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.

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