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Marana voters approve purchase of wastewater plant

Voters in Marana passed a measure in this week’s election that finally ends a dispute over a wastewater treatment plant. 

Marana was embroiled in a 25-year legal battle with Pima County over the facility, and experts said the case sets an important standard for growth in the southern Arizona town. 

On Tuesday, Marana voters overwhelmingly approved a proposal that allowed the town to purchase the Rillito Vista wastewater plant that Pima County built in the town more than 30 years ago. Since the late 1980s, the town and county have been fighting over ownership of the facility that serves about 2,000 customers in the suburb on the outskirts of Tucson.   

Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson said he’s relieved the battle is finally over and he’s not surprised it took so long to reach a resolution. 

"If you think about water issues in our great state, I mean some of them have gone on for decades," Davidson said.

Davidson reflects back on Marana’s first attempt to take over the plant from Pima County in 1988. That’s when voters gave the town permission to buy it, but later an appeals court voided the election results saying Marana’s ballot measure was flawed. Then just two years ago, state lawmakers passed a law that turned the plant back over to Marana to operate on a temporary basis. 

Now the town has gained permanent ownership after 75 percent of Marana voters supported the ballot measure this week. Davidson said this is really more about Marana’s fresh water supply and not just wastewater.

"We, like many cities and towns across the state of Arizona, want to fully maximize every drop of water in our jurisdiction. We want to make sure that the water that is coming out of the sewage treatment system is cleaned to the highest level and we can recharge it back into the aquifer or use it on open space and not have to pump as much water,” Davidson said.

Pima County officials also are relieved that the decades of bickering over the plant is over .

“It obviously is a divisive issue and so we’re happy to have it behind us," said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry. He said there are no hard feelings between the county and Marana and he said the county will cooperate with Marana in the transfer of all permits required to operate the plant.  

Huckleberry also downplays Pima County’s loss.  “It really has no impact on us as a regional utility and if Marana wants to incur those costs in order to obtain the water rights through effluent through the plant then that’s really their choice," he said.

Huckleberry said Marana has agreed to pay off the outstanding $18 million debt on the wastewater plant and Pima county’s legal fees connected to lawsuits over the facility. Even with reclaimed water Marana gets from the plant, the town still has to look for other sources to meet future demand. 

But, Arizona Department of Water Resources Planning Director Tom Buschatzke said the state won’t let Marana continue to grow without enough water available. 

"For the last 20 years or so, Arizona has had a requirement that to build new subdivisions you have to show 100 years of renewable supplies before you are allowed to build. That’s really the most progressive law in the United States," Buschatzke said.

 Marana has grown fast over the past decade and if it doesn’t meet that 100-year water supply and wants to keep growing, it probably will have to buy more expensive water from the Central Arizona Project.