Charting Conservation

What exactly is in the Pima County and Tucson drought management plans?

This year's monsoon season should be a wet one, according to local meteorology forecasts, but local governments aren't taking any chances. The city of Tucson and Pima County each have drought management plans in place and ready for implementation should conditions warrant.

Just to play it safe, and with a nod to the continuing drought, this year's Beat the Peak campaign, from Tucson Water, began on May 18, two weeks earlier than the usual June 1 start date. The familiar program has been a mainstay of the summer season for 30 years, and Assistant City Manager Karen Masbruch hopes such volunteer efforts will be enough.

"If we can do it through public outreach, get them to do it with volunteer efforts, that will be best," Masbruch said, adding that if those efforts aren't successful, mandatory restrictions would be placed on water usage. Those restrictions would only be put into play should the city's reservoirs fall below 60 percent.

Mitch Basefsky, Tucson Water spokesperson, said the early Beat the Peak launch is being used as a way to highlight the fact that water conservation is more important than ever this year. He also noted that the utility was developing its own drought plan, in conjunction with local municipalities, that would address how to best deal with each level of drought.

"Drought doesn't have as much of an impact on a ground-water utility," Basefsky said, explaining that as customers of the Central Arizona Project, Tucson Water has an annual allocation of approximately 40 billion gallons. That number may increase to 45 billion by the end of the year.

"It's in our best interest to increase allocation," he said. Though he did not envision a shortage in the next year or two, each year, the chance that a shortage may be declared becomes a "growing likelihood."

The secretary of the interior could declare a shortage on the Colorado River, but, according to Basefsky, "You don't want to push that button, because you'll be living with the consequences for many years."

Though no shortage appears likely in the near future, the United States Geological Survey reports that Arizona is experiencing its worst drought since the 1940s, according to a Pima County Board of Supervisors memorandum dated April 18. The average annual Tucson rainfall is 12.17 inches, according to the report, but data from the National Weather Service indicates an average rainfall over the last four years of 8.77 inches, 3.4 inches below normal. And the period between September 2005 and January 2006 has been the driest on record for Tucson in the past 111 years.

The Pima County drought management plan lists four drought stages: water alert, water warning, water emergency and water crisis, with each stage employing increasing levels of water restrictions. The county administrator, with the authorization of the Board of Supervisors, would declare the drought stages.

Among other provisions, stage one calls for a voluntary reduction of water usage, increased public education and restaurants providing water only on request.

Stage two is declared when the water demand is greater than safe production capability for three consecutive days. Under that scenario, landscape irrigation restrictions would be in place, including watering before 8 a.m. and after 8 p.m.; no outdoor misters and no public fountains or water features are allowed.

A water emergency, or stage three, is declared when water demand is greater than safe production capability for two consecutive weeks. Landscape watering would be restricted to one day a week and, in the original plan, no new pools would be filled. However, because of objections from the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, the county will revisit the pool restriction at its meeting in late June in order to accommodate pool owners who meet certain conditions, said Kathy Chavez, county water policy manager.

Stage four, a water crisis, is declared when water demand exceeds total production capability. Should this stage be reached, watering would be restricted to trees and shrubs; ground or turf watering would be prohibited, as would car washing and street cleaning.

While the county only recently instituted its plan, the city of Tucson has had a drought ordinance in place since March 1995. The Emergency Water Conservation Ordinance is designed to regulate water use during emergency conditions. Similar to the county plan, restrictions include a prohibition on all outdoor irrigation, except for areas using reclaimed water (though a watering day schedule may be substituted for the ban); no washing of paved areas; no outdoor water-based play apparatus; no outdoor misting systems; and no filling of pools, spas or other outdoor water features. With the exception of facilities equipped with wash-water recirculation systems, washing of vehicles is prohibited.

There is no way to predict to what extent the monsoon rains will lessen the drought's impact, if at all. But with the city and county's drought management plans in place, neither should be left completely high and dry.