Water Wars

Madness at a City Council of Flagstaff meeting. 

“Shame.” “Shame!” rows of bellies bellow. “F***in’ asshole!” a woman yells through the closing doors.  The commotion has every security guard’s attention. Only 81 minutes earlier, this room was full of amicable humans. Eighty one minutes earlier, the Mayor had clapped his gavel and called the city council meeting into session.

Nobody enjoys city council meetings. For the mayor, councilmembers, the city clerk, the utilities manager, custodians, desk clerks, city attorneys, the occasional field trip of sixth graders, and especially the local beat reporter, nobody wants to be there.

City council meetings have an air about them-- heavy air-- that occupies the empty space surrounding the room’s inhabitants. Movement, even subtle gestures, suddenly require more energy. Small details become oppressive. The cryptic, borderline unintelligible writing contained in city documents is combed through with wearisome acuity. Local citizens ramble at length into the microphone. An hour and a half long council meeting feels like a New Year’s countdown that starts at the number 5,400.

But this particular meeting will not be so tedious.

It’s February 3rd, 2015, and after the 20-minute long 4 P.M. session where council approved a business contract and a liquor license, and following an hour-and-forty-minute long recess, the clock hits 6 P.M. Mountain Time and the heavyweights of local activism pour into the council's chamber.

Moran Henn, the head of the Friends of Flagstaff's Future, or F³, arrives. Rudy Preston is here-- the man police arrested in 2012 for leading a protest that involved an access road, a construction site, a reclaimed water pipeline, and demonstrators chained to concrete-filled barrels. Preston famously represented himself for what became a six-hour trial, during which he donned a bright red hoodie.

And then there’s Adam Shimoni, the only one in attendance convincing anyone he is happy to be here. And perhaps, maybe he actually is.

It’s likely Shimoni never shakes anyone’s hand throughout the entire meeting, even though he warmly greets everyone he knows.  Shimoni prefers hugs. Male, female, old, young, standing up, sitting down or in a wheelchair, Shimoni goes in for the hug every time.  He is wearing shorts, and jounces up and down the aisles with the energy of an eight-year-old boy, kneeling to eye-level and hugging everyone he can. "Thanks for coming," he'd say; or "glad you could make it."

With two claps of the gavel, Mayor Jerry Nabours calls the meeting into session. On the Flagstaff City council website, Mayor Nabours’ profile contains the quote: “I want to make every other city jealous!”

This isn’t the meeting where the water policy will be re-examined. Nor is this the meeting where the decision to re-examine the water policy will be made. This is the meeting where the council will decide whether or not to continue further discussions about possibly reopening the water policy at a later time.

But prior to discussing scheduled agenda items, it's customary to open the floor for public participation.  John Victora, a stocky middle-aged man wearing a plaid shirt under a dark green bomber jacket with sections of lime, approaches the stand.  He briefly introduces himself then narrates the story of councilmember Jeff Oravitz's 18-month stint as the city's liaison to the District Advisory Board. He pauses, takes a deep breath. "The bad news is, Jeff's attendance record included 75 percent absenteeism. Seventy-five percent absent!" He continues his attack, sinking his teeth in further. "What can you accomplish when you don't show up?" Victora asks.  Which is a good question, but meetings with the district advisory board on youth smoking, second-hand smoke, smoke-free workplaces and campground sanitation are surely, for lack of a better term, dull as all hell. The city is lucky Councilmember Oravitz at least made it to 25 percent of those tedious bore-fares.

But this story isn’t about tedium. It’s about water.  

The City of Flagstaff's water policy titled, "Principles of Sound Water Management" is 45 pages long, has eight chapters, 37 sections and 13,807 single-spaced words. The policy contains beautiful, bureaucratically precise sentences such as: "The uses of reclaimed water are listed in A.A.C. R18-11-309-Table A, as amended from time to time."

Drafting the water policy began in 2008 and continued for several years until the Flagstaff Citizens Advisory Water Commission approved the policy language on November 15, 2012. After one year and four months, and another 11 meetings the City Council finally adopted the document's policies. After those four years it appeared the tedium of drafting the water policy was over. But in reality, it was just beginning.

On August 8, 2014, the City of Flagstaff's Utility Manager Brad Hill renewed a reclaimed water contract for a local ski resort, Snowbowl, to use reclaimed water for snowmaking. The renewal extended the ski resort's five-year contract for another 20 years.

