The Present

Current Status of the Water Sector

While sufficient water supplies exist to meet current needs and immediate future needs, projected population growth beyond roughly 2020 is not sustainable under current use patterns without significant changes in the form of increased conservation, expanded use of reclaimed water, or securing alternative, renewable supplies.

Past policies have operated under the assumption that the water will be available in the future to meet growth, even if that water is not currently identified.  As many have noted before, prayer is not an acceptable planning tool.  The time to act is now to determine what water sources are presently available, prioritize how the community wants that water allocated, then plan according to those priorities and allocations.  This also requires adapting land use policies to further account for available water supplies when deciding when, where, and what type of development should occur in the region.  These are difficult tasks that require the community and our elected officials to make difficult choices (value judgments) and think long-term and strategically about what sort of built environment we want to live in down the road.

Water use in the Tucson Active Management Area (AMA), which encompasses the city of Tucson and much of eastern Pima County, is statutorily required to reach safe yield conditions by 2025.  While the region has made considerable progress in approaching that goal, there is widespread concern that it is ultimately unattainable.  Safe yield is generally interpreted to mean the condition where withdrawals from the aquifer are in balance with recharge to the aquifer.

Safe yield could be interpreted as an aspect of sustainable water use, but true sustainability in water supplies is about much more than having an aquifer at safe yield.  Water sustainability means that we have sufficient renewable water supplies to meet both current and future needs.  It means that we will not have to seek out expensive alternative supplies in the future to maintain our quality of life.  It means that we have water readily available to meet both human needs for water and environmental needs for water, without having to constantly make difficult choices to achieve balance.  The equations that measure water in and water out are an important component of water sustainability, but they do not tell the whole story.

It is also important to note that, under the Arizona Groundwater Management Act and other legislation governing rights to pump groundwater, Tucson Water, other utilities, and private well owners, will be permitted to and likely will remove groundwater from our aquifer at rates that exceed both the natural rate of recharge and the effective rate of recharge (natural recharge plus artificial recharge).  This fact, coupled with the likely effects of climate change, is almost certainly going to result in ongoing diminishment of available water supplies in much of the region beyond 2025.  These simple, and perhaps unavoidable, facts make the task of achieving true water sustainability even more difficult.

For these reasons and others, the water sector in the Tucson area cannot currently be characterized as sustainable, despite the fact that we are currently “living within our means” in terms of water supplies.  We are in a precarious balance at present that will be adversely affected by even conservative estimates of growth in the next 30 years, especially when coupled with projections of long-term shortages on the Colorado River.

Approaching or achieving sustainability in our water use requires further adoption of conservation measures, increasing reliance on imported water from the Colorado River, and greater use of reclaimed water.  Additionally, we need to more effectively exploit currently available but largely untapped sources of water – rainwater/storm runoff and gray water.

Reducing the amount of water we have to import from other regions serves a dual purpose because it allows us to become more sustainable in our water supplies as well as reducing the amount of energy needed for people to live here – reduced water footprint means reduced carbon footprint as well.Current Practices & Policies Likely to Promote Sustainability

It should first be noted that Tucson has made tremendous progress during the past 30 years to improve our water policies and water use characteristics.  Per capita water consumption has declined considerably, making Tucson one of the most efficient large cities in terms of water use.  Our water rates in the residential sector are among the most progressive in the nation, which is likely one of the reasons for our overall water conservation ethic.  But there have also been strong, consistent educational efforts in the community to instill a culture of conservation in much of the population of the area.  The efforts of organizations like the Water Conservation Alliance of Southern Arizona (WaterCASA) have had a significant impact on our views toward wasteful water practices.

Additionally, efforts by local political leaders have played an important role in nurturing our culture of conservation.  They have made Tucson the first in the nation to adopt an ordinance requiring water harvesting to meet outdoor water-use needs for new commercial development in the city.  They moved quickly to establish standards for use of graywater in both residential and commercial settings.  They have also consistently supported education on wise water use practices and use of dedicated funding sources to subsidize installation of water saving fixtures throughout the city. Both Pima County and City of Tucson have enacted policies recently that seek to consider available water supplies and infrastructure in advance of approval of new development.

