Lessons from Phoenix on water management and equity

Aerial view of Downtown Phoenix, Arizona from Scottsdale, framed between the Papago Buttes.
ShutterstockTim Roberts Photography
Aerial view of Downtown Phoenix, Arizona from Scottsdale, framed between the Papago Buttes.

This article originally appeared on MeetingoftheMinds.org.

In a desert city such as Phoenix, water is the foundation of public health, economic opportunity and quality of life. Phoenix’s water supply is sound and sustainable as a result of multiple water sources and a logical, methodical approach to supply planning, infrastructure management, conservation and drought preparation. Living in the desert imparts a deep appreciation for the value of water, which has driven the city of Phoenix to methodically manage water supplies for reliability in our desert environment. There are complicated tradeoffs between sustainable management of water supplies, conservation, affordability, infrastructure investment and equity. At the same time, smart and equitable water management can foster broad opportunity for the entire community. In Phoenix, we’re continuously working on water management, and we’re now bringing water equity into focus as well.

Phoenix has been a leader in the reuse of wastewater for 40 years. We’ve also banked water underground that we don’t need today, for availability when shortages of Colorado River water occur. And we have access to over a trillion gallons of native groundwater, which we fastidiously protect as a savings account for future generations. Our supplies include water from the Salt, Verde and Colorado Rivers, and reclaimed wastewater.

Conservation is the foundation upon which all of our sustainable water management strategies are based. Our water usage rates have fallen 30 percent in 20 years, which means that we deliver less water today than we did 20 years ago, while serving nearly 400,000 more people. We effectively have decoupled growth and water use in Phoenix. We did this by focusing on long-term culture change regarding the way people view water in the Valley of the Sun. Odd as it sounds, we don’t want our customers reacting to drought or hydrologic conditions. Instead, we want them to use water wisely every day as a lifestyle choice here in our desert city. This culture change in the way people view and use water in Phoenix has been brought about through improvements in technology (water efficient appliances), through decades of extensive education and outreach, and through the use of a strong price signal in our water rates.

Phoenix’s water rate structure, first adopted in the early 1990s, is pretty ingenious. Phoenix charges more for water in the summer than in the winter. This sends a direct price signal to customers to scrap the grass and lush landscaping that requires a ton of water to stay alive in our hot summers, and convert to desert-adapted landscaping, called xeriscape, instead. And this is exactly what has happened. Back in the 1970s about 80 percent of single-family homes had majority-turf landscapes. Today, that number hovers at less than 10 percent.

But Phoenix’s water rates, while effective at encouraging conservation, are also affordable for basic, indoor needs. This is important in a city where the municipal water utility is the monopoly provider, and temperatures soar over 115 degrees in the summer. Phoenix’s monthly fixed charge for water is very low — about $4.50 per month — and includes an "allowance" of water ample for basic household needs. So while Phoenix sends a conservation signal through summer pricing, it also manages to ensure that water remains affordable for basic needs. A 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Water Works Association ranked Phoenix’s water as most affordable among the 25 largest cities in the country.

The fact that Phoenix water is affordable for basic household needs helped us push a recommended two-year rate increase over the finish line. In January, Phoenix City council formally voted to increase water rates by 6 percent for two straight years. These rate increases were necessary to support a $500 million bond program, which will be used to fund infrastructure necessary to withstand shortage on the Colorado River as well as extensive pipeline rehabilitation and replacement in the oldest parts of town, generally in some of the poorest neighborhoods in our service territory.

  • Sustainably managed water supplies
  • Strong conservation price signal and a culture of wise water use
  • Affordable water for basic needs
  • Responsible investment in infrastructure

We’re done here, right?

Not done. Things get complicated here in Phoenix where the City Services Bill includes not just water and wastewater services but also solid waste services and various city taxes. Water might be affordable at basic levels, but its billing is joined with other city services that, combined, entail a larger bill and increase the risk of water insecurity through disconnects for nonpayment. Water insecurity tracks poverty and disproportionately can affect the most vulnerable. Adding to this, an array of fees for utility starts and stops, unauthorized use and late payments can place burdens on vulnerable customers that are difficult to overcome.

Ironically, utility disconnects are necessary to ensure the financial viability of our water utility and the continued investment in the rehabilitation and replacement of aging infrastructure that provides safe, clean, reliable water deliveries in the first place. No water utility wants to disconnect customers, but failure to collect revenue can lead directly to a lack of funds for investment in infrastructure, which also can have disproportionate impacts on poor families who often live in areas most in need of improvements. We have seen this story play out in cities back east, with tragic consequences for the most vulnerable.

Like other utilities, Phoenix Water uses various programs and procedures to avoid utility disconnects. We fund a robust customer assistance program, give ample notice before disconnects, offer payment plans, suspend disconnects on days of extreme heat, and work closely with the nonprofit community to match customers in need with the resources that can get them on their feet.

But is all of this enough? And here again, things get complicated in a desert city where water use has a direct and tangible impact on quality of life. While Phoenix water is affordable for basic, indoor needs, it is purposefully not affordable for outdoor water use to drive conservation. That conservation signal has worked very well and the use of desert landscapes has exploded. Those landscapes are good for local flora and fauna, but do little for, and maybe even exacerbate, the unrelenting urban heat island that keeps summer temperatures above 100 degrees even at night. Wealthy families, oblivious to the cost, plant lawns that mitigate the urban heat and increase property values. Poorer families swelter. As we face a hotter and drier future, the tradeoffs between conservation and quality of life will come into greater focus, and environmental justice will be the center of that conversation.

According to the U.S. Water Alliance, water equity occurs when all communities have access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water and wastewater services; are resilient in the face of floods, drought and other climate risks; have a role in decision-making processes related to water management in their communities; and share in the economic, social and environmental benefits of water systems.

We recently asked our citizens’ committee, as representatives of the broader community, to tackle issues of water equity.  Over the next year, they will examine where we currently stand on:

  • Broad access to safe, clean, affordable water
  • Our resiliency in the face of climate risks
  • The role customers have in decision-making related to water in their communities
  • The degree to which the benefit of our water system is broadly shared in the community

The citizens’ committee will be asked to determine whether we can or should do more in these areas to promote water equity. They will examine our current utility billing fees and procedures, whether our customer assistance program is adequately funded, the degree to which our plumbing retrofit program should be expanded, languages offered in our customer service center, investment in aging pipelines in struggling neighborhoods, our efforts to ensure resiliency in the face of shortage on the Colorado River, our grassroots involvement in neighborhoods and community groups, our small business enterprise programs, the trajectory and pace of our facility beautification program and our efforts to create a water workforce pipeline in the community. This is a lot to take on, and a lot of tradeoffs are at play, but these issues will become more complex and more difficult to overcome if they are not confronted now.

Phoenix Water Services inherited an incredible legacy of wise water management — one that dates back to the ancient Native Americans who first built the canals that we rely upon to this day. Phoenix exists where two major rivers come together — this place was carefully chosen. To stand the test of time, we must honor this legacy and continue to push forward with innovative water management strategies that ensure water remains the foundation of public health, economic opportunity and quality of life — especially for the most vulnerable among us.