Wanted: A Flow of Cash

What if they held a water-bond election and nobody came to vote?

The May 17 Tucson Water bond election is already historic. For the first time in memory, there will be no general obligation questions or street improvement propositions concurrently on the ballot. Combining that fact with the lack of any organized opposition to this year's bonds, a record-low voter turnout could be accomplished, even though an estimated $635,000 is being spent by Tucson Water to hold the election.

In 1994, seven of nine bond questions were approved by 15 percent of all city voters, including a controversial $114.5 million for the water department. Five years ago, with seven bond propositions on the ballot ranging from drainage works to library expansions, only 11 percent of the electorate participated, with 74 percent supporting $124 million for Tucson Water.

By the end of this year, all of the 2000 water bond funds will have been spent, which is why the current $142 million financing package is on the ballot.

That leaves water issues by their lonesome this year (although City Hall is also considering a 2006 election for $130 million in general obligation bonds to finance such items as park renovations and public safety upgrades). If approved--and Tucson voters have never said no to water bonds--they would provide capital funding in three areas: $46.4 million to implement a new facility to process Central Arizona Project water in southern Avra Valley, $28.2 million to expand the existing reclaimed water system, and $67.5 million for enlargement and improvement of the current water delivery system.

"Any enterprise requires continued investments," said John Carhuff, chair of the city of Tucson's Citizens Water Advisory Committee, to a small audience at a recent forum as he urged support for the measure. "People should vote to invest in the system (to ensure) a safe and reliable source of water."

He also indicated water rates might be even higher if the bonds fail, because some of the system improvements would have to be implemented anyway through a "pay-as-you-go" approach.

Pointing to the official ballot language, former state legislator and current bond opponent John Kromko called the $142 million a "blank check" for Tucson Water. At the same time, he blasted the city government for trying to hide from the public the list of projects to be built with the funds.

"This is all about subsidizing growth," Kromko added. "They could use this money for a 'toilet to tap' water program," he also argued, an allegation vigorously disputed by bond supporters.

Finding a list of the proposed bond projects does require a detailed Internet search (at http://www.ci.tucson.az.us/water/bonds05.htm). The also site states: "Over the next five years, changes in system requirements and/or changes in revenues available for funding of capital projects may result in bonds being used for different water related projects."

While the Tucson City Council would have to approve any future changes to how the bond funds are to be used, the current list calls for building a new CAP project near Sandario Road north of Ajo Road. By processing Colorado River water and mixing it with a slowly diminishing percentage of groundwater, this new facility would annually pump 30,000 acre-feet of CAP water to customers.

The new project would complement an existing Avra Valley site five miles to the north. That series of basins now handles 60,000 acre-feet of CAP water, a number which will eventually be increased by one-third. By 2013, the output from this facility will be 85 percent river water, 15 percent groundwater.

The project list includes 11 reclaimed transmission lines, with $3.4 million slated to convert the Forty Niners Country Club on the community's far eastside from using groundwater to treated sewage water for irrigation purposes. Another pipe would provide reclaimed service to several places in the Sunnyside School District.

To increase service reliability and to expand the system, proposed improvements include $19.4 million for water storage, almost $5 million for pumping plants, $16.5 million for new pipes and $14.7 million for replacements of water mains and valves. Even the long-idle CAP treatment plant on the city's far westside will receive $2.3 million in upgrades for fixing structural problems and utilizing the facility as the primary control area for the entire system.

If approved, the bonds would raise water rates by 1 percent annually during the next five years. This amount would come on top of a yearly 2.7 percent increase for the same period on which Tucson Water is now planning. Thus, these two combined increases would result in a total of 18.5 percent higher bills by 2010.

"This is all about growth and developers," said longtime Tucson Water critic Jerry Juliani at the forum, while asking people to vote against the bonds. "This is a scheme to grow Tucson Water on the backs of people's wallets."

"We need to expand our CAP use," countered Check Freitas. Plus he said: "The more reclaimed water use we have, the less drinking water is used. That helps prevent subsidence (from overpumping groundwater)."

Chair of the "Safe and Sane Water Committee," which has a $25,000 budget to back the bonds, Freitas bemoaned the possibility of few people showing up at the polls.

"Low voter turnout is terrible for propositions like this," he feared.

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