Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Follow-up on post about city water service policy

I just wanted to follow up on a few loose ends related to my earlier post here.

This was where the city agreed to provide Tucson Water service to a development in the Tucson Mountains that appeared to contradict a previous decision by the city manager to refuse to expand Tucson Water's service area outside the city.

I know I justified the action taken by the city at that time because of flexibility built into the policy change, but also wanted to note that whenever exceptions are created to a new rule, cracks in that rule appear that often become wider over time as new exceptions arise. Specifically, if the agreement that supposedly existed between the city and a few landowners in this development was sufficient to overcome a presumption that service would not be provided, what other types of agreements would produce the same result. This could provide additional ammunition to the developers of the Painted Hills property to show that they were promised water service as well, or some other developer out there. I don't have all the details of what has transpired between the city and any other developers, but it can be a slippery slope once any exception is made.

I still think the city probably made the right decision on the Camino del Cerro property and consider it highly unlikely that they did not consider the full consequences of making that decision. But that doesn't take away from the fact that it's a decision some may regret down the road.

The other thing I wanted to bring up is related to the cost the property owners in the Camino del Cerro area will have to pay to bring city water in to their properties. Those numbers look comparable to some cost figures I have seen for installing rainwater collection and reuse infrastructure for home use. Did those landowners consider that option before pursuing city water? I'm sure reliability is a big concern and the certainty of having a reliable water supply helps resale value of the property. But if you could have a less expensive water supply for comparable up front cost, that makes it a tougher choice.

Here's a link to an article (large pdf file) on the Joint Water Study Committee website about rainwater collection systems for domestic water supply. On the first page is contact info for a local man named Charles Cole, who uses such a system at his home in the Tucson Mtns.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

AZ Daily Star Editorial RE: Joint City/County Water and Wastewater Study, Phase I report

The local paper has an editorial in today's edition reporting on completion of the Phase I study and adding a recommendation that other cities, towns, and water providers join in the effort.

My first reaction on reading the piece was - why is this even on the editorial page? They are basically just reporting on completion of the first phase and briefly discussing the contents of the report with a few quotes from people who worked on it. At the very end of the piece they note that the info from Phase I could provide a baseline for a regional discussion about water supplies and planning along with vague hope that others will join in the discussion - something I agree is necessary for a truly regional discussion on growth. But is this really an op-ed piece? It just seemed like reporting to me, that could just have easily been placed in the metro section. OK, so maybe I'm just a grouch.

They noted that other jurisdictions did not attend the meetings or provide input to the effort. As I have briefly discussed in previous posts here and here, the need to involve other jurisdictions in Phase I (because the primary goal is to provide an inventory of existing infrastructure the city and county have in place) is not nearly as critical as having them involved in later phases when the real nitty gritty of regional cooperation is very necessary.

Which brings me to my next point, that also ties in with a previous post on the community forum on land use planning that occurred in early December, here in Tucson. The main outcome from that forum was a pledge to engage in a regional visioning process, whereby the entire region would engage in multi-stakeholder discussions to determine what we, as a community, envision this region looking like at some point in the future. I think the future phases of the City/County study committee would dovetail nicely with that process - which would be the proper forum for multi-jurisdictional cooperative efforts to plan future growth with all it entails (land use, water supplies, ecosystem preservation and restoration, recreation, open space, etc.).

Unfortunately, there has been nary a peep about plans to get that visioning process rolling. Admittedly, it has only been two months and that sort of thing doesn't happen on the fast-track. But I think that by now they should have sent out some sort of reminder to all participants that it hasn't slipped by the wayside or been sidetracked by present economic woes. It seems to me that a downturn is the time to engage in this sort of process - there are certainly a lot of planners in this town looking for work at the moment because growth has essentially shut down. I'm really hoping to hear something from either Tucson Town Hall or the So. AZ Leadership Council in the next month or two. If not I might have to make a gadfly of myself.

Also, fyi (and I hate to put this at the bottom of the post, because its pretty important news) the paper is reporting this morning that one of the local copper mines south of town has switched the majority of its water supply from groundwater to Central Arizona Project water during the past week. Every time I go to a meeting about water, people are clamoring about getting the mines off of groundwater and onto CAP water in order to preserve the aquifer. Looks like they are starting to get their wish.