These policies are a step in the right direction, but are merely responsive to existing needs.  New, more proactive policies are needed to effectively plan for future contingencies (such as long-term drought, Colorado River shortages) and allow adaptation in response to changing conditions.  This requires effective long-term planning – a visioning process as it was termed in a recent community forum on land use planning.  Sustainability in this sector does, however, require concurrent action in other areas not strictly covered under the rubric of water.  In particular, land use policies must continue to be updated to further consider the limits of water supplies in the development approval process.

Current Practices & Policies at Odds with Sustainability

All new development that is approved has a right to water service – either by obtaining a commitment to serve from an existing water provider or by creating a private water company to serve the development.  Private water companies may then pump groundwater to serve the development by enrolling in a groundwater replenishment district.  While this creates an obligation to recharge water to replace the groundwater pumped by the development, that recharge must only occur within the AMA, not necessarily where it will actually replenish the water pumped.  Recent action by the Tucson City Manager to develop a coherent policy for determination of Tucson Water’s obligation to serve new development is an encouraging sign, but follow-up is needed.  Until this new policy is developed the return to the status quo remains likely and is unacceptable.

Private water companies are severely restricted in their ability to impose conservation charges on their customers and to recover the costs incurred by conservation programs because of the way they are regulated by the Corporation Commission.  This limits their ability to encourage conservation by their customers either through price or education and incentives.  Public utilities have more freedom to implement these programs but are constrained by political pressures and policy decisions.  But in terms of overall impact on local water use, the greater potential for conservation by public water providers likely makes them the preferred choice for serving new development unless state policies for governing private water companies changes significantly in the near future.

The demographics of the region also present problems in the area of education about water scarcity in our region.  A significant percentage of the population is recently settled here.  Some have tremendous respect for the desert and its aridity, but probably most are unaware of water resource constraints.  We must come together as a community to ensure that we are setting a good example for new residents and providing them with the necessary information to make wise choices about their water use.

Water is generally too inexpensive.  Tucson has very low water rates, comparatively, although our tiered rate structure is encouraging and is becoming the norm in the West.  More steeply increasing block rates would send the proper price signals to those who use the most water – typically for outdoor, non-essential uses.  Increasing block rates for commercial customers should also be considered, as they currently only pay summer surcharges during high water use periods.  Rates for those who use the least water – primarily only for indoor, essential uses – should remain low.

Arizona law does not recognize the connection between surface and groundwater.  This legal disconnect with reality has resulted in elimination of much of the surface water flows statewide, and nearly all surface flows in Southern Arizona.  Absent change to Arizona law in this regard, other means of protecting surface and near-surface waters that support riparian areas and diverse wildlife habitat should be pursued to the fullest extent – i.e. Endangered Species Act and federal reserved water rights, zoning laws, open space purchase and preservation.

The Vision

(The preferred state where Tucson becomes sustainable.)

Overall Benefit of Achieving Water Sustainability

The main benefits of water sustainability are that people can continue to live in Tucson.  It provides us with a stable economy and supports the quality of life we have become accustomed to.  Adequate water supplies are essential to all aspects of our current quality of life.  If we also wish to allocate water to the environment there must be additional water that is not needed for other sectors.

Without making greater strides towards sustainability in our water use practices we risk significant disruption to our lives in the future in the event of a major shift in availability of Colorado River water and/or continued regional growth.  While we would still have significant groundwater available to support the region, negative impacts from groundwater depletion would resume in the area quickly at current or foreseeable future population and use rates, forcing us to make some very difficult choices about our future.

What Practices and Policies Will Help Us Achieve Sustainability in Water?

The first and most important step that can be taken is to come together as a region and development a stable, robust framework for planning future growth in the region.  A regional discussion about what type of growth is desirable, where it should occur, and how it should occur will permit proactive, rather than reactive, water policy and planning.  Land use decisions made in concert with well-developed, scientifically-supported water resources planning (and vice versa) will give us the opportunity to not only become sustainable in our water policies, but more importantly to remain sustainable.

