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Guest opinion

Cunningham: Rainwater harvesting incentives need to flow to low-income residents

At Wednesday's mayor and council meeting, we discussed a proposal to make Tucson Water's conservation programs more available to low-income residents.

Yes, I'm a broken record on water conservation, but, as I said in Wednesday's meeting, this is the most important issue for the long-term survival of our community.

Many of our neighbors don't realize that our water supply comes from 300 miles away and has to be transported over four mountain ranges. That has costs, both for energy to move the water and to maintain the system that delivers it.

That's why I've been encouraging Tucson Water to be more aggressive in promoting active water conservation. This ranges from changing our building codes to encourage gray water use to rebates to low-flow toilets.

There is also rainwater, the biggest bang for the buck. We are cleaning up from our last round of flooded streets. What if some of that water, instead of going into our streets, could have been stored so we could use it to water our gardens during our next dry spell?

Outdoor watering for our yards and gardens accounts for 30 percent of most of our water bills. That is, as most of us who have tried to conserve have found out, also the easiest item to reduce. Using harvested rainwater is one way to keep those costs to a minimum and save potable water for drinking.

Tucson Water offers a rebate program for those customers who install rainwater harvesting systems. What my colleagues and I have found out is that these rebates have not been taken advantage of by many of our lower-income neighbors.

Here's a number that tells you the disparity: 400 residents of the Catalina Foothills, who don't even live in the city, have taken advantage of the rebates. In Ward 5, which encompasses many of our city's more stressed neighborhoods, only 43 residents have used the rebates.

It's not surprising: some of the equipment can run hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Even with a rebate, this is not an expense many of our neighbors feel they can take on. It's frustrating because people with smaller paychecks are exactly who would benefit the most from reduced water bills. We'd also be increasing our tree canopy. More shade means reduced electrical bills.

Councilmember Regina Romero and I asked the Council to take a look at this. Both of us have been concerned about this situation for quite some time. What's changed is that we have a new water director, Timothy Thomure, who understands our concerns and has been working with us to find a solution. Tim deserves a lot of kudos for his approach to water and conservation issues

Wednesday, we directed Thomure and Tucson Water to work with existing partners in the community to develop a program to help low-income residents with rainwater harvesting. The money for this already exists as part of the conservation fund that all of us as Tucson Water customers contribute to. Any money spent on this is an investment in a greener and more water secure community.

Paul Cunningham represents Ward 2 on the Tucson City Council.

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