Tucson - especially everyone at the UA.

I would be surprised if even a handful of UA students had ever heard of the Arizona Water Quality Assurance Revolving Fund. Nevertheless, WQARF has an impact on their lives every time they drink from a water fountain, flush a toilet or take a shower in Tucson.

Let's begin with how WQARF came about. Tucson, as well as many other Arizona cities, relies heavily on groundwater. Unfortunately, this means that underground pollution directly contaminates our water supply. The Environmental Protection Agency sets standards to keep our drinking water safe, and in many states, the EPA administers cleanup and containment of contamination sites.

However, when the EPA is in charge, it has a policy known as joint several liability. This means that if multiple parties were responsible for the contamination, those that remain (even if there is only one) must pay for the entire cleanup. This can destroy small businesses and bankrupt local governments. So, Arizona created WQARF. By doing this, the state made a promise to help pay for cleanup in exchange for eliminating joint several liability.

So how does this relate to people living in Tucson? Tucson has eight superfund sites listed with WQARF. One is very near the UA. The Park-Euclid superfund site came about as a result of old dry cleaning operations, dating back to the 1930s. Contaminants range from volatile organic compounds to tetrachloroethene and to trichloroethene, all of which pose potential health risks.

The news only gets better. The wells used by UA are downgradient (kind of like downwind, only underground) from the Park-Euclid plume. This means that if the cleanup and containment process isn't carried out, UA would have to shut down its wells - not to mention the fact that we could be drinking contaminated water during the period of time between water quality tests.

Those who live on Tucson's eastside probably pass by the intersection of Broadway Boulevard and Pantano Road every day. Few may know that an old landfill north of Broadway has created a plume that has extended past Wilmot Road to the west. Contaminated water turned up several years ago at the well serving St. Joseph's Hospital, which is now cleaned by a charcoal filter.

The estimated cost of cleaning up and containing the Park-Euclid site over the next 10 years is $5,241,750. The cost of the Broadway-Pantano landfill cleanup and containment is $17,247,000. The City of Tucson has already invested $2 million in the Broadway-Pantano project, with WQARF promising to pay the rest. WQARF is paying the entirety of the Park-Euclid project.

Contamination cleanup isn't cheap and the Legislature is considering drastic cuts to WQARF's funding! In fact, not only are they aiming to cut funding, they are considering eliminating WQARF's share of corporate income taxes. This means $15 million less for WQARF!

Former City Council Member Janet Marcus sits on the WQARF advisory board. "Once Broadway-Pantano was outside the city limits; now it's in the middle of town, and its polluted plume of water is threatening the city's central wellfield," she said.

The result is not difficult to see. The budget cuts will render WQARF unable to keep its promise to pay for cleanup and containment of contaminated sites. This means the EPA will have to step in, forcing local governments and small businesses to accept joint several liability. In the meantime, these plumes will grow, and wells will be contaminated.

If the City of Tucson has to pay the full amount for the Broadway-Pantano site, as well as others, then money that should be used for repaving roads, running buses and building parks will instead be spent cleaning up contaminated sites.

'The state has a written agreement with the city to clean up the Broadway-Pantano site. I think they should keep that promise," Karen Masbruch, director of the City of Tucson's Environmental Management Department pointed out. "We do not know what will happen to the contaminated sites if the state cuts WQARF's budget."

"The longer you wait, especially if you have traveling underground plumes of polluted water, the more money it takes to do the clean up," Marcus added.

The issue of pay raises may seem more interesting, but I think WQARF is possibly the most important budget issue of the year.


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