Addendum (1/25): I got so wrapped up in my initial discussion I forgot one of my main reasons for posting this. If the paper wants to write an editorial encouraging other jurisdictions to join the study effort they should at least include some discussion about why that would be in the best interest of the entire community (i.e. any future augmentation efforts should be undertaken jointly - think big if you're going to make a water grab because its more cost effective than doing it piecemeal). They might have also discussed why the other jurisdictions don't want to join (because they don't want to be bullied around by the City of Tucson/Tucson Water and Pima Co./Wastewater, both of whom are unlikely to relinquish any of the power their size bestows on them for the sake of regional cooperation). One of the points brought up in the Community Forum was that we are all in this together - either we all figure out how to sustain the region or we all fail because of lack of cooperation, there's no room for us vs. them anymore.

Friday, January 23, 2009

New EPA guidance on Rainwater Harvesting Policies

I can't remember where I first heard about this (pdf), but it just came out in December and includes recommendations for establishing local codes/regulations that govern rainwater harvesting.

The document does a good job of making the case for encouraging rainwater harvesting and enacting regs that encourage it, while still ensuring that it's done properly to protect human health.

They start with a list of benefits from rainwater reuse including some that are pretty obvious and some not so obvious. Among the more obvious benefits are the fact that rainwater is a relatively inexpensive source of water (if you amortize the up front costs of installing the system), it reduces runoff (often a source of erosion and a non-point source of water pollution), and it can readily replace high quality drinking water used for outdoor watering and some indoor uses that don't require a potable water source. Two of their listed benefits I thought were less obvious: reducing seasonal peak demands and permitting greater demand management for drinking water systems. The first of those benefits might be limited in a place like Tucson where peak demand typically occurs at the beginning of summer, before the onset of our summer rains, when there has typically been no rain for 1 to 2 months and therefore the typical residential rainwater storage systems will be empty. But it could reduce demand during periods where the summer rains disappear for a week or two and the really hot weather returns. The second benefit could be very significant in places like Tucson, where a significant amount of household water use is for outdoor irrigation which can vary considerably depending on population growth, housing demands, weather, and a host of other factors. Per capita demand for essential household uses is pretty predictable, largely unresponsive to changes in price, and permits planning based almost solely on population numbers.

The one thing that really impressed me about the document is that they didn't simply discuss the ways that rainwater harvesting could be regulated and why it should be encouraged. There was also good discussion on how to create increased demand for inexpensive alternative sources of water for non-potable uses by increasing the amount people pay for water that is used to keep their grass green, for instance. Price is the most reliable driver for desired changes in behavior (my nod to Aguanomics) and serves to make alternatives economically attractive to those unlikely to change their ways out of a sense of community.

Here's what the document says on the subject (pp. 5-6):
The high rate of water consumption in the U.S. is coupled with water cost rates that are among the lowest.
Price, therefore, creates little incentive for conservation or the use of alternative sources.

And on pg. 9:
An increased price of potable water would encourge investment in rainwater harvesting systems because they offer a long-term inexpensive supply of water after the initial capital investment. The combined actions of establishing certain requirements for rainwater harvesting systems and increasing the currently underpriced cost of water creates a complementary system that can encourage the use of alternative water sources.

I really couldn't have said it better myself.

Monday, January 19, 2009

City of Tucson's new water service policy being weakened already?

Last month I posted on a policy change by the City of Tucson, whereby new developments outside the Tucson Water service service area would no longer be granted water service from the city simply by requesting it (and typically paying most or all of the infrastructure cost for hook-up).

Yesterday the Arizona Daily Star reported on what is being termed the "first exception" to the new policy. The area being hooked up to water service is very similar to the Painted Hills development that had been denied water service last fall. Both are in the Tucson Mountain foothills, in areas where groundwater is unreliable and are in fairly close proximity to existing Tucson Water-served areas. But that is pretty much where the similarities end.

The Camino del Cerro area that is getting water service is an area where development has already begun. There are 54 lots in the area, many of which already have homes built. Those homes were built, to some extent, based on the promise that Tucson Water would eventually extend service to the area. According to the article, the city claims this area was promised water service before the change in policy, because one landowner in the area "submitted a master plan for city water before the policy began." This plan, submitted in Feb. 2007, to provide water to five lots in the area, was later amended to provide water to all the lots. This amended plan was apparently approved in July of last year. Apparently this means that the amended plan relates back to the original plan, which was submitted before the change.

