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City fights to keep water from going down drink

The 1,500 Girl Scouts who went knocking on neighborhood doors here recently weren't pushing cookies -- they were promoting water conservation.

Ranging from Brownies to Senior Scouts, they'd been trained as part of a countywide conservation program that includes distributing 60,000 water-saver kits with devices for reducing household water use. It's been estimated that the several hundred kits handed out by the Girl Scouts alone -- if used -- could save over 1 billion gallons of water a year, or 28,000 gallons per family.

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As this minicampaign helps illustrate, if there's a civic message to be heard in Tucson today, it's this: Save water. It's a warning being heeded by growing numbers of residents in this city, which bears the dubious distinction of being the largest city in the world to depend solely on ground water for its water supplies.

Although it is generally agreed that Tucson has sufficient underground water reservoirs to last the city well into the next century, it is equally true that Tucson is drawing water from the earth nearly twice as fast as Mother Nature is replenishing it.

Many people here say that conservation measures will be sufficient to allow this desert city to continue blooming, and booming -- conservation measures coupled with Colorado River water the city is expected to get by 1990 when the costly Central Arizona Project water system is completed, and coupled with carrying out the state's tough water management code, passed in 1980.

Others argue, however, that the demands placed on Tucson's water by the city, miners, farmers, and Indians may sometime lead to locally imposed restrictions on growth and water consumption. Steve Davis, a water planning administrator with Tucson Water, the city's water utility, says that Tucson's water supplies can sustain a population of not more than 1.2 to 1.8 million. The whole metropolitan area now has 531,000 people. It is expected to approach 1 million by the year 2000. Because of that, he contends, the city ''will get to (controlled growth) eventually.''

Since the water issue first flooded into the public arena here in the mid-70s as part of a city debate on water rate structures, it has spread into a communitywide effort to turn the tide on water use.

So far, Tucson can boast some impressive achievements. Thanks in large part to a city conservation effort known as ''beat the peak'' and a county push called ''slow the flow,'' water consumption has dropped dramatically -- from a peak of 205 gallons per person per day in 1973-74 to the current rate of 160 gallons per person per day.

The effect of that decline on Tucson's water table, however, has been canceled out by the city's population growth, which increased at almost the same rate that water used declined. Still, the conservation effort is widely applauded: Without it, observers note, the city's population growth would have meant an even more serious strain on Tucson's water supplies.

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Equally encouraging to local officials is the community's surge in water conservation awareness. Local involvement in the fight to conserve water is found virtually everywhere one looks:

* Desert landscaping. Encouraged by a city-sponsored desert landscape contest held two years ago, many local residents have abandoned green lawns for less water-thirsty, yet still attractive, cactus and rock gardens.

''We have seen literally thousands of people turn to desert landscaping,'' says Frank Brooks, management assistant at Tucson Water.

* Business involvement. Concerned with future management of Tucson's water supply, many of the city's business leaders have banded together and formed the Southern Arizona Water Resources Association. The group, which grew out of a water seminar in February, sponsored by the business community, plans to push for a regional water district -- separate from the city and county and run by an elected board.

In addition, at least one local corporate giant -- IBM -- has taken an active role in water conservation with an extensive water recycling program at its Tucson plant.

* Education programs. In addition to numerous city-sponsored television and radio spots, a number of public education efforts are under way. City officials, for example, are meeting with administrators from the University of Arizona's School of Education in an attempt to develop a curriculum on conservation that is expected to be launched in local elementary schools this fall.

The Pima Association of Governments, a private, nonprofit agency that helps Pima County governments get federal dollars and which administers the ''slow the flow'' program, sends out water conservation speakers to as many as 20 community groups each month. Also, the association plans to push for a countywide ordinance that would require builders to install low-flow fixtures in all new housing.

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