Thursday, December 4, 2008

and still more on using water policy to manage growth

The City Manager of Tucson took some steps during the past year that he insists do not amount to using water policy to manage growth, but it sure looks like a step in that direction.

So here’s how it went down:
In December 2007 the city manager stated that the previous city policy to extend Tucson Water service to any development - outside the present Tucson Water service area, but sufficiently close to existing infrastructure to be hooked up – that requested it would be replaced by a new policy whereby service would be denied unless the development was within the existing committed service area of Tucson water. Incidentally, he dropped this change on a newly seated city council with very little, if any, prior warning. The new policy has since been implemented at the expense of 4 proposed developments – two residential and two commercial – as reported late last month in the Arizona Daily Star (here). A few days later an interview with Hein was published in the Star (here) in which he defended the policy, placing the impetus for it, in large measure, on the dispute over who owns reclaimed water coming from the Marana treatment plant. This makes sense not just because the city should have a formal policy in place to decide where water service should be extended to (with the effect of guiding future growth to some extent) but also for other reasons, such as the simple fact that the city does not want to provide water to new development that will not be contributing to the city’s reclaimed water portfolio by sending their wastewater to a Pima County treatment facility. This is where the city manager’s mention of Marana becomes really significant. While the city is rightly concerned about losing the rights to effluent created by water they are supplying they are also reluctant to lose effluent to other jurisdictions that are not contributing to the water rights settlement obligations of the city (this is a very complex agreement between the City, the Tohono O'odham Nation, and the federal government that requires the city to compensate the tribe for stealing their groundwater for many years by placing wells next to the tribes boundary). Nonetheless, I would look for a requirement that the development be hooked into the Pima County sewer system to be a requirement for obtaining Tucson Water service in the future.

Hein says he wants to wait until the joint City/County Water Infrastructure, Supply and Planning (WISP) study is completed later next year before reevaluating the policy. He further claims in the interview that he is not making new policy on water service, he is merely undoing what had been the de facto existing policy – provide water to pretty much anyone who asked for it. One of the objectives of the committee studying water and wastewater infrastructure is to develop some sort of community consensus about how future growth in our community should be planned and implemented – which includes setting some policy for expansion of Tucson Water service beyond the existing committed area. Chris Avery (a city attorney currently assigned to Tucson Water) wrote an opinion outlining the city's obligations to provide water to areas outside the current obligated service area, which can be found here. He pretty much says that unless the area is completely surrounded by the Tucson Water service area or city land, there is no obligation.
This also provides legal cover for the county because local governments are permitted to impose moratoria on development under certain circumstances for a limited amount of time under state law. This isn’t truly a moratorium on development, but could be construed as such if a developer wanted to take the city to court. Given the current outlook for growth in this area during the next year or so that shouldn’t be a problem because there are very few developers looking to get their projects approved at the moment. Nonetheless, the developers of at least one of the projects that was denied water service has given notice to the city that they may pursue a suit, apparently based on the idea that as an infill development adjacent to existing Tucson Water service area, the city is obligated to provide water service. The developers of the two industrial parcels say the city’s new policy amounts to reneging on previous promises to provide water to the properties.
So what happens if the city stands on the denial of service? Will the developments go forward anyway? They certainly can and that is where the city policy could have adverse consequences for the region. The development is required, under state law, to have a proven 100 year water supply. The easiest way to do that is to sign on with an existing water supplier that has the proven supply already. But the developer could also create their own water company, drill wells, and supply the development with groundwater. This would require enrolling the development in the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, which would assume the obligation of offsetting the pumping with the development by obtaining and recharging renewable supplies – but the recharge would likely not mitigate the actual pumping occurring for the development, therefore localized groundwater depletion would occur.

Look for this to be a contentious issue for the city council during the coming year. Signing on with Tucson Water used to be a fairly simple and straightforward way for new developments to meet the assured water supply requirements of state law. Obviously at some point the city has to start saying no, but before they start doing that wholesale there has to be some greater level of coordination among jurisdictions in the area as to how growth is going to be accommodated. This means no easy answers will be available.

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