I think there are a couple of other reasons why the water service was approved in this case - although no one with the city will tell you these had a role in their decision:

First - the existence of homes in the area that had an expectation of receiving city water put some pressure on the city to bail these people out.

Second - they really did need to be bailed out because the few wells that had been drilled in the area have been drying up, most likely because they are completed in bedrock and draw water from fractures that contain limited amounts of water. The story notes that some residents had been hauling water to their homes at considerable cost.

And third - these are individual lot owners that are being bailed out, not some big developer from Dallas (the case with the Painted Hills property). The developer can hold off for a few years before getting a commitment from the city for water (although it is probably holding up their financing), but in the current economic climate they would likely be doing that any way. The people currently living in the Camino del Cerro area are at considerable risk from fire because of their water situation and the lack of water has a large effect on the marketability of their properties.

One final comment I would like to make on the Daily Star article. I don't really think it's fair to characterize this instance as an exception to the city policy on water service to new development. When the policy change was announced, there was nothing that said no new development outside the existing Tucson Water service area would be approved for water service. There was some nuance to the policy that considered what areas the city could be held legally obligated to provide service and what areas they would not. The city would no longer grant water service to development in areas where they had no legal obligation to serve. But where a legal obligation to serve exists - as it arguably did in this case - the city would provide service.

It should also be noted that this in not necessarily a case where existing ratepayers are being asked to subsidize development on the fringe of the city. The residents of this area are being hit with a special assessment to pay for extending water lines to their properties and are on the hook (at least temporarily) to install other infrastructure (reservoir, booster pumps, etc.) to get the water there. There is nothing about whether the residents will be dedicating this infrastructure to the city after completion or will remain on the hook for operation and maintenance costs over time - not a small consideration itself. But the city is discussing purchasing some land in the area for the reservoir and booster and is likely to construct a city reservoir in the future. So the subsidies may be forthcoming.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A new series on dealing with water scarcity from ... Golfweek Magazine?

Sure I was a little skeptical when I first caught wind of this series (links to the remainder of the series at this link), but it's actually pretty good. Obviously it's not real in depth or tackling hard-hitting issues, but it does give a nice overview of how golf courses are trying to remain in operation during prolonged droughts affecting the southwest and southeast US - areas with major golf infrastructure as part of their economies.

They include discussions of how high tech golf courses are getting in managing their irrigation systems, research on new strains of grass that can be grown with low quality water in poor soils, even a trend toward painting courses green in winter rather than overseeding to keep green grass year round.

There are lots of people who dislike golf courses and their apparently profligate water use. I'm not a big fan myself. But the truth is, golf courses tend to make very efficient use of water because it is one of their most significant costs. They are also a pretty good use of water economically - what they contribute to local economies per unit of water used is pretty high among large water users. Also, they are often under political and regulatory pressure to conserve if they want to remain in business. And they are businesses - and saving water saves money.

Here in Arizona, most golf courses in the larger cities use effluent for irrigation - both because they have no other choice and because the effluent is often subsidized (as an enticement to get them to switch from groundwater). I'm pretty sure the only way to get a new golf course approved within an Active Management Area is by committing to effluent use for irrigation.

Even outside the AMAs, where use of groundwater is subject to very little regulation, the Arizona Corporation Commission has been trying to insist that new development not include golf courses until the development is large enough to provide sufficient effluent to water the course. It didn't work on the recent Pravada development near Kingman, which I previously posted on. But there are several new members on the Commission this year which may breathe some life into that policy.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

New Year update on City/County water study

The Phase I Report from the City of Tucson/Pima County joint Water Infrastructure, Supply, and Planning Study is currently nearing completion. The next (and I believe the final) open meeting by the committee, where they will hash out final edits to the report and take comments from the public is this Saturday, Jan. 10, from 9 AM to 3 PM at the Tucson Assn. of Realtors, 2445 N. Tucson Blvd.

The current draft of the report can be found here. Many of the chapters are available in both pdf and word format.
There are also several open houses planned for early Feb. where the public can review hard copies of the final report, make comments, and ask questions of members of the committee. A flier listing dates and location of the public meetings can be found here (in pdf format).