How Tucson Water spends Conservation Fund money and a suggestion for a better way

If you are a Tucson Water customer, you may have noticed an item on the back page of your water bill listed as: “CONSRV FEE $.07/CCF.” This means you are contributing seven cents per cubic foot of water used to a conservation fund. That may not sound like much, but according to an article by Tim Steller, that added up to $2.95 million last year. By the way, this “contribution” to the conservation fund will rise to eight cents per CCF on July 15.

So, how is that money being used? The answer to that question is the objective of a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request filed last January by Mark Lewis, one of five members of the City’s Conservation and Education Subcommittee of the Citizens Water Advisory Committee.

Tucson Water has to date refused to provide the information requested by Mr. Lewis. According to Mr. Lewis, the information requested is “to gather the documentation and information necessary to ensure the funds collected from Tucson Water customers under the Conservation Fee program has been properly accounted for, audited, and expensed.” Mr. Lewis has expressed concern, in his role as an appointed advocate for the Rate Payers of Tucson Water, that the millions of dollars which have been spent through this fund have not been properly tracked or audited and that more recent uses of this fund are not consistent with the purpose of the fund: conserving water.

One conservation program promoted by Tucson Water is the replacement of old toilets with new low-flow models. Tucson Water will give you a $75 rebate toward the cost. According to Steller’s article, “water-wasting toilets remain in around 150,000 Tucson homes, and the program to replace them saved almost 11 million gallons in the first eight months of this fiscal year alone.” Mr. Lewis supports this program, but points out that the small rebate may be insufficient, especially for older homes which may have complicated plumbing issues that would make replacement more expensive.

Another conservation program is rainwater harvesting. Tucson Water will provide a rebate of up to $2000 for installing a system. Steller points out that “those rebates have mostly benefitted wealthier residents and so far have resulted in no measurable reduction in water use.” Mr. Lewis notes that the $900,000 in rain water rebates to date saved no water, but had the same money been spent on wasteful toilets it would have saved 173 million gallons of water to date.

You can read about the program in a brochure provided by Tucson Water:

In that brochure, Tucson Water claims that “45% of the water we use goes to outdoor irrigation.” That number surprises me; I wonder if it is true. The brochure also notes that in order to qualify for the rebate, you have to take a free class. And here is where it gets interesting.

The qualifying class is run by Watershed Management Group, a consulting firm that, for a fee, will design a rainwater harvesting system for you. Three board members of Watershed Management Group, Catlow Shipek, Mark Murphy, and Amy McCoy, comprise three of the five members of the City’s Conservation and Education Subcommittee of the Citizens Water Advisory Committee. The classes are also given by a company that sells rain gutters according to Mr. Lewis. This situation has the appearance of crony capitalism and conflict of interest.

There is another scheme afoot. Tucson City Councilwoman Regina Romero has proposed that $300,000 be used to provide interest free loans to low-income residents so they can plant trees and have them watered by rainwater harvesting systems. Romero is concerned about the “unequal distribution of tree canopy in Tucson…” and its effect on the Urban Heat Island Effect (cities are warmer than surrounding countryside because all the asphalt and concrete absorb heat which makes nighttime cooling much slower). I see two potential problems with this scheme. First, we would have to cover a large part of the city with trees to have any significant effect. Second, all those trees will transpire water, losing moisture to the atmosphere rather than conserving water for reuse.

Given the information above, do you think your forced subsidy is being well-spent?

I have a suggestion on how the money could be spent to actually conserve water.

One of the eco-fads promoted by Tucson Water is rainwater harvesting at residences. So far, that program has resulted in no measurable reduction in water use. But perhaps, if that idea was used on a larger scale, it could help recharge our aquifers. Why don’t we collect storm-water runoff from city streets and in ephemeral flows in the Santa Cruz River and pump that water back into the aquifers via dry wells?

That idea is discussed by Chuck Graf, Senior Hydrologist, Arizona Department of

Environmental Quality in a short article in the Spring Issue of Arizona Water Resource Newsletter (link to article).

This idea is not new. Phoenix began recharging storm-water in the 1930s and now has more than 50,000 wells in operation. Many other communities also use this recharge method. Why not in Tucson and Pima County?

The practice of dry well recharge in Phoenix went largely unregulated until 1987 when legislature directed the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to license dry well installers and establish a registration program for existing and newly constructed dry wells. The law expressly limited the use of dry wells to the disposal of storm water. This limitation was intended to prevent disposal of hazardous chemicals into dry wells, which in the past had caused severe groundwater contamination plumes (some of which are still under remediation).

Graf explains the dry well method as follows:

“The dry well borehole is drilled in alluvial sediments, through any intervening fine-grained and cemented zones, into a permeable layer of clay-free sand, gravel, and cobbles. The permeable layer serves as the injection zone for the storm water. ADEQ requires at least 10 feet of separation between the bottom of the injection zone and the water table. Because groundwater commonly occurs at great depth in Arizona’s alluvial basins, installers often have considerable leeway to find an exceptionally permeable zone above the water table that maximizes dry well performance while maintaining a much greater separation distance than the 10-foot minimum.”

Graf goes on to write:

“Potential adverse groundwater quality impact is the biggest concern about dry wells. Although the definitive water quality study probably remains to be done, a number of studies, including a 10-year study in Los Angeles conducted by the Bureau of Reclamation and others, found little evidence for groundwater contamination. A 1985 study in Phoenix found that dry wells had a beneficial effect on groundwater quality with respect to major chemical constituents”

This idea should be considered. Perhaps then, our involuntary contribution to the “Conservation Fund” would actually conserve some water.