The Pima County Board of Supervisors recently passed a measure that could place the Santa Cruz River and its tributaries under protection of the federal government’s Clean Water Act.
The unanimous decision, reached at a special session July 18, was meant to show supervisors’ support for the sweeping federal law, but some county employees took issue with it.
The disagreement stems from the extra federal approvals that would be required for any projects that cross the protected river and its tributaries, including improvements planned by the voter-approved Regional Transportation Authority.
“I don’t think there’s any disagreement in wanting the protection,” County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said.
But if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agrees with the supervisors, the Santa Cruz and some key tributaries would be deemed navigable waterways. Projects affecting them would require the Corps’ approval.
That could spell delays in planned roadway improvements, which when postponed too long could cost taxpayers more.
“Our experience has been that they’ve delayed some of the roadway improvement projects,” Huckelberry said of the Corps.
In past cases, according to county officials, it has taken up to two years for the federal agency to approve projects.
In the Northwest, the planned La Cañada widening project could see delays and potential cost increases.
In a June 16 memo to county environmental officials, a representative with the Army Corps of Engineers said that at least five washes that cross La Cañada Drive between Magee and River roads were key tributaries of the Santa Cruz.
The army official also noted that the Santa Cruz is “a traditional navigable water.”
Included in a historical analysis of the river, the Corps refered to a 2005 local radio promotion in which an on-air personality floated a ways downstream on a raft starting at El Camino del Cerro.
The county’s wastewater treatment plant discharges treated water into the river directly downstream of the voyager’s starting point.
While the “navigable” designation confounds many, a bigger issue could involve its impact on construction.
In recent months, rising energy prices also have helped drive up the cost of building materials, particularly asphalt made of rock, sand and petroleum-based tar.
In some parts of the country asphalt prices have jumped nearly 70 percent.
For Huckelberry, calling many of the small Northwest washes navigable streams presents a host of problems.
“In some cases, they’re not even regulated by our floodplain ordinance,” Huckelberry said.
Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis agreed that the sought-after federal protection could make approvals tougher to get.
“It certainly does slow down the timeline, but it’s something you have to build into your schedule,” said Loomis, who also heads the Regional Transportation Authority board.
But for Supervisor Sharon Bronson, who represents Marana and points south, the added federal protection is desirable, despite the potential delays.
“We’re not interested in stopping the projects,” Bronson said.
Bronson agreed that the Clean Water Act could be complicated for local governments to navigate — she called it “the Muddy Water Act” — but said its protections outweigh the problems.
It could enhance the county’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, she said.
Some local environmentalists see federal protection of the river as crucial to protection of species throughout the Sonoran Desert.
In a letter to supervisors, Matt Skroch, executive director of the Sky Island Alliance, described the Clean Water Act as a “benchmark decision.”
He goes on to accuse county staffers of working against environmental protections and attempting to flout the law.
Bronson agrees with him.
“It appears as if, at least on the surface, that the county regulators were trying to avoid regulations that they hold the developers to,” she said.
Huckelberry, though, calls the charge “patently false.”
County supervisors also want to avoid the perception that rank-and-file employees set policies independent of elected officials.
“They are not the policy makers, we are the policy makers,” Bronson said.
Huckelberry said his staff only was trying to protect county road projects and waterways from what he considers a convoluted and flawed regulatory process.
“The process has blinded the outcomes,” he added.