For at least a century, water policy in Tucson could be summed up in two words: Get more.
Accordingly, for decades, Tucson Water over-pumped our aquifer while spending millions on a reclaimed-water system to use treated sewage for non-drinking purposes.
For the last 20 years, the municipal utility has also embarked on the costly delivery and storage of lower-quality Colorado River water, with a total annual allotment of 144,191 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, enough to supply two or three households with water for one year.)
As a result, Tucson Water's customers have seen their bills go up, and their water quality go down.
Yet today—perhaps for the first time in its history—Tucson Water appears to be relatively awash in water. Thanks in part to conservation-minded community efforts, the most recent available figures (see the table) show that total water demand is decreasing and is currently far short of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) allocation.
Some argue that this excess of water gives the utility the financial flexibility to finally address long-ignored CAP-water-quality concerns—in particular, its high level of total dissolved solids (TDS).
Others, however, take a different perspective.
Andrew Quigley, acting director of Tucson Water, believes the decline in water pumpage is just a short-term phenomenon.
"We need to look at a 100-year continuum," he says about population growth. "A decade is just a little bit of time. Anything's possible, but I can't conceive we won't continue to develop and grow."
Ward 6 Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik agrees.
"I'm not buying those trends (of stagnant growth and reduced water usage) to make water policy on," he says. "It's not prudent to think usage will be going down when the economy flips, and we start to grow."
On the other hand, water use has declined over the past decade, even though the population served by Tucson Water grew an estimated 10 percent. In part, this gap is the result of significant conservation efforts on the part of the community, starting with the Beat the Peak program. In 2000, average usage was approximately 180,000 gallons per household annually, but by last year, that figure had declined to around 145,000 gallons.
Tucson Water's widening gap between CAP resources and potable demand doesn't include any of the approximately 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater that can be pumped by the utility under state law. (Nor does it factor in credits and other water-calculating devices to which the utility is entitled.)
The difference in supply and demand also doesn't include the amount of water that has been "banked" by the utility. Last June, Tucson Water told the City Council that the utility had about 44,000 acre-feet of banked potable water available.
When recently asked by the Tucson Weekly what that number is now, officials declined to comment.
Despite the apparent abundance of water, per City Council policy and a "use it or lose it" mandate, Tucson Water is poised to soon take its entire CAP allotment, some of which it will have to bank, at no small cost to ratepayers.
"Water security is my top priority," reflects Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich. "It seems unwise to forgo that ability (to bank excess CAP water) to protect existing residents."
The Weekly attempted to contact Mayor Bob Walkup and Ward 5 Councilman Richard Fimbres for their comments on water issues, but neither responded before this article's deadline.
Uhlich recognizes that the lack of population growth and the flatter water usage presents a new reality for Tucson.
"I don't think many people have thought of (the new realities)," she says. "It's an interesting perspective, and to pause right now makes some good sense."
A decline in demand isn't what Tucson Water's long-range plan predicted when it was last updated in 2008. The forecast then was for total water consumption to be at least 150,000 acre-feet by 2010, increasing to between 180,000 and 220,000 acre-feet within 20 years.
But the economic recession, the collapse of building construction, the negative perception of Arizona and other factors have resulted in a slowdown or possible reversal of Tucson's population growth.
Rob Kulakofsky, a member of the recent City/County Water and Wastewater Infrastructure, Supply and Planning Study Oversight Committee, isn't so sure that current growth trends will turn around anytime soon.
"We will have boom and bust periods into the future," he speculates, "but my sense is the 'go-go' years of growth—with its associated impractical to deceitful financing—are over for at least 10 to 20 years."
Nonetheless, the search for new water appears to be a never-ending thirst. At the same time, different variables enter into the equation regarding how much supply and demand there will be for Tucson Water's product in the future.
On the supply side, one of those factors is the amount of Colorado River water the utility could receive if the current drought continues. While dire forecasts show substantial drops in the flow of the Colorado (see "Fluid Situation," March 6, 2008), in the short term, those predictions aren't panning out.
As Mitch Basefsky, spokesman for the Central Arizona Project agency that oversees the CAP canal, states: "Right now, there is such a good snowpack in the Rockies that things look good. There probably won't be any issues until 2016."
Even at that point, municipal and industrial users would be the last groups to see reductions in access to CAP water. According to a Central Arizona Project report released last month, which reviewed possible declining flows on the Colorado River, municipal and industrial users would not be affected even at the most drastic shortage levels.
