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New Tucson Water director says utility remains 'reliable, resilient'

In-depth conversation covers CAP drought concerns, energy costs, anticipating Monsoon & conservation for future use
Posted at 10:21 AM, Jun 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-23 13:21:49-04

TUCSON, Ariz. - (KGUN) — Close to three quarters of a million people living in the Tucson Basin count on a key city utility to get the most precious resource in the desert into their homes and businesses.

Earlier in June, the City of Tucson officially named Tucson Water's new director.

KGUN 9 sat down with John Kmiec to discuss a wide variety of water-related issues. Part of the conversation touched on what it takes for the utility to run the water system, how it impacts customers and what happens to the region's supply once Monsoon arrives.

Close to 5,000 miles of pipeline make up the system Tucson Water maintains, according to Kmiec, who most recently served as the agency's deputy director.

In his career observing changes in the environment and new technology, Kmiec said the work of getting water to people's faucets, toilets and sprinklers requires a significant amount of power and money.

"That's one of our largest expenses, is moving water," he said, "Water is very heavy, so when we're moving water every day, 24/7/365, across close to 5,000 miles of pipe — that's one of our largest expenses."

Now formally in the top leadership role, Kmiec said Tucson Water's has planned collaborations with both city staff and Tucson Electric Power.

Working with these partners, Kmiec said his staff will work to take more advantage of other sources like solar energy to both aid the system and offset costs. "Anytime we can save water and people save water, they're actually saving energy," he said.

Many people would stand to think saving also means saving money. Yet, Tucson City Council approved a measure that began last December, which increased the water rate of those living in parts of unincorporated Pima County by 10%.

The county's board of supervisors promptly filed a lawsuit in response and it will move forward in Maricopa County Superior Court.

Per Pima County Superior Court, the City of Tucson filed for a change of venue knowing the county was a party in the litigation.

While Kmiec said he could not comment on the ongoing litigation, when asked about city versus county use, he said there is a difference in what it takes to get this water to homes using the available infrastructure.

"Maintaining pipelines in a dense urban area that serves more customers per linear foot of pipe is easier than to serve less populated areas where you have maybe acres between each home or each customer," Kmiec said.

Monsoon rain doesn't need pipes to fall down from the clouds to fill the Tucson Basin's aquifers and wells. Kmiec said, even though the City of Tucson does not directly benefit from a wet monsoon, the aquifer system Tucson Water has access to does.

For Kmiec, this indirect benefit ties back to the conversation about the cost of power and energy.

"If the aquifer is recovering on the whole and water levels are rising, that means we use less energy to pump our groundwater wells to get the water to the surface," Kmiec said. "So, there's indirect positives that come from a good monsoon season in Tucson, but it doesn't necessarily give us credit for pumping more water in the future."

That's another factor to consider for the utility — Kmiec said in a wetter environment, customers on average will spend less on water.

Therefore, Tucson Water loses out on revenue, and a refilled aquifer does not give the utility permission to pump groundwater where it doesn't have the approved credits.

For Kmiec, the agency then has to be nimble with its finances. Nimble may describe how other water utilities in Arizona manage their systems in the near future.

New measurements from Lake Mead showed the water level reached 1,044 feet. That's less than 150 feet away from what's called "dead pool" status, when water is too low to flow downstream from the Hoover Dam.

"Every indication is that it's going to be worse," Kmiec said.

Official addressing Tucson's water concerns

"The drought continues in the Colorado River Basin. The snow pack was less than was anticipated again and this has been a common message for the last 20+ years. There's every indication that we are going to enter a Tier 2, even possibly a Tier 3 drought declaration by later this summer."

With the situation on the Colorado River only getting more serious, the federal Bureau of Reclamation recently told the seven states with rights to river water: Come up with a plan to conserve more water in 2023. Since Arizona has junior rights to the water flowing through the Central Arizona Project, the state feels the deepest cuts first.

As for the decision on how big each state will have its water cut, the Bureau of Reclamation said it is prepared to make that choice for the states.

Kmiec said Tucson Water has a plan and backup if the community has to endure tighter restrictions.

"What we've done in the last couple of years is we've tied our drought preparedness plan directly to the drought contingency plan of 2019," Kmiec said. "That determines drought based on what the elevations of the lake is at Lake Mead. We tied it to that, so as Lake Mead continues to fall — we are in a 22-year drought with Lake Mead — that triggers Tucson going and putting more conservation related efforts."

According to Kmiec, the utility has over five years worth of CAP water stored in the Avra Valley aquifer and it can be used at any time.

"We have ample amounts of effluent that comes from the two major treatment plants in the area, as well and then we have historic groundwater credit that are applied throughout the region that we could always tap into," he said.

José Zozaya is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. Before arriving in southern Arizona, José worked in Omaha, Nebraska where he covered issues ranging from local, state and federal elections, to toxic chemical spills, and community programs impacting immigrant families. Share your story ideas and important issues with José by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.