Donald Rollings prods an old wall, and watches a fist-sized chunk of plaster tumble to the floor. When he steps back, he does so gingerly; the floor itself is a buckling mess, a result of what Rollings believes is moisture leaking from ancient water mains.
That moisture, he says, is laying waste to this 1850s adobe home—and countless others in downtown's historic Barrio Viejo.
It seems all he can do these days is stand by and watch as the lovely old buildings his family has spent years restoring slowly crumble to earth. In the meantime, he contends that the city knows full well that its old cast-iron water pipes—some more than a century old, lurking mere inches beneath nearby pavement—are leaking under his buildings. Those leaks are causing enormous water waste and, like a cancer, slowly destroying a precious piece of Tucson's heritage.
Rollings first noted this deterioration in the late 1990s. By 1999, the first clues to its cause became apparent when the city dug up a decayed old line, attempted a stopgap repair and eventually decided on a full replacement.
"I thought, 'What about the rest of the neighborhood?'" he says. "But the replacement stopped there."
Instead, the city has attempted to repair, not replace, most other decrepit lines—a decision with its own costs.
"If this damage isn't caused by the water mains," Rollings says, "then why is the damage only occurring in the parts of these buildings that are next to those water mains?"
Initially, he says, city officials urged him to file a damages claim. "But when we did so, they denied it 100 percent."
That was a decade ago. Since then, the city has blamed this damage on Tucson's rainfall and on the Rollings family's restoration techniques.
"They say we didn't plaster the buildings properly," says Rollings. "But we followed city codes. All the buildings were inspected by city inspectors. If we were doing something wrong, why wouldn't they bring it up?"
In 2006, Rollings and his family sued the city of Tucson for more than $3 million. The city won, in a jury trial that Rollings suggests was poorly handled by his attorneys. That verdict was later thrown out on appeal, and the case was remanded back to a lower court—a move that Rollings says the city tried unsuccessfully to block.
Today, the litigation remains in limbo, as Rollings watches the continuing decay on his buildings, now unoccupied, and contemplates a new batch of lawyers' fees.
After the trial, he asked for an estimate of the city's legal costs. He recalls receiving a letter in reply, pegging that sum at roughly $700,000. (Confirmation of this number by the city was unavailable at press time.) He wonders why that money wasn't better spent just doing the necessary repair work.
In the interim, he's already spent nearly $200,000 to repair the ongoing water damage. Because of their condition, many of the affected buildings now have no tenants, depriving him of rental income.
Citing the potential for renewed litigation, City Attorney Mike Rankin declined to comment, as did officials from Tucson Water. The same concerns have prevented involvement by Jonathan Mabry, Tucson's historic preservation officer. "Because of that, I have not been privy to any of that data, the documents that show the sequence of events," Mabry says.
"I can tell you that moisture is, of course, bad for historic adobe buildings. Soil moisture tends to be wicked up into the walls of adobe structures. But the damage from that is severely exacerbated by rehabilitation work that has used concrete-based stucco, which is the situation here." That stucco fails to "breathe," Mabry says, and holds moisture inside the walls.
Still, if such stucco was used throughout the exterior restorations of these properties, why does the damage only appear near the old water mains? Mabry doesn't offer an answer for that question.
Throughout this ordeal, says Rollings, Tucson officials have assured him that the mains in Barrio Viejo are sound. But he provided the Tucson Weekly with contrasting information from the engineering firm KE&G, contracted by the city to pressure-test Barrio Viejo's lines in 2005.
The company's report reveals many of those lines to be in terrible condition. For instance, when tests were run on the Kennedy Street main—the site of some of the most badly damaged buildings—line pressure dropped by nearly half in 13 seconds. Such pressure losses, often indicating significant leaks, were found time and again throughout the barrio.
The fact that the city continues denying the obvious doesn't sit well with Ralph Pattison, a geotechnical engineer hired by the Rollings family to conduct soil samples around their damaged properties.
Pattison is convinced that the water-saturated soil he found is due to faulty city mains. "I started out fairly skeptical, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized that every single place where they had an adobe building fronting a leaking main—based on the ones the city was repairing—they had problems. And every place where they weren't facing a main, they weren't having problems.
He cites "two extremely compelling bits of evidence. No. 1, we knew the pipes were leaking. Otherwise, the city wouldn't have fixed them. There's just no question of that—there were leaks all over the place. And two, every place where there's a leak in a main, it can travel into laterals going under a house."
Laterals are loosely filled trenches beneath a home that typically contain utility connections. "There are many methods water can use to travel around," Pattison says. "But if there's a leak in the line, the first thing it does is go up and down that trench—especially with a prolonged leak that goes on for decades."
This all leaves him with one conclusion: Porous water mains are the culprits. "I'm convinced of that," he says. "For example, there were sides of the houses that had poor drainage—the kind of thing a soil engineer would notice—and they had virtually no problems. But wherever there was a leaking main, there was a problem."
Donald Rollings says he can't afford continued repairs to these buildings if the cause of their deterioration isn't fixed. And so, as the city refines its legal strategies, an irreplaceable part of our heritage may be fading away.