Monday, September 14, 2009

Into the Home Stretch on City/County Water Study

Thursday night, 9/17, is the final meeting for the "new information" part of Phase II of the City of Tucson/Pima County Water and Wastewater Study Oversight Committee scope of work. There are three new white papers posted on the study website - here. I think this meeting will easily go the full 4 hours. Because in addition to the new material there will be discussion of the planning for the Phase II report writing.

The new papers are focused on 1) potential new water supplies for the region, 2) availability of water for the environment, and 3) water quality issues associated (primarily) with emerging contaminants. I've been able to read the new water supplies paper - it's only about 30 pages. The other two are 40 and 50 pages. As I have been discovering since being ensconced on the committee*, the papers - while exhibiting a great deal of diligence on the part of city and county staff, under short timelines, and tight budgets - really don't break any new ground. This study should be about breaking with convention and finding new, creative solutions to our water problems. But it just seems to be about educating people about how complex water policy is and how difficult that makes it to implement real solutions to these problems.

Uh oh. I think I may have just given myself a new job. Better get busy on those last 2 papers.

* I was reading the papers before being appointed but not as critically as I have since then. In Phase I, I pretty much waited for the draft report to be submitted before sharpening my pencil and dissecting the findings. This time it's much more critical because we will be making policy recommendations to local leaders and setting the tone for future phases of the study (planned as a truly regional dialogue on these issues). Plus the report writing is going to occur pretty quickly and the committee will have more input on the writing process than I believe they did in Phase I.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Arizona's new Blue Ribbon Panel on Water Sustainability

We already have an effort underway to locate and secure additional water supplies for the Central Arizona Project service area (where the vast majority of Arizona's population resides) - called the ADD Water process. Now the state is jumping into the water sustainability discussion with a splashy (clever, eh?) announcement [pdf; press release from the Arizona Department of Water Resources website (ADWR)] regarding a special "blue ribbon panel on water sustainability" that was announced just over a week ago.

I first heard about it at a water planning conference put on by the Arizona Investment Council the end of August, where all three of the blue-ribbon-bearers were speakers. The Arizona Investment Council was a new organization to me. They are a think-tankish, policy outfit that probably does a bit of lobbying as well, with a focus on utility regulation and infrastructure investment. If you have a lot of free time on your hands and are really interested in infrastructure they have a report on their website called "Infrastructure Needs and Funding Alternatives for Arizona: 2008-2032" (it can be found by clicking on a link on the left side of their homepage), that goes into, at times, mind-numbing detail on how much we need to invest in our water, wastewater, energy, and transportation infrastructure in this state over the next 20-odd years. Trust me, it's a very large number, and probably fairly accurate but reflects a mindset that we must have bullet-proof, gold-plated infrastructure to compete for jobs and outside investment in the future.

Much of the conference was directed by what's in this report and there were some interesting talks, but nothing real earth-shaking.

Back to the water sustainability panel - hard to predict what will come out of this but based on the press-release it appears to be focused on water recycling, which probably means they will explore legislative and regulatory changes that need to be made to expand uses of reclaimed water and ways to convince people that reclaim is a safe, viable option for augmenting potable water supplies. The make-up of the panel indicates a desire to leverage areas of expertise and authority over the companies, municipalities and districts that manage water, wastewater, and probably other utilities as well - considering the whole energy-water nexus that's all in vogue these days.

Can't wait to see how the panel gets fleshed-out and provided with further direction - oh ... and will the legislature fund the activities of the panel next year? ADWR, ADEQ, and most other state agencies have had their budgets slashed in the past year to deal with rapidly declining state tax revenues - to the point where some people are saying it could take years for ADWR to recover to the level of competency it was at just a few years ago. I guess that will be the real determinant of whether this panel will produce anything worthwhile.

What's up with the City/County Water Study Committee?

The last meeting (Aug. 20) had some pretty interesting discussion occurring because of a late addition to the agenda. A local outfit called the Tucson Regional Water Coalition (TRWC) sent the committee a report titled "Water as an Economic Resource" (pdf document). Sounds pretty innocuous, right? And for the most part it was. But I should start by explaining what the Tucson Regional Water Coalition is. It was created last year by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC), a local organization of business and development heavy-hitters. This fact obviously did not sit well with some of the committee members who will never trust anything coming from those quarters.

But, despite it's detractors, the paper did elicit some good discussion of the merits of, and justification for, regarding water as an economic good in some aspects of water policy. What I thought was particularly good was the discussion by a panel of "experts" brought in by the creators of the paper to discuss it's merits. By and large they were not too impressed with it, although at least one of them did review it and make suggestions to a draft version of it. While they generally agreed with the overall tone of the paper, I thought they felt some of the assertions made were a bit too strong. The recommendations at the end of the paper, in particular, may have overstated the case a bit. Such as: "Establish policy declaring economic efficiency as the central criterion in water management decisions." While it should be a consideration, I don't see how you can justify making it the "central criterion."

I was also disappointed in the examples they chose to use for applying economic principles to analysis of water policy. After opening the paper with a pretty good discussion of how to consider all costs associated with a policy in your decision-making process, they completely failed to do that in their examples. I viewed the examples as a pretty blatant way of demonstrating that conservation and environmental uses of water don't stack up in terms of economic efficiency the same as acquisition of additional water supplies and application of all water to serve growth.

The authors could have done a better job of presenting the value of economic principles in a way that would further the central focus of the study - balancing growth and the environment in ways that provide long-term benefit to our communities. And some of the committee members could have done a better job of seeing the paper for what it was (at least arguably) intending to accomplish - remind us that economics are part of good policy.

As for the primary focus of that meeting - evaluating the cost of growth - representatives of our water and sewer utilities did an admirable job of demonstrating how they have changed their financing and billing structures over the years to shift the costs of new services (growth) onto those customers, rather than sharing the cost among all customers. It's still not perfect, but that is mostly because of failings in state law that restrict the ability of local jurisdictions to recover some costs through impact fees. But even so - the costs of water and sewer will be going up in this area for the foreseeable future because of regulatory requirements and other needs associated with aging infrastructure. Glad to see they're planning ahead.

Follow-up on Imagine H2O Prize

If you follow this blog you may have noticed my recent post on a prize being offered this fall for visionary entrepreneurial ideas in water conservation being offered by Imagine H2O.

Last week I received another email from them asking me to make note of the fact that the competition is now open - as of Sept. 1. Here are a few excerpts from the press release they sent me:
The competition offers prizes of $70,000 in cash and in‐kind services, which will be awarded to the business plans that promise the greatest breakthroughs in the efficient use and supply of water.

The Imagine H2O Prize is designed to encourage entrepreneurs, investors, inventors and academics around the world to address water challenges. This inaugural business plan competition focuses on solutions to improve water efficiency in agriculture, commercial, industrial or residential applications, such as water demand reduction, improved water use, water recycling and/or reuse.

Entries will be accepted from around the world beginning September 1 through November 16, 2009. Winners will be announced at a showcase event in early 2010. The annual competition will feature a different water‐related prize topic each year.

Check out their website if you want to learn more about the competition. One thing I might note is that the press release indicated a total prize amount of $70k, which is $20k more than they originally told me.