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I have seen the future – it is in Tucson. Tucson is reclaiming paradise from parking lots.

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Dunbar Spring

On a recent visit to Tucson I toured the City and Pima County’s stormwater management, flood control, and water harvesting features.

I suppose it should be no surprise that it takes a desert community to teach us about water and what a scarce and valuable resource it is. I hope that in wetter climes we do not only realize that: “You don’t know what you’ve got until it is gone”2.

Tucson doesn’t get a lot of rain, but it does tend to get it all at once and so flooding is an infrequent but high impact event. Run-off from paved surfaces is therefore a problem.

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Arterial Road, Tucson – Street water harvesting

Similarly paving over paradise creates reflective heat. So the City is creating shade with trees and scrubs.

Scott Ave near 12th Street, Tucson

Water shortages, urban heat islands, severe weather, flooding are all becoming problems for cities across North America. Tucson is dealing with them with green infrastructure – native trees and shrubs, low water consumption species that provide shade and resiliency to a harsh desert environment. They are engaging and funding neighborhoods to get involved in water harvesting to increase the quality of life.

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Learn more at: http://www.harvestingrainwater.com/

A great example of this is The Dunbar Spring neighborhood – a small, historic, and culturally diverse neighborhood located just north of downtown Tucson.

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An Urban Heat Sink Island!

They are also using low impact development stormwater management to take whole neighborhoods out of flooding zones.

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Arroyo Chico Wash – wildlife refuge and corridor for desert tortoise and coyotes.

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Map from USACE Tucson Drainage Area Flood Control Project

From Arroyo Chico Multi-Use Project

Approximately 1,315 residential, multi-family, commercial and industrial structures will be removed from the 100 year floodplain with a total assessed property value of $364,758,000. Residential structures removed from the FEMA 100-year floodplain would save individual households $2,000 to $3,000 annually in flood insurance costs for a total annual saving of about $2,420,000. Removal of 71 publicly owned parcels (not reflected in assessed value above) including 3 schools, and the maintenance and bus yard for Tucson Unified School District. Reduction in flood repairs and inundation costs to the public infrastructure of $2,070,000 annually by providing flood control protection to:

  • Union Pacific Railroad, 1.26 track miles
  • Interstate 10 corridor and 4.6 miles of local major streets
  • The Tucson Modern Streetcar storage facility and route
  • State Route 210, the Barraza-Aviation Parkway through downtown Tucson

Tucson is teaching the world that:

  • Water is a scarce and precious, but undervalued, resource that is going to get scarcer and more valuable
  • Infrastructure money must be spent to deal with low probability, large impact events like flooding
  • Because of its many benefits, nature’s green infrastructure is often the best way to deal with problems of scarcity, water quality, flooding, and urban heat islands.

1 From “Big Yellow Taxi” a song written and recorded by Joni Mitchell “I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song” – “Both Sides, Later” Robery Hilburn, Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1996, http://articles.latimes.com/1996-12-08/entertainment/ca-6804_1_early-songs#mod-a-body-after-second-para

2 Ibid.

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