Despite that, Basefsky candidly admits: "Of course, tomorrow, the river could dry up, and all the snow could melt. ... We don't want to leave out any means that could possibly help us through a tough spot."
One of the possibilities the agency is looking into is increasing the amount of water in the Colorado River by using the controversial method of cloud-seeding.
"We are helping to fund research with Utah and Colorado on snow-making projects," Basefsky says. "That's the cheapest way to augment the water in the river."
Tucson Water is also looking at buying more water from the Acquire, Develop and Deliver (ADD) water program of the Central Arizona Project agency. This proposal is aimed at securing more CAP and other water resources for the state.
Kozachik believes the city should encourage the use of salt water from the Gulf of California on crops in the Yuma area, therefore freeing up the CAP water those farms presently utilize.
"That could be a game-changer," Kozachik says, "and let us think about water from a standpoint of abundance."
Yet considering a decrease in demand and a questionable growth trajectory, shouldn't Tucson Water also be looking out for its current ratepayers?
"Lower usage gives us flexibility and options as we go into an uncertain future," says Tucson Water's deputy director, Sandy Elder.
At the same time, falling water use will almost certainly result in increased rates for Tucson Water customers. As a utility, Tucson Water must balance its books. That's why in the past five years, water rates increased substantially, rising about 37 percent. As a result, the typical customer now pays substantially more than in 2006, even though that customer uses considerably less water.
The impact has been an apparent financial strain on many Tucson Water customers. Water-bill increases, combined with the even greater hikes in Pima County wastewater charges, as well as the economic downturn, have resulted in huge increases in households either being delinquent on their monthly utility bills or not paying them at all.
In the past five years, annual delinquent accounts have risen from 116,700 to more than 200,000 in 2010. In that same period, turnoffs climbed from 11,200 to almost 18,000.
The number of people utilizing Tucson Water's emergency low-income assistance program hasn't quite kept pace. The number of households participating in the program went from 1,310 in 2007 to 1,879 last year.
The turnoff and delinquent-account figures surprise a lot of people. "I hadn't heard that," confirms Jim Horvath, a member of the city's Citizens' Water Advisory Committee (CWAC).
Tucson Water's higher rates aren't only being driven by a lower water demand. Long-delayed maintenance of the water system has been a big, ongoing expense. In addition, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) expects the utility to pay for pipeline-relocation needed during roadway construction, which amounts to a major expenditure—an anticipated $40 million over the next five years.
This is a cost Kozachik vehemently opposes, because it wasn't presented to the voters in 2006 when the RTA was approved. "Tucson Water should have that $40 million in its cookie jar," he insists.
Also driving costs up are three other variables. One is an in-lieu property tax imposed by the City Council last year. Another is the questionable administrative decision to have Tucson Water fund the city's annexation efforts.
Finally, even in these difficult economic times, the utility is striving to keep a 10 percent cash reserve account. (The impact on rates of increasing the cash reserves was another question Tucson Water officials chose not to specifically answer.)
If Tucson Water moves forward with its proposal to bank more excess CAP water, that could also drive bills up, since ratepayers would be buying a product they may never use.
On the other hand, Kulakofsky observes: "Banking water for the future, especially in light of the unsure future of Colorado River flows from climate change and variation, is a prudent way to manage our future."
Uhlich believes the community understands that acquiring the entire CAP allocation is a safety measure and is not intended to promote continued sprawl. She points to the City Council's decision last year to set a firm Tucson Water service area boundary.
"It's very significant," she says of the boundary, "because it tells everybody we don't have a Manifest Destiny destination."
To help keep water rates down, the City Council could elect to utilize more CAP water instead of banking it, and therefore reduce the growth of its expensive reclaimed-water system.
This program, which treats sewage water before using it for landscaping and other non-potable uses, was established almost 30 years ago and accounts for more than 10 percent of Tucson Water's current supply.
Over the course of the next five years, $20 million in spending is proposed on this system, including capital expenditures of $13 million for reclaimed source development, and almost $2 million for new lines.
Why spend this money when cheaper CAP water is available for use?
"We should always apply reclaimed water when we can to preserve the potable supply," suggests Uhlich. "Residents don't want to see potable water used where reclaimed can be."
Several years ago, in a move to meet projected demand, the utility was even considering using highly treated sewage water for potable purposes. (See "From the Toilet to Your Tap," Dec. 8, 2005.)
That contentious program won't be needed anytime soon, confirms Chris Avery, Tucson Water's chief water counsel.
