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Cunningham: Pumping Tucson water an expensive, uphill process

Mayor and Council will be considering a plan to increase water rates for the next four years. The increase will not be as high as it has been in the past.

It's been reported in the media that rates will be going up between 15 percent and 20 percent over the course of the next four years. That's true, but keep in mind that these increases are just to your water rate, not to sewer (which is a rate set by Pima County) or Environmental Services. Because of the way those pecentages are being reported, many people are calling our office are worried the bottom line on their utility service statement, which can be over $100 when you include those other fees, will be going up by 20 percent. That's not the case.

Still, it is an increase and we will all be paying more for our water. You need to be told why.

The simple answer is, we live in a desert and we don't have much water. Getting water from the Colorado River is expensive. In a sense, you aren't paying for water so much as the power and infrastructure it takes to get it to your house.

One of Tucson Water's biggest costs is debt service. Just like other utilities, Tucson Water has a lot of capital costs for plant and equipment that they sell bonds to finance. Those costs amount to roughly 30 percent of their expenses. This year, they will be paying $55 million. That will keep increasing until 2023, when it will hit $61 million. Because of the way the debt has been managed, they expect those costs to drop quickly after that.

For over two decades, the main source of city water has not been wells, but from the southern end of Lake Havasu. The water brought to us by the Central Arizona Project, which pumps it 334 miles to Tucson. And yes, just like the story of your grandfather's walks to school in the snow, most of that journey is uphill as Tucson is roughly 1,800 feet higher than where the water comes from.

To move all that water (half a trillion gallons), the CAP uses 2.8 million megawatt hours of electricity every year. That makes it the biggest single user of power in the state. The costs are considerable even though they are divided up among the various users of the project. Earlier this month, the elected board that manages the CAP met to talk about moving away from getting their energy from coal fired plants and going to solar power. That's a move I can get behind, but should they go that direction it will be a while before they can get enough of their power from sources like solar so that users can see a savings.

There are also a number of "fixed costs" for things that have to be maintained no matter how much water people are using. This would include the delivery system that runs under the streets to get to your house as well as essential services such as our fire hydrant system.

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The national standard for water utilities is that 30 percent of these costs should be recovered by charges to consumers. Tucson actually recovers a slightly lower amount, and some utilities in Arizona go as high as 80 percent.

The increase will be $2.77 next year if you are the average Tucson Water customer paying $35.20. The increases the following years will be $3.08, $3.33 and $3.16. Even with this rate hike, Tucson Water customers are still paying less than users of other water authorities in our region and across the state. Our rate will be slightly higher than Oro Valley, but still lower than Marana, Metro Water District and Green Valley.

Some of that is because of the way these authorities handle their infrastructure costs and how they pass them on to customers. But, there is another advantage we have in Tucson: water conservation.

Since our community has embraced conservation, over 1.6 billion gallons of water have been conserved. That's a credit to all of us, but there's a big part of running a water system that costs just as much whether people use a lot of water or not. However when people are conserving water, there is a savings in maintenance, treatment and infrastructure costs that can be avoided.

So, costs are going up, but not as much as they might be. We have avoided $350 million in costs because of conservation. An estimate from the Alliance for Water Efficiency said that we'd be paying almost 12 percent more for water in Tucson if we didn't have such active conservation programs and a public that understood how important low water use is.

As always, I look forward to hearing your input.

Correction: The comparison of the relative costs of Tucson Water and other water utiltities has been updated.


Paul Cunningham represents Ward 2 on the Tucson City Council.

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U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

The Central Arizona Project's 300-mile canal - the longest aqueduct in the United States - diverts water from the Colorado River to serve 1 million acres of irrigated agricultural land in Central Arizona and to provide municipal water to Phoenix and Tucson.

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