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`SNOWBIRDS’ STRAIN ARIZONA SERVICES

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There is little about the tiny town of Quartzsite, with its bumpy roads and handful of flimsy-looking buildings, to hint at the appeal it holds for travelers.

The hordes are arriving, however.By January this barren valley of stony ground dotted with creosote bushes and surrounded by jagged brown mountains will be overflowing with Winnebagos, RVs and mobile homes of every description. Visitors from all over the United States, Canada and even Europe will trade their chilly winters for a few months of sunshine and low-cost living in one of Quartzsite's 72 trailer parks.

The visitors most Arizonans know as "snowbirds" will swell the population of little La Paz County from about 15,000 to 1 million or more at the season's peak.

Similar migrations bring a silver stream of trailers to other Arizona counties along the Colorado River and across the warm southern third of the state.

"I come here this time of year," says Walt Casey, former salesman from New York, as late-afternoon sun lights up a vista of brown desert mountains and creosote by his trailer. "There's so much to do."

The annual population boom pumps up local economies. Researchers at Arizona State University estimate winter residents put $600 million into the economy statewide.

But they also put a strain on services in small towns that lack roads, sewers and shopping to handle huge numbers of tourists.

Lacking a sewer system, residents here rely upon septic tanks. Arizona Department of Environmental Quality officials are concerned that overflowing or poorly maintained tanks and other waste disposal methods are polluting groundwater near the Colorado River.

Carl Clemens, 73, doesn't know much about Quartzsite's sewer situation or how his camping host, the Bureau of Land Management, disposes of septic tank waste.

"I don't really care as long as they take care of me," he said.

ADEQ spokesman John Godec said that although no one in the Quartzsite area has become ill from drinking contaminated water, the excessive nitrate levels in the water can trigger the potentially fatal "blue-baby" syndrome and may contribute to cancer.

"We're talking about a problem that is not at all out of the ordinary, particularly in the western part of Arizona," he said. "We are seeing increases in this all up and down the Colorado (River) strip because of winter visitors and the lack of infrastructure available to handle them."

County officials acknowledge the yearly influx can burden government services. But most are reluctant to criticize "snowbirds" - or even to use the word that often has a pejorative tone.

"Do they put a stress on our infrastructure? Well, yes, but they also bring in revenue," said County Administrator Dan Field.

"Right now, we're just experiencing some growth. It's not a negative, though. We want the development."

Field says the influx gives county officials ammunition as they gun for federal dollars to improve roads and give Quartzsite a sewer system, which already is being dug.

Field says now is the time to put services in place to deal with the growth.

"Governmental entities don't anticipate the burden on the system ahead of time," he said. "We've got to plan to allow for expansion."

Although Clemens, a Washington native, has little concern for such issues, he's sure of one thing: He can do without the winter traffic in Quartzsite.

During January's gem and rock shows, which draw the most visitors, driving is almost impossible, residents say.

"It's an easy way of life here, but pretty soon you won't be able to get on this highway, and it takes an hour to get to the bank," said Theresa Jensen, gesturing at the town's only four-way stop.

The price of a visit ranges from $50 a season on federal land to $150 a month or more for a concrete pad with hookups at a private trailer park. The town's population jumps from 2,000 to 7,500, Arizona state researchers estimate.

Arizona's Old West image draws many, said Joy Cole, who with her husband, Ed, runs the Snowbird Information Center out of a trailer.

"Most of them, I think, are living a fantasy, but it's fun," she said.

Others say it's the temperate climate, the two miles of roadside swap meets or the constant hum of activity that keeps them feeling young.

"We've known people who have come here to die, and they're kicking harder now than they were at 20 years younger," Cole agreed.