The Phoenix City Council rejected a two-year water-rate increase that would have supported $1.5 billion in new drought-contingency projects and repairs to the city’s aging water-delivery system.
But Mayor Thelda Williams promised she would bring the rate hike back for reconsideration.
“This is something that is too important to this city — the entire city. (It’s) something that cannot be ignored. Water is essential not only to our lives, but the growth of our city and the continuation,” Williams said.
About $500 million generated from the rate increase would have gone toward a Colorado River resiliency project, and $500 million would have gone toward fixing aging pipelines. The rest of the money would have paid to replace pumps and update water-treatment facilities and equipment.
How much would it cost you?
The proposal would have raised rates in Phoenix by 6 percent in 2019 and 6 percent again in 2020.
That amounts to an increase of $1.98 per month in 2019 and an additional $2.35 per month in 2020 for the average customer, according to the city.
The average Phoenix resident currently pays about $33.62 per month for water.
The rate increases would have affected low water users less (about a $1 monthly increase each year) and high water users more (about a $5 monthly increase each year).
Preparing for Colorado River shortage
One of the most significant projects the city wanted to fund was a system that would allow the transport of water from the southern portion of the city to the north.
About 40 percent of Phoenix’s current water supply, mainly in north Phoenix, comes from the Central Arizona Project, which siphons water out of Lake Mead to distribute throughout central Arizona.
The Colorado River feeds Lake Mead. There is a 14 percent chance that Lake Mead’s water level will fall below 1,025 feet by 2023, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. That’s a shortage level that would leave Arizona in “uncharted territory” and could eliminate Phoenix’s access to the water.
The city has banked water it stored during non-drought years and groundwater that could serve the area that currently uses Colorado River water. The city’s current water supply could last “generations,” Phoenix Water Services Director Kathryn Sorensen said earlier this year.
The problem is getting it “where it needs to go,” she said.
The water department’s plan calls for new wells and other machinery to bring the water from the ground to the surface, and new apparatuses to usher that water to north Phoenix.
The project will be both costly — about $500 million — and inconvenient to install, but it’s imperative to the continued success of the Valley, Sorensen said.
“I do think people understand the importance of water and what it means. It’s the foundation of our public health, our economic opportunity and our quality of life here in the desert,” she said. “And this risk (of shortage) is real.”
Assistant Water Services Director Troy Hayes told the council earlier this year that Phoenix has aging pipelines and service lines that need repairing or replacing.
Hayes said there are about 7,000 miles of pipelines, and the Water Services Department would like to triple its investment on maintaining those. It would have gotten $500 million from the rate hike.
Hayes said the Water Services Department is more than 110 years old, and that age causes things to leak or break.
“Without reliable pipeline infrastructure, we simply cannot deliver that water safely and reliably to our customers,” Sorensen said.
Council kills plan
The rate increase was rejected 5-3, with Vice Mayor Jim Waring and council members Laura Pastor, Sal DiCiccio, Michael Nowakowski and Williams voting against it. Williams voted to reject it so that she can resurrect the item in the future for reconsideration.
“I think this is one of the most important decisions we’re going to make as a council,” she said.
Councilwomen Debra Stark, Vania Guevara and Felicita Mendoza supported the hike.
Pastor said she voted on a water-rate increase for infrastructure in 2016 and was under the impression that it would cover all needs for the foreseeable future.
That two-year increase passed and rates increased 3 percent in 2016 and 2 percent in 2017.
“When I voted in 2016, I also said at that time, ‘I’m only going to vote one time. Make sure the percentage (is) where it needs to be to cover us through the years for infrastructure,’ ” Pastor said.
Sorensen told Pastor that the city’s infrastructure needs, particularly when it comes to preparing for a Colorado River shortage, have increased significantly.
DiCiccio echoed Pastor’s concerns and dismissed the notion that the city’s needs grew so dramatically and so quickly.
“(Things) don’t change by $1.5 billion,” he said.
Sorensen clarified that the $1.5 billion in planned projects isn’t all new. Some of the projects were already planned to be funded with money generated from previous water rate increases.