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Citizens team up with city officials to try to keep Tucson cool

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Looks like I'm one of many people who wander around Tucson eyeing strips of flat soil with certain designs: "Ah, there's a good spot for pulling in water from the street to support native plants and trees."

At a March 31 event aimed at preparing Tucson for climate change, water-harvesting won a top award for Best Practice.

The event, organized by the city of Tucson's Office of Conservation and Sustainable Development and collaborators, gave the 120 participants a chance to choose from 54 options we came up with during discussions at our tables. The top vote-getters were: Deal with storm water as a resource instead of a nuisance; increase water-capture/water-harvesting and water reuse; and capture/harvest water to slow the spread of water flooding streets and washes.

I was down with that, and it was gratifying to see so many others in the group felt the same. It was instant gratification, too, because we got to see the tallies within minutes of making our selection by hand-held electronic devices—kind of an American Idol approach to considering climate-change solutions for the Old Pueblo.

And we did focus on solutions. We spent far more time brainstorming positive ways to adapt to the coming changes than we did reviewing the science behind them. As it was, 89 percent of the people who took the city up on its invitation to spend a glorious Saturday afternoon in a windowless room in the Tucson Convention Center considered it "very important" for the city to prepare for coming extremes. We focused on what to do about wildfires, persistent drought, flash flooding and extreme heat.

The most eye-popping thing we heard was that by midcentury, Tucsonans may face a whopping 25 more days a year of heat over 110 degrees. Phoenix, here we come.

UA climatologist Gregg Garfin broke that disturbing news, along with the warning that this upswing would be part of the extra 34 days a year of days reaching 100 degrees. Although I have no current funding ties with him, I worked with Garfin for many years. He's a meticulous researcher, but he cautions that this analysis remains preliminary. It's based on a business-as-usual approach, assuming that society continues to emit extensive amounts of the greenhouse gases linked to rising temperatures.

Still, the projections fit right in with a temperature trend we're already seeing. The annual number of days at 100 degrees or more has already jumped to 62 from 40 when comparing the past 20 years to the previous 30. That doesn't even include the hellish summer of 2011, when Tucsonans suffered through 70 days of 100 or worse.

With the climb in numbers of hot days we're seeing, I was surprised that rainwater-harvesting and the trees that often come with these projects didn't top the list for dealing with extreme heat. Trees are the original swamp coolers, evaporating water to cool the surrounding air by six to eight degrees, even before counting the shade effect. About 30 percent of us picked increasing the tree canopy around the city as a top choice.

Still, the six tables of participants who tackled extreme heat certainly deserve credit for focusing on the root of the warming problem—burning fossil fuels to run cars, factories and power plants. Half of all participants selected the top choice that emerged, to "pursue energy efficiency and solar energy to reduce peak demand." Nobody wants to hear that a cooling system's power is down during a summer brownout.

I could go on, as there are another 50 proposals on the list. Leslie Ethen, director of the Office of Conservation and Sustainable Development, said city officials will share these ideas so they can inform climate-adaptation planning, emergency-operations plans, the drought-response plan, land-use code assessments and the general plan for Tucson, which is scheduled to come before voters in November 2013.

You can see the brainstorming results for yourself, or add your own suggestions, at the project's website.

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