As part of this planning process we could seek to make better use of water supplies currently available in the region but largely untapped – rainwater (both residentially/commercially and through retention and recharge of floodwaters), household and commercial gray water, and reclaimed water.  Better use of these resources would decrease our reliance on imported, unreliable surface water sources (Colorado River) and reduce stresses on our aquifers while still permitting modest growth to occur.

Use of alternative sources of water for non-essential uses should be encouraged through education and economic incentives.  The potential for making use of such sources for even essential uses should be de-stigmatized by education and greater use of demonstration programs.

Future planning efforts should focus on three segments of achieving sustainability:




Education should emphasize programs within existing government efforts at encouraging sustainability as well as efforts by private groups.  The Tucson area is home to numerous organizations with regionally, nationally, and internationally recognized experts in water policy and water conservation.  We also have a nascent private service industry providing expertise, labor, and materials for homeowners and businesses seeking to employ more sustainable practices in their water use.  There are countless opportunities for people interested in learning more about sustainable water policy and water use practices in our region.

Included in this are the ongoing Water and Wastewater Infrastructure, Supply & Planning Study being undertaken by the city and county; the work of organizations such as WaterCASA, designed to provide the most current water conservation information to individuals, businesses, and other groups; the Master Watershed Steward program run by the Cooperative Extension program and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality; and the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona.  A truly comprehensive list would run to a page or more.

Information about these groups should be more widely disseminated so that interested members of the public can be further encouraged to participate and become engaged in these processes.  One way in which to do this might be to develop outreach and education programs that would present at neighborhood association and homeowners association meetings to bring this information to a wider audience.  Public service announcements on radio and television might reach a wider audience of people who are unable to participate in other forms of community involvement.

Policy is largely the realm of public officials, but good policy must reflect input from all persons affected by it.  This extends beyond simply affected interest groups with the wherewithal to influence policy-makers.  Members of the community who typically fail to provide input on policy because of collective action problems must be encouraged to make their voices heard, especially on the issue of water because of its importance to so many aspects of the daily lives of people in this region.  Water supply is arguably the most important issue faced by our region today because of its interconnected and vitally essential nature.

One aspect of policy that is of particular importance is comprehensive regional planning.  We all have a stake in this important process, but because there is widespread belief that the process is controlled by various powerful interests most people feel helpless to make a difference.  But we must realize that the only reason special interests can control this process is because the people allow them to.  Now is the time for the community to come together and make all our voices heard on the future growth of the region.  We need to encourage our political leaders to make the difficult choices that will permit successful long-range planning in this area.

The mayor and council of Tucson should be encouraged to follow through on recent efforts by the recently dismissed city manager to craft a coherent, sustainable policy for provision of water service to new development on the fringe of the city by Tucson Water.  There are good reasons for either denying service or agreeing to provide service that must be explored in developing a policy.  But failure to follow through in this area leaves the city with little basis for sound decision-making when the economy recovers and development resumes its frantic pace.  Proactive, rather than reactive, policies are essential in this instance.

In addition, state law, which permits lot splits and exempt wells outside of urban areas with very little local regulation, needs to be updated to permit greater local control of this sort of development where communities choose to protect their open space by encouraging infill development.  This loophole in development regulation is one of the greatest threats to rural areas of the state and sustainability of rural lifestyles.

Finally, on the economic side, we need to ensure that growth pays for itself.  The cost of providing water service to development in the furthest reaches of the city is considerable if provided by existing utilities.  The cost to the region is also considerable if growth reliant on groundwater is permitted to continue, even though much of that cost is not born by the development itself.  We need to ensure that the cost of water is commensurate with its value to our community.  And we need to assign value to the ecosystem services provided by water in the environment so that we can accurately prioritize our water use and our land use.

Correctly valuing water and all the services it provides to our region will ensure that water is used in the most efficient manner and in the sectors where it provides the most value to us.  This is an area where the City of Tucson and Pima County have been exemplars throughout the region and must continue to set an example for other jurisdictions in the area.  But greater parity in water valuation and water use is necessary to approach sustainability in water regionally.

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