He's back to full-time ranching - The Explorer: Pima Pinal

He's back to full-time ranching

Brad DeSpain, Marana's newly retired utilities director, won't be idle

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Posted: Tuesday, July 7, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:23 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

Brad DeSpain retired last week from his position as Marana director of utilities, but there was little time for chatting on the first day of his new life.

He's got things to do, places to be, people to meet with.

For 45 minutes, the man who played a crucial part in Marana's municipal history drives about the place he's loved for going on 50 years.

He shows where Marana's Main Street used to be – "it's under the freeway, the eastbound lane of I-10," a post office, general store, and café gone since the freeway came to town in 1962. "It wasn't just a wide spot in the road, really," Brad remembers.

He motors on the East Frontage Road, known in the day as the Tucson – Casa Grande Highway, then on McDuff Street, one of Marana's oldest streets. Two cotton gins were over there. A fenced-in lot was once a big feed yard, the cattle fattened on cotton seed. The Pascua Yaqui community occupies a former Cortaro Farms Company irrigation district labor camp deeded to the tribe. Marana's town marshal was housed in the place built by Mayor Ed Honea's grandfather, Wilbur, next to a long-gone building that was Marana's first town hall.

"To go to a town council meeting, the building was too small, so you'd sit out on a power pole out here, in the parking lot, and wait your turn to make your presentation to the council," Brad said. When you were done, you left, to make room for the next speaker.

That was on Sanders Road. Which address? There's no sign, no structure. Brad jumps out of the pickup and reads the electric meter to get an address. "13539 North Sanders Road."

Brad, raised on a ranch north of St. Johns, came to Marana in 1960, fresh with a degree in education (with minors in hydrology and geology) from the University of Arizona. He taught vocational agriculture and advised the FFA at Marana High School, where the middle school is today, where Marana's two-story wood high school was once located. Ed Honea was one of his students.

DeSpain taught for seven years, until 1967, when he entered a farming partnership with Ed Anway. Ed is the son of Louis Anway, the man who "opened Avra Valley. He broke it out of the desert into farm ground" in the 1940s.

DeSpain farmed a good 30 years, raising cotton, small grains, sorghums for cattle feed, and operating a 3,000-head mother cow-calf operation. There were plenty of other businesses, too.

Then, in "19 and 97," heart bypass surgery brought a new realization, on the part of Brad's wife Donna.

She didn't want to run a business, and didn't want to liquidate a business if he was gone. She told him: "I want something where, if something happens to you," Donna would only need to make a phone call to say Brad "won't be in today."

"She said 'you find a job somewhere,'" Brad said.

He did.

Brad had helped incorporate Marana in the 1970s. He'd been hired as interim manager of the Cortaro Marana Irrigation District, to succeed Pat Garrett. Brad and Pat went to a Central Arizona Project meeting in Phoenix, and sat behind two Tucson men, assistant city manager Bill Ely, and water department director Frank Brooks.

"We went to eavesdropping," Brad recalls. "They were talking about coming out in this area, and drilling wells because of the strong aquifer we have here.

"It made us nervous," Brad said. Tucson's drilling for water on the East Side had changed those rural communities. "We knew we needed to do something."

They contacted an attorney, and learned "you can incorporate the town, and that would prevent them from coming out here and drilling."

Marana needed 1,250 signatures to incorporate. It came up 25 short. Petitioners crossed the railroad tracks, got the needed signatures, "and away we went.

"The farmers agreed, we'll up-front it, as long as there was an understanding, we'd never have a property tax. 'That's the only way we'll do it.' And there's still not a property tax today," Brad said.

Anyway, Brad knew a thing or two about water, and utilities management. He became Marana's water utilities director in 1997, and two years later took charge of all utilities, essentially water and electricity.

He's managed a department of 12, which became 13 when Brad hired Dorothy O'Brien to become his eventual successor.

He turns 70 in October. He'd planned to retire in July 2010, but Marana offered its severance package to cut costs, O'Brien was ready to rise up, and Brad saw a chance.

"She'll do really, really well, really well," he said. "I've tried to surround myself with people smarter than I am, then I'm going to look good. If I've done my job, Dorothy will do a better job than I did."

It's not easy for a rancher to see good farm ground become a subdivision.

"You have mixed emotions to start with," Brad said. "We've got to eat, we've got to have clothing. Once you accept the fact, then 'let's plan it, let's make it a really different, unique community.' Let's try to keep it a place where you can work, live, play, raise a family, and even retire in. We're on that kind of a program."

Marana has locked in its assured water supply, with the help of attorney Hugh Holub. Originally, it had 90,000 acre feet of water a year. Now, Marana has proven up on 140,000 acre feet of water a year for 100 years, all of it available without pumping below 900 feet.

"We have required of the developers up-front development" of infrastructure, "and we have provided assured water supply," Brad said. To illustrate, he drives up to a water plant in the San Lucas Development. The tank holds 1.75 million gallons of water. Water is chlorinated as it goes into the tank. Generators can be moved in the event of failure elsewhere, and need.

"Our aquifer is really strong," Brad said. "We can get by without a lot of things in life, but water's not one of them."

For every gallon it pumps, Marana must recharge 1 gallon. That's why the wastewater and effluent issue is so important, he said. The pursuit of a Marana-owned and -operated wastewater system is yet to be finished. Then there's a Southern Arizona "reliability" reservoir with Metro Water, the Flowing Wells Irrigation District, Marana, Oro Valley, the CAP and the federal Bureau of Reclamation that would be located near Tangerine Road. He'll pay attention, but these days he's patching fence.

Brad and Donna's place, the Bridle Bit Ranch, is close to old Marana, just above the Santa Cruz River. He's got a water right to 1,800 acre feet of effluent, "as long as it's in the river," to irrigate pasture.

"I'm a rancher," Brad said, raising commercial Brangus and Angus with partner Raul Pina. "Today, I'm full-time again. It's been a long time coming."

Someone recently asked Brad if he'd been in Marana since college. "Yeah," he said. "When you go somewhere and you get broke, whaddya do? You stay."

Then, in more serious tones, Marana is a place of "really good people. It's been really good." His two children were educated in the community, and two of his six grandchildren are going the same route.

"The people are the ones I'll really miss, the associations," he said. "These are folks you've known so many years in the water industry. I'll run up to a CAP meeting, every once in a while."

No, Brad DeSpain won't be idle in retirement. There's a good young horse to ride, and irrigation that needs tending. On a ranch, there are always chores and work. "It's how much can you stand to do every day."

And "lots of honey do. For 50 years, I've told her, she's going to have priority."

He's got to run. Historian and former Marana Mayor Ora Mae Harn wants to look over some of the Western memorabilia the ol' roper had in his town office. "She can pick out what she wants for the museum," Brad said.

And off he goes. There's more to do.

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