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Tucson set to require new commercial developments to harvest rainwater

TUCSON – Rain falling on the roof of this new QuikTrip gas station trickles into pipes that water willow acacia trees and native shrubs.

The parking lot slopes, directing water into deep gravel that keeps it around for the desert landscaping rather than having it run down East Speedway Boulevard.

Designing 12 new Tucson stores to harvest rain makes good business sense when it comes to water bills, said Troy DeVos, director of real estate for Tulsa, Okla.-based QuikTrip Corp. And helping the environment is an added benefit, he said.

“It’s a great opportunity to make a difference and really help out,” DeVos said. “And we’ll be saving money in the long run.”

Starting in June, a city ordinance that’s the first of its kind in the nation will require all new commercial developments to obtain at least half of the water for landscaping from Tucson’s annual rainfall of 11 to 12 inches.

Vice Mayor Rodney Glassman, who pushed for the ordinance, said this type of water conservation should be the rule rather than the exception.

“Tucson is at the bottom of the Central Arizona Project, so we’re most impacted by future drought,” he said. “We’re planning for the future.”

The ordinance will require what’s commonly referred to as passive harvesting, which instead of storing rainwater in tanks channels it immediately to landscaping.

The cost to outfit a commercial development for passive harvesting varies by the size of the building and the type and complexity of landscaping, pipes and drains installed. Glassman said the cost is slight, in part because it can be incorporated into the design, and that complying with the ordinance can be as simple as sloping a parking lot.

“Any cost incurred is at the discretion of the developer,” he said.

Paul Green, executive director of the Tucson Audubon Society, a conservation group that advocates rainwater harvesting in homes and schools, said he would have preferred requiring businesses to get all of their landscaping water from rain. But he called the 50 percent mandate a start.

“If we catch at least some of the rainwater, we’ll be using less from the Colorado River,” Green said. “It’s an important first step.”

Even though the ordinance doesn’t take effect until June, QuikTrip volunteered to be the one of the first commercial projects to comply, DeVos said.

“We want to keep rainwater here, not let it run off and be wasted,” he said.

Christina Bickelmann, a Tucson-based conservation specialist with the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said rainwater harvesting is an important practice that needs to be incorporated into landscaping.

“Everyone’s getting more conscious of water, and rainwater harvesting is an integral part of water conservation,” she said.

To draft the ordinance, Glassman organized a group of stakeholders including the Southern Arizona Builders Alliance to negotiate the details and language.

David Pittman, executive director of the builders group, said the ordinance originally would have required businesses to meet all of their landscaping needs with rainwater, which would involve installing expensive cisterns. During the negotiations, the mandate was reduced to half.

“If it had required cisterns we would have opposed it,” Pittman said. “I’m philosophically opposed to government imposing its will on others, but we do live in a desert and it’s important that we conserve.”

Robert Medler, manager of governmental affairs for the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said the ordinance is misleading because it only looks at water from one perspective.

“The same year the ordinance was passed, Tucson sold part of its CAP allocation because not all of the water was being used,” he said. “It’s a mixed message.”

The chamber, which wasn’t included in the negotiations, is also against the ordinance because it doesn’t give commercial businesses any incentive or tax break to comply.

“There was no carrot, only the stick,” he said.

Glassman called the cost to businesses negligible and the benefits to the community great.

“It encourages the use of native vegetation and is environmentally conscious,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

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