Carlile/SAWARA Left Water Management Legacy

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The Southern Arizona Water Resources Association, SAWARA, was an important force in water management for the Tucson region at a key time in its history. Marybeth Carlile, SAWARA’s founding Executive Director, was an important force in shaping SAWARA and extending its influence for the benefit of the region. Carlile passed away this spring, and presenting the story of SAWARA and its accomplishments seems a fitting way to commemorate her passing. The WRRC hosted an event in her honor on October 28, 2014, and the material for this history was assembled for that event.

As a participatory organization, SAWARA brought the public voice into discussions about water resources in the Tucson region. Its activities raised the level of awareness and engagement over water issues in the community, and in the process directed the future of the region toward water savings and water security. At the October 28 event, James J. Riley, retired University of Arizona professor said, “SAWARA is a great example of what a well-organized and lead community group can do. What we can learn from SAWARA is that the effort must be well-focused and planned, and it must be inclusive of all sectors of the community. Marybeth Carlile was responsible for providing selfless leadership, and it should be emulated if a new organization is needed to improve local water management in the future.”

Before the arrival of the Central Arizona Project, the CAP, which brings Colorado River water to Maricopa, Pinal and Pima Counties, Tucson was the largest city in the United States solely dependent on a diminishing supply of groundwater. By 1980, for many the handwriting was on the wall; Tucson would have to gain access to a renewable supply of water, and at that time this meant the CAP. Carlile led SAWARA, the non-profit, public participation association founded in 1982, in fulfilment of its primary goal: to make sure the CAP came to Tucson. In the early 1980s, the CAP canal extended only as far as Phoenix. With the Arizona congressional delegation and others in positions to influence events, Carlile worked to overcome all obstacles in the way of bringing the CAP to Tucson.

Born in Los Angeles, California, in 1931, Carlile grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and attended Pomona College and San Jose State University. She and her husband moved in 1963 to Tucson, Arizona, where she became active in the American Association of University Women. She served a term as the Tucson Branch president and as president of the Arizona Division between 1973 and 1980. Bruce Babbit, then governor of Arizona, appointed her to the Arizona Water Commission in 1978, the first woman to serve in that capacity. She was one of 30 people who formed SAWARA, meaning to unify the community around bringing the CAP canal to Tucson. Carlile was its first Executive Director and served in that role for thirteen years. A two-term member of the elected CAP Board of Directors, she represented Pima County on the Board from 1990 to 2002. 

Under Carlile, SAWARA actively promoted the speedy completion of the CAP to Tucson. The Groundwater Management Act of 1980 had modified existing law, establishing the goal of balancing water recharge and withdrawal. Active Management Areas, AMAs, were established in regions where water table declines were severe, so that strategies for reducing groundwater overdraft could be planned. The Tucson region was one such AMA. SAWARA capitalized on the new groundwater law to argue that the Tucson Basin needed the CAP as its source of renewable water.

Carlile worked tirelessly with community and business leaders to put together a united regional front on the need for the CAP. SAWARA was an effective promoter and advocate of dialogue and debate, seeking consensus solutions that could turn conflict into cooperation. Kathy Jacobs, former Tucson AMA director during Carlile’s tenure at SAWARA, noted that Carlile “was one of those exceptional people who could convene people from all walks of life and help them work together to polish all of the rough edges from their multiple perspectives into a coherent whole.”  Thus SAWARA could speak for the Tucson region when advocating in Washington D.C. for continued funding for the CAP. 

In its primary goal, SAWARA was successful. Since the completion of the canal to Tucson in 1993, Colorado River water has been augmenting and replenishing Tucson’s groundwater supplies. Groundwater wells underneath the center of the city were shut down, reducing the threat of land subsidence, and in some areas groundwater levels continue to rise. The City has saved major water supplies underground as a hedge against future shortages.

While primary, the CAP was not SAWARA’s only goal. Its mission included fostering public awareness of water resources management in Southern Arizona through education, community outreach, and regional coalition building, and it aimed to give the Tucson community a voice in water matters.  By interacting with the technical, political, regulatory, and private water experts, SAWARA was looked to as a source of accurate and impartial information. Carlile contributed to this reputation with rigorous attention to facts. Cornelius Steelink, former UA Chemistry Professor observed. “One of [Carlile’s] signature talents was to be able to get to the heart of an issue. … [Following] prolonged discussions on a water problem, she could distill the data and write a cohesive summary report for the water community.” 

SAWARA’s membership included representation from government, business, mining, agriculture, and the University. Carlile and her staff worked closely with its membership and other agencies, organizations, and individuals. SAWARA had a small staff of only three to five members and depended on community support to carry out its mission. The Ganett Foundation provided initial funding, and later Tucson businesses supported the organization. For a period, the City of Tucson and Pima County were major supporters. Grants and contributions were augmented with consistent in-kind participation.

Most active between 1982 and 1994, SAWARA championed water conservation, publishing an effective and informative bimonthly newsletter, Waterwords. It also created billboards, brochures, technical notes, and newspaper columns to spread its message. It made water conservation a regional norm and set in motion the cultural change that made xeriscaping not only acceptable, but the preferred landscaping option for home owners and builders. It worked with the landscape industry to implement identification tagging of low-water-use plants and to promote their use in yards and gardens. It also completed the Xeriscape and Solar Demonstration Garden at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. It educated the public about water through the production and distribution of educational materials for K-12 classrooms, informative forums, and media programs. It created water conservation programs for homeowners and worked with the City and County to change rules governing the use of xeriscape plants and water efficient plumbing fixtures. The organization also worked in collaboration with the University of Arizona’s Office of Arid Lands Studies, Tucson Water and others on Casa Del Agua, a demonstration house that was used to study residential water use and to demonstrate alternative water and energy conservation methods.

By 2001, many of the water issues appeared to have been resolved, and the perceived need for sustained support of SAWARA’s public education mission had substantially diminished. In 2002, after 20 years of service to the community, SAWARA closed for lack of funding. The widespread impact on conservation that SAWARA developed continues to this day.