"The decline in usage since 2004 set the timetable for a decision back several decades," Avery says. "... The necessity of using effluent is less urgent, and the need to make (a decision about it) in the next decade is absent."
Meanwhile, Tucson Water, for the foreseeable future, will continue to need to bank the unused balance of 30,000 acre-feet or so of CAP water, and this will drive up rates even more, since the cost of purchasing the water is $137 per acre-foot.
Given the high cost of water-banking, it seems prudent to ask: How long should the City Council continue to support a policy of endlessly pursuing new sources of water, and how much water should be stored for a sustainable future?
Uhlich doesn't have an answer. "Maybe we could store our annual CAP allotment over a three-year period," she suggests. "But is that enough?"
Horvath thinks banking as much CAP water as possible makes sense.
"We should bank the balance (of unused CAP water)," Horvath says, "because we never know when shortages could occur. ... There's not a good reason not to take it."
Now that Tucson Water appears to be awash in water, wouldn't ratepayers' money be better spent upgrading the quality of CAP water, and delivering a better product?
Tucson used to be known for its high-quality groundwater. Excessive population growth, however, resulted in an over-pumping of groundwater that led to potentially dangerous land subsidence in the central part of Tucson.
To address that critical issue, and to convert to a so-called "renewable" water source, in the 1990s, Tucson Water began the slow conversion from groundwater-pumping to the delivery of CAP water. One of the results of that transfer has been an increase in the total dissolved solids (TDS) in the water, also known as water hardness.
Tucson's groundwater had a TDS level of less than 300, while CAP water presently comes in around 600.
The utility currently obtains a TDS average of about 450 by recharging CAP water into the Avra Valley aquifer, but that process is gradually raising the TDS level in the groundwater there.
The higher the TDS level, the quicker particulates damage pipes, appliances and plants. It can also lead to negative health consequences for some people.
The federal government has recognized these issues and set a secondary, or nonmandated, standard of 500 TDS in drinking water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, these secondary standards "are established only as guidelines to assist public-water systems in managing their drinking water for aesthetic considerations, such as taste, color and odor."
Of course, there is a cost to keep the TDS level of CAP water below this figure, which is why Tucson Water embarked on a community-wide process several years ago to help frame the issue.
Referred to as Decision H2O, the question of what TDS level—450 or 650—will be in our water has been kicked around without resolution. It has been debated so long that some Tucson Water staffers refer to it as "Indecision H2O."
During a January interview, Elder, Tucson Water's deputy director, told us that is about to change. "It's collected a lot of dust," Elder says of Decision H2O, "but we've dusted it off. The numbers need to be revisited; then we'll take it to the City Council sometime this summer."
Thus far, the City Council has supported raising water rates for the never-ending acquisition of new water. In light of stagnant growth and declining water usage, our elected officials now have a clear opportunity to consider improving the quality of the water we currently have. Allocating money for the additional filtration required to deliver CAP water at a 450 TDS level would be a demonstrative sign that Tucson Water prioritizes both quality and quantity.
How much more expensive would the 450 TDS level be? Tucson Water officials aren't saying. All they would say in a recent e-mail is: "As we have discussed, we are currently re-evaluating the numbers and expect to provide this information to mayor and council in early summer."
For her part, Uhlich believes: "Banking CAP water and acquiring our full allocation is a higher priority (than quality)." But she expects the public will want to invest in both an increase of our CAP-water supply and an increase in water quality by having CAP water at a 450 TDS level.
Kozachik takes a somewhat different perspective than Uhlich.
"The 450 level is affordable right now," he says. "It needs to be affordable, because people have legitimate concerns about what they're drinking."
In addition to a decision about water quality, the City Council will soon need to decide on an update of Tucson Water's long-range plan.
The current plan is based on three basic policy statements, one of which is: "Acquire additional water supplies to increase reliability and meet future demand."
To accomplish that, the plan compares four different future scenarios, all of which assume substantial growth in water usage. That hasn't been the reality for 10 years, so wouldn't it be wise in the next update to incorporate a fifth, "no-growth" scenario?
Uhlich thinks so. "I'm not opposed to multiple scenarios," she says. "It's almost foolish not to do so."
That would be a radical change. It would mean the consideration of rewarding—instead of punishing—Tucsonans for their remarkable conservation efforts.
Evan Canfield, chair of the Citizens' Water Advisory Committee, is ready to look at the "no-growth" option. An avid promoter of conservation, Canfield thinks that through greater efficiencies, building-code improvements and increased water-saving efforts, a no-growth result could be reachable.
"It's somewhat ideal, but achievable," he says.