Snowbowl resides on the western face of Humphrey's Peak, the highest peak in Arizona, and is considered sacred by at least (and nobody knows exactly how many) 13 Native American tribes. One stipulation for using reclaimed wastewater for snowmaking is posting adequate signage warning skiers not to eat the snow because it contains hormones, antibiotics, pharmaceuticals, antidepressants and steroids. Naturally, people get pretty pissed off whenever words like "sacred Indian land" coincide "wastewater steroids" with such economy.

But how Snowbowl's water contract was approved brought Flagstaff's water policy under scrutiny by those following Snowbowl’s water use. “The Principles of Sound Water Management" grants the authority of renewing all water contracts to the city utilities manager without any council vote or public input. The council's reasoning seemed sound: keep politics and water contract-renewal separate. But the new policy did just the opposite.

The news of the contract’s renewal spread and members of the public demanded revision.  Rudy Preston petitioned the council to revise the water policy to include public input.  It wasn't over. The faucet still leaked.

So the council agreed to dedicate a section of a "routine business meeting” to receive public input concerning which sections of the "Principles of Sound Water Management" need revision.

Now Rudy Preston takes the stand. This time, instead of wearing the red hoodie he wore to his own trial, he tactfully sports a black vest over a yellow collared sweater. It’s a good look for him. “I don’t feel like we should have the sale of water of any kind outside of city limits. Flagstaff water is for the people of Flagstaff,” Preston says. But Preston cedes if that isn’t possible, “all outside city contracts be approved by council for renewal or if they’re new, and only for a five-year limit.” Preston has a guttural voice. His words smoothly pour from the back of his throat and vibrate the entire room, exceeding the microphone’s input threshold. “I have a problem with the way ‘City’ is used throughout the document,” he says.

Within Flagstaff’s water policy the word “City” is never defined, acrobatically shifting its connotation to mean city council or city administration or Flagstaff citizens. Policy C5.2 states “The City has complete discretion whether to enter reclaimed water agreements with potential customers outside the city limits.”

Snowbowl Ski Resort resides several miles outside of Flagstaff, so the issue of whether the city of Flagstaff should enter water contracts with businesses outside of its city limits carries with it a nuanced protest against Snowbowl’s snowmaking.

Moran Henn and her braided dreadlocks takes the stand. Her inflection rises and lowers with a defiant rhetorical rhythm, starting low before rising to audial climaxes, then bringing it back down to punctuate her points. She emphasizes the philosophical importance of keeping decisions regarding water use within the democratic process. “Council, an elected body accountable to the voters should be making these decisions, and allowing the public to weigh in,” she says. “This is about transparency, accountability, and public engagement in the decision making process. Thank you.”  She grabs her paper and steps down.

“Thank you,” Mayor Nabours says.

Strategically, the speakers refrain from referring to Snowbowl’s despised snowmaking practice directly. Even though the renewal of Snowbowl’s reclaimed water contract is the catalyst behind the public’s scrutiny towards the Principles of Sound Water Management, it’s been established throughout numerous confrontations between council and conservation-minded citizens that Flagstaff City Council will not budge on the issue. Every one who’s speaking out at this meeting seems to understand that if the dispute shifts toward Snowbowl, the game ends and the visiting team is disqualified.

Adam Shimoni is called as the next speaker. There’s something deliberate and peaceful with the way Shimoni approaches the podium. He’s tall, lean, and with perfect posture he casually walks down the side aisle. Complemented by his pair of shorts, his gait makes it seem as though he is strolling across a sandy beach on his way to the podium.  Shimoni is in his mid-thirties and has a balding head of jet-black hair. His mustache and thick goatee connect to his scalp through a bushy chin strap. He is from Israel. “Israel is very similar to Arizona, and many days water is turned off. You very much cherish water and you respect water and you appreciate it.” He tells the council the reason he is wearing shorts is because it’s hot. Today, February 3, it is 60 degrees F-- 17 degrees above average.

After the final speaker steps away from the podium, the Mayor asks the utilities manager, Brad Hill, to answer some questions. The Mayor first asks how many contracts the city has for selling reclaimed water.  “Thirty-eight customers, and 72 sites,” Hill says.

“And how many of those are outside the city limits?” Mayor Nabours asks.

“One,” Hill answers. Silence befalls the room. Everyone knows what this one contract is, though it’s never brought up. Snowbowl.

“What is the process right now under our policy and our ordinances if you want to receive reclaimed water at your business, what do you do? What does that potential customer do?” Mayor Nabours asks.

“Inside the city or outside?” Hill replies.

“Inside the city limits.”

“I-i-it depends, if it’s defined through land uses, once approved through city council, whether it’s zoning, whether it’s development agreements, and then it has made it through that public process, then it would be to the city front counter, to our customer service, and then it would come to utilities, once it came to our customer service, and then utilities needs to make the evaluation of whether we have sufficient reclaimed water to provide that that service,” Hill says.  “So that would be one example of how a customer, these are new customers, would come to us.”  

