How High Will Our Water Rates Jump?
By Jim Wright
THE TUCSON CITY Council recently approved by a 4-to-3 vote a $56-million CAP water recharge project--the most expensive option available--to be built in Avra Valley. That project alone is expected to boost local water rates 30 percent over the next five years, according to the city's own estimates.
Other water-related issues, such as the expansion of the effluent infrastructure system and various annexation-related actions, will likely boost water rates even higher.
Getting an accurate handle on how high rates will actually jump is difficult. Several weeks ago Tucson Water Director Kent McClain told the City Council rates could jump as high as 50 percent in the next five years, as Tucson Water allegedly struggles to comply with Proposition 200, the anti-CAP "Clean Water" initiative approved by voters during the last election.
More recently, McClain said rates would probably go up only 30 percent.
By comparison, over the last five years water rates within the city-owned system rose only 8.9 percent. A 50 percent increase in rates--or even a 30 percent increase--is, by any comparison, huge.
Not factored into the city's future water rates is the probable annexation of legendary land speculator Don Diamond's mega development, Rocking K Ranch, located on the city's far southeast side. Diamond will draw blood before he agrees to allow his proposed billion-dollar development to be annexed into the city. "Some of that blood," says annexation critic Ted Poelstra, "will come from Tucson Water ratepayers, as it has in the past." The Rocking K could use all the free water infrastructure it can get, says Poelstra. "And Diamond knows where he can get it."
Annexations do have their price tags. The recent I-10/Wilmot Annexation Plan will cost Tucson Water ratepayers $700,000 to subsidize infrastructure for pipelines, booster stations and hydrants, according to city figures.
Poelstra, an administrator for the Palo Verde Fire District, says when the Rocking K factor is computed, rates could jump as much as 80 percent over the next five years.
Tucson City Councilman Steve Leal says Tucson Water officials have yet to reveal to the Council the big numbers on what Leal is already calling "the rate shock."
"Staff is not telling, and the majority (of the council) is not asking," says Leal, who voted with the minority opposing the Avra Valley project.
Can the rate increase be rationalized? According to the Council members who voted for the Central Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project, the whole process doesn't make any sense. Even the Avra Valley project is a crazy option, they say. But, given the choices, they claim it was the best available option. Nor is the coming water rate massacre Council's fault, argues City Councilman Mike Crawford--if someone is to blame, blame the people responsible for Proposition 200 and the people who voted for it.
But not every Council member thought the Avra Valley project is the best available option. Three members voted against Crawford's motion to move forward with the design.
Leal complained at a recent Council meeting that to try the most expensive option first is backwards.
"First," said Leal, "(we should) try some of the other options (offered by The Pure Water Coalition and the public). Then, if these projects yield enough (recharge), we could use the Avra Valley facility as a backup."
The cost and viability of The Seven No Frills Options offered by The Pure Water Coalition are, by the group's estimation, more than 60 percent cheaper than the Avra Valley project the Council bought. Tucson Water disputes the group's assertions.
Ward 6 Councilwoman Molly McKasson said just before the council vote on the matter, "The motion (to adopt the Avra Valley project) was "against the spirit of Prop 200." She voted with the minority.
So what about Prop 200? Now that the Council has acted to spend $56 million, when will the City of Tucson come into compliance with Proposition 200? This year? Next year? Or never?
City Manager Mike Brown says the answer is "dicey" at best. Brown tells The Weekly it's unlikely the city would ever be in compliance with the Water Consumer Protection Act given the Council's decision on the Avra Valley facility.
Proposition 200, which was passed by a 56 percent majority vote last November, requires the city to "completely replenish" all groundwater withdrawals made by the city--or roughly 60,000 acre feet of water per year, as measured over any five-year period.
But Brown now says he doesn't see how the city will be able to recharge 300,000 acre feet of water over the five-year window of the law.
Can Tucson voters live with the Council's deliberate non- compliance with Proposition 200 and a budget-buster water rate hike?
Terry Pollock, of The Pure Water Coalition, says only, "This is the opportunity to determine the difference between what we can do and what we will do."
Expect to hear talk of a possible recall election during the long, dry summer ahead.
Is There A Coup Brewing?IS IT ONLY a rumor that summer will bring a developer-sponsored initiative to overthrow Proposition 200? Sources in Tucson Water say it's not a rumor--an initiative is on the way.
But Carol West, executive director of the Tucson Regional Water Council (TRWC)--a developer-dominated special interest group bent on putting CAP water into Tucson homes--denies any involvement from her group in the scheme to repeal Prop 200. West says she's heard members of TRWC's board and others in the community talk about overturning the so-called Pure Water Initiative that banned the use of corrosive CAP water until it can be purified to a quality equal to Tucson's groundwater, but West says they were speaking as individuals. If something is going to happen on that issue, says West, "it's not going to take place in this group (TRWC)."
"We're working hard to be positive," says West, a former aide to Tucson City Councilwoman Janet Marcus.
Pete Zimmerman, the professional campaign manager who ran the failed anti-Prop 200 effort, says he knows of no plans to overturn the water ordinance.
One strong argument against rumors of a ballot attack on Prop 200 is this: If Tucson City Manager Mike Brown can say openly the city may never be able to comply with Prop 200 (See related story), and he doesn't have to worry about a legal penalty for non-compliance (because there isn't one)--why would anyone bother trying to overturn the ordinance?
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