Friday, February 6, 2009

Water & Wastewater Infrastructure, Supply, and Planning Study - Phase I report, part 1

I have started working through the report this week and just wanted to start with some general comments on the Executive Summary portion of the report. An executive summary is pretty self-explanatory: it sums up what the body of the report discusses and typically includes some conclusions or recommendations, depending on the purpose of the report. This is why the most important parts of the exec summary are typically the introduction (where the objectives should be laid out) and the conclusions/recommendations derived from the examination of those objectives represented by the report.

In the case of this report the committee starts with a background section, explaining why the committee was formed, what it was tasked to do, and how it was supposed to carry out those tasks. They outline four general tasks assigned for Phase I: (1) infrastructure inventory, (2) assessment of available water supplies, (3) assessment of available population projections and how they might be sustained by available water supplies, and (4) a framework for improved cooperation between city and county agencies regarding planning for management of available water resources and upgrades to water and sewer infrastructure.

They also note that because this effort was initiated at the behest of the City of Tucson and Pima County, the infrastructure and resources associated with those two entities were all that was considered in depth (there was some discussion of more regional stuff at times - i.e. presentations by ADWR staff on water resources and water use trends for the entire Tucson AMA). All the hand-wringing over bringing in other jurisdictions to engage in a dialogue about these issues seems pointless, when they were not even intended to be part of the discussion from the beginning. That is expected to change, however, for the ensuing phases of the study.

Most of the exec summary is spent summarizing the material presented in other parts of the report, which I will discuss in a later post, so I won't go over that much here. I'll just say that enough detail about that material was provided in the summary that there must have been an assumption that most readers would only read the summary, not the lengthy main body of the report. That seems kind of a shame. These are very complicated issues that cannot be easily summed up in a few paragraphs. To really understand things like the importance of groundwater credits in Tucson Water's supply portfolio or the assumptions made in projecting future water use you really must read the more detailed descriptions in the main report.

The last 5 pages of the summary are of most interest to me. This section is called Committee Themes, Values and Concerns - described as the key issues identified by committee members during the later meetings where the main topic was sustainability and during the course of writing the draft report. Many of these are pretty obvious, such as:
• Our water and sewer systems are generally well-run and well-maintained because most of it is not that old; but the older parts are going to require costly maintenance or replacement in the near-term.
• Our existing water supply is more than adequate for current population and could supply future population growth for another 20 years or so, depending on growth projections. Beyond that however, some large question marks loom.
• We should expand the reclaimed water system, but need to prioritize needs first.
• Use of impact fees for growth are an effective way of ensuring that growth pays it's own way, but the effectiveness of those fees needs to be reevaluated periodically.
• Use of renewable energy to power the water and wastewater infrastructure as much as possible, because energy is a significant cost associated with those systems.
• Management of the water system has to take into account uncertainty and risk associated with climate change.
• A sustainable water future requires making better use of existing supplies and getting more creative about finding new supplies right in our backyards, i.e. continued conservation, rainwater harvesting and stormwater retention. This also requires taking into consideration environmental needs for water.

Some of the other issues discussed were a bit more thought-provoking. There was a fair amount of discussion of the need to find additional water supplies, and the belief that it would be better to pursue those now, rather than waiting. I agree to a point - it depends on what sort of supplies are being looked at. Many that simply involve moving around existing water supplies already are - such as leased water from tribes, purchase of ag water, etc. I don't think it is prudent to start funding investigations into more far-fetched schemes, such as desalinization in Mexico to free up additional Colorado R. water or pipe the water up to us.

Also in this context, they discussed the need for more management of future growth - both in terms of engaging in a regional process to plan growth in the future and having actual policies in place to determine when water service from an existing provider should be expanded into new areas (specifically addressing recent actions by the Tucson City Manager, which I posted on here, here, and here.) These are issues that will be looked at by the committee more intensively during Phase II of the study (starting next month, I believe).

Then, finally, on the last two pages of the summary, they actually addressed the issue of water pricing as a mechanism for both encouraging conservation and supporting continued investment in our water supply and delivery system. This is from the very last bullet on their list of issues:
Price signals are an important tool for achieving efficient allocation of water resources. Current retail water rates do not match claims of scarcity and conflict with messages urging conservation. Water subsidies should be granted for valued outcomes such as low-income user access, community food gardens, and restoring eco-systems, but water should be priced higher to encourage conservative use and to sustain ongoing needed investment in our systems.

There are some value judgments being made there - and that would need to be made as a community to clearly define the "valued outcomes" mentioned, but the overall sentiment is very welcome to my ears. I hope I'm not the only one paying attention.

More to come next week on specific sections of the main report.

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