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Sonoran Desert

Land Letter, October 16, 2008

Tucson passes nation's first rainwater harvesting ordinance for commercial properties
By April Reese

The city of Tucson, Ariz., on Tuesday became the first municipality in the country to require developers of commercial properties to harvest rainwater for landscaping.

The new water-saving measure -- approved by a unanimous vote by the City Council -- mandates that new developments meet 50 percent of their landscaping water requirements by capturing rainwater. The new rule goes into effect June 1, 2010.

Though environmentalists had pushed for a 100 percent requirement and a stakeholder group convened by the city at one point considered a 75 percent requirement, the city settled on the 50 percent recommendation after developers expressed concern that a higher percentage would have required the installation of expensive cistern systems.

The ordinance -- the first in the country to require rainwater harvesting on commercial properties -- is intended to boost water conservation in arid Tucson, which receives about 12 inches of rainfall a year. It will also reduce stormwater runoff, said Brad Lancaster, a nationally recognized rainwater harvesting expert who lives in Tucson.

Councilman Rodney Glassman, who proposed the measure and encouraged the formation of the stakeholder group to engender buy-in from a wide range of interests, said requiring developers to decrease their use of municipal water and rely more on rainwater will boost conservation -- an important goal considering the area's limited water supplies. While Tucson receives some water from the state's allocation of Colorado River water, Phoenix gets first dibs, he noted.

"We are at the bottom of the straw, so to speak," Glassman said. "When there are shortages, we're the first to feel the effect."

Rainwater is the city's only renewable water source, he said.

Targeting commercial developments made sense because landscaping accounts for about 50 percent of their the water use, Glassman added.

Other local governments, including Santa Fe and Albuquerque, N.M., require new homes to use rainwater harvesting, but not commercial properties (Land Letter, Aug. 8).


Members of the development community, which was represented in the stakeholder group convened by the City Council to work out recommendations for a rainwater harvesting ordinance, expressed support for the measure.

"I think it's a pretty good ordinance," said David Pittman, director of the Arizona Builders Alliance's southern Arizona chapter, who served on the stakeholder committee that recommended the 50 percent mandate to the City Council. "Anything at 60 percent or above would have essentially mandated cisterns and a more expensive kind of system," he said. "At 50 percent, in most cases, you can comply with the ordinance using more passive kinds of treatments," such as using pervious pavement, building sloping parking lots to funnel water to landscaped areas, and collecting water from rooftops to feed a drip irrigation system, he added.

Sean Sullivan, co-chair of the Rincon chapter of the Sierra Club, based in Tucson, said that while he would have preferred the Council adopt a higher percentage, the ordinance is a good start.

"This is only a drop in the bucket," Sullivan said. "It's not going to solve the water problems we have down here, but it shows a willingness to address the issue."

The only entity to publicly oppose the measure was the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which argued that the ordinance would encourage developers to take their projects beyond the city limits.

"We find this to be an unfunded mandate," said Robert Medler, the chamber's government-affairs manager. "We support conservation. We live in the desert, and you have to do what's appropriate to save water. But this is just not the right way to do that."

Other ways of conserving water, such as installing more low-flow toilets in commercial buildings, would be a better way to achieve the same water savings, Medler said.

Glassman said the popularity of the measure is due to the inclusiveness of the process that created it. Before drafting the ordinance, the Council convened the stakeholder group, which included interests representing builders, developers, environmental groups and others, to work out a proposal that would be acceptable to the community.

"This was a win-win process," Glassman said.

Tucson also offers tax incentives to encourage residents to use rainwater harvesting (Land Letter, Aug. 8).

Lancaster said he hopes the new Tucson ordinance will inspire other municipalities to follow suit.

"I think what we really need to see from city and county governments is that they really step up and do this on all city and county properties," Lancaster said.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton