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How Recycled Wastewater Could Pump New Life Into Tucson

The Santa Cruz River, once the city's lifeblood, has been bone-dry for the past 70 years. But if all goes according to plan, the ancient waterway could be back in action by as early as next year.

Ranchers ride horses on the outskirts of the arid Tucson
Ranchers ride horses on the outskirts of the arid Tucson
Matt Weiser

TUCSON — Recycled wastewater is gaining wider acceptance as a way to boost drinking water supply across America's arid West. But in bone-dry Tucson, Arizona, planners have another use in mind: recycled effluent as decoration.

The idea, more specifically, is to use a portion of the metro area's treated wastewater to bring the long-defunct Santa Cruz River back to life — to make it flow, in other words, for the first time in 70 years — and thus revive what was once one of the city's most endearing features.

Once upon a time, the river meandered through this Sonoran Desert town year-round . But it has been reduced to a dusty flood-control channel by more than a century of groundwater pumping and development. By bringing the river back, people involved with the Santa Cruz River Heritage Project want to restore the historical riparian habitat and aquatic character that once made Tucson a haven among desert cities.

Much of the wastewater used for the river's flowing will also be absorbed into the aquifer below to augment groundwater.

"We're using it as ornamental. We want it to attract people," says Maya Teyechea, a hydrologist with Tucson Water, the city's water utility. "We're not necessarily trying to get people to buy into drinking it at this point."

The project awaits a permit from the state of Arizona, which must approve such uses of recycled wastewater. After that, making the river run again will actually be quite simple. Pipes carrying recycled wastewater — currently used for landscape irrigation — already flow near the river at strategic points. The city merely has to tap those pipes and build a small treatment facility near the waterway to extract chlorine from the wastewater, which could be harmful to aquatic life.

No difficulty is expected in obtaining the state permit, says Teyechea. And there has been no community resistance to the project. Quite the opposite, in fact, says Fletcher McCusker, chairman of Rio Nuevo, a nonprofit working to restore and develop historic areas of the Tucson riverfront.

"The factions that would normally argue about this have seemed to come together on the value of the project," he says. "So I have a pretty good feeling it's going to happen."

One of the major selling points, McCusker explains, is that much of the wastewater used for the river's flowing will also be absorbed into the aquifer below to augment groundwater. This will help the city of 530,000 people survive future droughts, so no one can claim the water is being "wasted," he says.

Brief flowing of the Santa Cruz River after heavy rains in 1978 — Photo: Gene Spesard/Flickr

Year-round flows in the river once supported one of the largest mesquite forests in the world. Shade from those trees and the cooling effect of the river made the Tucson region a lush home for the O'odham people — for thousands of years — and later a vibrant commercial center for Spanish settlers.

"This town thrived and was built on the banks of that flowing river," McCusker explains. "It's our own damn fault that it's not running, because we just over-abused the river and the water table. To have a chance to restore it is a great idea. I'm a big fan, whether it's a trickle or bank-to-bank."

The original hub of life

The city proposes to discharge as much as 3.5 million gallons per day of treated wastewater into the Santa Cruz River. The water would first be discharged at Silverlake Road. From there, it would flow north towards downtown.

The water comes from Pima County's Agua Nueva Water Reclamation Facility, which was completed in 2014 to create treated effluent that meets the state's "B+" standard. It is safe for direct application to irrigate parks, golf courses and the like, and is free of nitrates and other contaminants that could taint groundwater.

Teyechea says the city expects to get a 50% "recharge credit" from the state for every gallon it releases to the river. This means it would be allowed to withdraw half of what it releases to the river, at a later date, from the groundwater aquifer to use in its drinking water system. The 50% figure accounts for losses to evaporation and vegetation.

The city expects to have water flowing in the river again by the start of next summer, in May 2019.

"We don't have to do this," she says. "We could be putting it into our recharge basin where we get 100% credit. But the intent is to have nice areas where people can enjoy the river — hopefully a nice riparian area."

City officials don't know how rapidly the water will infiltrate into the riverbed. They don't yet know, therefore, how far the river will flow once it gets water back, which is why a second phase of the project is planned to release more recycled water into the river further downstream, at Cushing Street in the heart of downtown, just a few blocks from the Tucson Convention Center. This would ensure river flow all the way through the city's urban core.

Once it's flowing again, the river is expected to help grow back some of the mesquite forest that once provided so much shade in Tucson. It should also attract legions of birds, amphibians and other wildlife. And, of course, it's likely to draw people back to the Santa Cruz River, the original hub of life in Tucson.

"There's a lot of interest now in restoring this as Tucson's place of origin," McCusker said. "So hopefully this is part of the spark. And it has kind of energized the whole community to not only restore the river, but to restore its ancient origins as a park. We're all trying to work in that direction."

The city expects to have water flowing in the river again by the start of next summer, in May 2019.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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