“What if the service request comes from outside city limits?” the Mayor presses.

All water, sewer and reclaimed customers come to city council as per city code, Hill explains.  “Once the water commission makes an evaluation and decision, they have so many days to forward it on to city council, and then you make the decision.”

Between the banter are lapses of time when the room is silent. Not completely silent, and anyone who has ever attended church sacrament would know the incapability of a room full of bored observers to remain completely quiet.  The whispers from the back row disturb attention spans, and the occasional clearing-of-the-throat now feels deafening.

The Mayor gives the floor to Vice Mayor Celia Barotz. “In preparation for this meeting I read the policy and I also read the city code,” Barotz says proudly and with authority. She wears a sling on her right arm from tearing a muscle while practicing Yoga. “I think that there are some questions that I think we as a council should get answers to,” she says. In her preparation, she compiled a list of questions she wants Brad Hill to answer in the form of a City Council Report (CCR). She asks Hill to write the questions down to share with his staff after the meeting.

Hill puts his pen to a sheet of paper. Barotz asks her first two questions slowly and deliberately so Hill can keep up with his transcription. “Can staff explain to the council, legally, what the difference is between a request for a connection and the request for a reclaimed water agreement?” Barotz gives Brad Hill some time to finish writing the question.

“What provisions of the city code, and the water policy, govern, and or relate to, who makes the decisions about in-city, and out-of-city, water contracts?” she asks, again pausing to allow Hill to catch up. But then she picks up the pace.

“There are categories for projects that would require rezoning, and projects that don’t require rezoning. So what is the process? How does the public weigh-in during the rezoning process when the planning and zoning commission is making its determination about a use, for example, a golf course?” Here, the utilities manager lifts his hand from the sheet of paper and shakes it fitfully. “Because it’s my understanding that the planning and zoning commission doesn’t talk about water. Once it’s been rezoned for the use then the decision is administrative, but that’s a little editorial comment. So my question is,” she continues as Hill again shakes his hand, staving off carpal tunnel. “Can we get some explanation of, if there is a way for the public to engage and comment on proposed rezonings that would ultimately require a reclaimed water contract?”

Barotz’s voice trails off, the way someone often does when they’re finished talking. A pause follows. Brad Hill looks up at the Vice-Mayor. He pulls the pen back toward his body. Maybe this is it. Maybe it’s over. “When there isn’t a rezoning,” she says as Hill replants the tip of his pen onto the paper, “is there a way, for in-city contracts, for the public during the administrative process, and I guess I’m wondering if the public really does get to weigh-in on a development agreement for a new golf course? Would  that be the place where the public gets to voice its concern about the use of reclaimed water, in the city, on an entitled property?”  At this point, Brad Hill is whipping his pen-clinching wrist back and forth every few seconds. The pain is apparent. Poor guy. Barotz continues speaking for another 135 seconds. Brad Hill takes a drink from his water bottle.

The Vice-Mayor closes her statements. “I think we need to put the whole puzzle together and maybe a flowchart that shows how the public now gets to engage in the process,” she suggests. “And then I think I can make a really good decision about how we might consider proceeding. So that’s my request.”

Somewhere in city hall, the staff member responsible for visual aids and graphs continues about their day having no idea that a new, hierarchically convoluted flowchart may soon dominate their work schedule.

It’s now 7:50 p.m. The council deliberates. Councilmembers Carol Evans and Eva Putzova, who consistently support environmental issues, side with the Vice-Mayor in furthering discussions. But Jeff Oravitz, Scott Overton and Karla Brewster possess business-centric reservations, and take the side of Jerry Nabours in letting the issue run its course.

Overton summarizes the majority side’s argument. “I don’t think we’ll ever agree on every bit of policy language,” Overton says. “I know there’s lots of different ways to take apart the problem and try and find different angles, but I’m comfortable at this point, leaving the policy as is.”

Councilmember Karla Brewster elaborates on Overton’s remarks. “We’ve had 10 meetings on this. Let’s give it a chance to work before we begin tearing it apart,” she says. “If you want us to revisit this, and revisit every contract, that’s 72 contracts. How long is that going to take us?” (In reality it is actually 38, covering 72 sites.)

Brewster then addresses the utilities manager, asking, “If the contract comes back for renewal and it’s different, that comes to us right?”

“If it’s outside the city?” Hill asks. He then says he isn’t sure, and needs to look back and see exactly how the ordinance is written. Hill does say with confidence if a reclaimed water agreement comes up for renewal it is handled by the utilities director.

