Sustainability in public policy: Working with City of Mesa on water management


In the fall of 2011, Dr. Rob Melnick, Director of Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability, and Grady Gammage Jr. brought graduate students from a variety of ASU’s schools and city officials from the City of Mesa, AZ, together to address key sustainability issues within an interdisciplinary workshop class in the School of Sustainability (SOS).

Our team, including Lourdes Sierra, Rider Foley, two graduate students in SOS, and Emily Cooney, a graduate student in Rhetoric, Composition, and Linguistics, focused on the domain of water. We were paired with Mr. Holmes, the City of Mesa’s water resources consultant, to develop an innovative policy that would help move the City of Mesa toward sustainable water management.

This effort was kicked off with presentations by Mesa city staff, councilmembers, and professors that highlighted the complexity inherent in all domains: solid waste, water, building and construction, planning and development, and renewable energy. This workshop course pitted students, professors, and city staff against the task of constructing a cost neutral (or revenue earning) city-level policy that comprehensively addresses sustainability across all domains. Our team struggled to grasp the regulatory and social constraints that govern water use in the state of Arizona and the City of Mesa specifically, in particular the historical precedence. This includes that water is a right earned through land ownership with subsidized pricing structures with federal, state, utility, and regional authorities. Additionally, water rights are used to incentivize economic development and we struggled to confront the policy paradox inherent in the decisions that lead city council to cede long-term water rights for immediate economic gains in the First Solar and Chicago Cubs deals made in the last year. Our team explored numerous policy options as we worked toward a final product: one idea was a surcharge on Chicago Cubs concessions that funded water conservation programs. Another alternative was a rebate program for residents that purchase desert flora from local landscaping or garden retailers to encourage xeriscaping and stimulate the local economy.

At the end of the project we delivered our policy to a mock city council comprised of Dr. Melnick, Mr. Gammage, and Mr. Burgess, (the course instructors), as well as Ms. Shekerjian, Tempe City Council, and Mr. Richins, Mesa City Council. The proposed policy was to initiate a stakeholder-oriented planning process to collaboratively define the best use for waste-water in Mesa. Although, the value of waste-water as a commodity is increasing, we emphasized that the City of Mesa should create an adaptive and forward-looking planning process to avoid ad hoc decisions in the future that are not informed by stakeholders who understand the full value of this resource. Councilman Richins was intrigued by the idea and will work with Mr. Holmes to refine it and move it forward in city planning.