“If they were going to do a renewal or a reinvestment that does come to us,” Brewster assures.

“No” the city attorney, Michelle D’Andrea interrupts. “Current ordinances require the decision to come to you if it is a new connection, not just changes in the agreement,” D’Andrea says.

“Thanks for clarifying that,” Brewster replies.

Brewster makes the point that Snowbowl uses far less reclaimed water than the local golf courses. And it’s a good point. Snowbowl uses less than a fifth of the amount of reclaimed water as all the golf courses in Flagstaff. Golf courses constitute over half of Flagstaff’s reclaimed water-use.

Flagstaff is a dry-climate mountain town, and its 65,870 citizens can choose from seven different golf courses each with scenic fairways, troublesome tree obstacles and water hazards ridden with sunken golf balls. The ponderosa pine forests and mild summer temperatures of Flagstaff make it a favorite vacation spot for upper-class Phoenix residents eager to escape the Valley’s desert heat. Another 18-hole course is planned as part of the new Little America development, and  though none of the council members are pro golfers, the majority of them are certainly pro golf course.

“I think this whole push toward doing this is due to Snowbowl. I’m sorry you can’t convince me otherwise,” Brewster says. “Tell me one [contract] that’s controversial that’s reclaimed. There isn’t any.”

“Golf courses!” Rudy Preston shouts from his front-row seat.

“Golf courses? Would you rather they use potable water?” Brewster asks.

“No, I’d like to see them go away,” Preston rebukes.

“Well,” Brewster chuckles, “I doubt that’s going to happen.”

“Ms. Brewster let’s not get into dialogue,” Mayor Nabours interjects.

A few minutes later, the Mayor tries to wrap things up. “We’ll have a roll-call vote. Any discussion on this motion?”

“I just have another request for the CCR,” Vice Mayor Barotz jumps in. Brad Hill pulls his yellow notepad out and proceeds to scribbling. “I would really appreciate it if we can ensure that there are no internal conflicts in the water policy.” Rudy Preston puts his hands up and trickles his fingers as if to say ‘Hallelujah.’ Barotz continues: “But based on my reading and some of the things I’ve heard tonight, I think that there is a possibility that we need to make some changes so that we don’t have conflicts.”

“And that may very well be possible,” Mayor Nabours replies. “And my point is, I would like to know exactly what it is we’re discussing before we sit down and have that discussion.”

The Mayor calls his motion to a vote. “There’s a motion to give staff direction to take no specific action on the policy and to answer as best they can the questions posed tonight.”

They vote. The motion passes four to three.

“The direction on this agenda item, is no direction,” the Mayor decrees.

“When do I get the answers though!” Rudy Preston yells.

“The answers will be on the website and they will be fully available,” the Mayor responds. “There’s no secrets in the CCRs.”

“Ignoring the public!” a woman in the audience yells.

“The public is WELCOME to ‘em,” the Mayor says, pushing his hands forward as if to distance himself from an invisible plate of bad food.  

“You guys are awful!” Preston yells.

“Shame on you!” a citizen yells.

“Shame.” another citizen adds.

A chorus erupts, “Shame!” Shaaame!” 

The Mayor flaps his hands in a “bring it” gesture. He is only a hand-cupped ear away from full-blown Hulkamania.

Preston stands and walks up the center-aisle. He turns to address the council once more: “There’s no respect for us!” he yells, then turns and storms out of the chamber.

Adam Shimoni stands from his seat. It’s apparent that any joy he experienced within these council chambers has just been dashed. His face is red and moist, water drips from his eyes. There is no beach now between him and the chamber’s exit. He walks out mournfully.

A logjam occurs at the exit. The chamber’s security guards, who normally remain subdued at a table covered by pamphlets and public comment cards, snap to attention and herd the crowd out of the chamber’s double-doors.  A woman’s voice pierces the doors’ closing cracks: “f***in’ asshole!”

“There’s a process, we’ll get to all of your...issues,” the Mayor says.

The ruckus calms. Rudy Preston, Moran Henn and Adam Shimoni are all gone.  The Mayor regains his composure. “This brings us to item 15b on the agenda.”

Fourteen minutes later, Councilmember Jeff Oravitz makes a case to the rest of council that it might be necessary to place on a future agenda further discussions on the city sign code as it pertains to car lot balloons.  Oravitz says many local car dealers feel there is still too much ambiguity in the current code and its restrictions against tethering balloons to cars. The council valiantly combs the issue in fine detail for six-and-a-half minutes before overwhelmingly opposing further discussions.

Scott Overton says, shaking his head, “Nah I’m out.”

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