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City’s aging water mains targeted for more fixes

Citizen Staff Writer



About 450 miles of water mains that lie under Tucson will meet the end of their expected lifespans in the next 10 years, according to Tucson Water officials.

With little money to replace those pipes – about 10 percent of the city’s inventory – there likely will be more frequent leaks, torn-up pavement and small-scale flooding, city water officials said.

“We’re in the middle of aging infrastructure,” the department’s leak guru, Ray Wilson, said. “It has tendencies to break and leak.”

A broken water main Jan. 21 left dozens of people without water service for hours and Fairview Avenue south of Prince Road impassable for days. The pipe broke simply because it was old, installed in 1964, Tucson Water spokesman Mitch Basefsky said.

Although the financial downturn has affected Tucson Water as it has most everything in the city – less money coming in, more worry about money going out – the monetary squeeze may be good news for main repairs.

The department’s dwindling pot of money for big projects is being shuffled to reflect the mood of austerity.

“We are modifying our capital improvement program and cutting quite a bit from our five-year plan,” Basefsky said. “More money will go toward infrastructure replacement and rehabilitation.”

Big projects such as Colorado River water storage facilities in Avra Valley lose importance because the city can’t afford the water to fill them.

The reordering of priorities, though still unfinished, accompanies a revision of Tucson Water’s financial plan, which the City Council will review at its meeting Tuesday.

The revision includes $8.9 million in operating spending cuts, a proposal to delay debt payments and a plan to buy one-third less Colorado River water than allocated. It also mentions hopes of payment from storing the water Tucson couldn’t buy from the group that does buy it.

Together the measures are expected to fill a $15.4 million hole in Tucson Water’s $192 million budget for this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Tucson Water funds capital projects with a combination of revenue from water customers and the sale of bonds. The most recent bond election was in 2004, when a $142 million sale was approved.

Millions of bond dollars that were slated to pay for the replacement of water mains built during a 1950s and ’60s building boom were redirected over the past two years – with City Council approval – to pay for construction of Colorado River water storage facilities.

Only $410,000 of the more than $107 million spent as of early January paid for routine, or planned, main replacements, according to a detailed breakdown of the bond spending.

The original plan called for $2.1 million for routine main replacements, and another $12.6 million for other main work.

Since 2005, Tucson Water has spent $709,000 of the bond money on emergency main breaks.

It was a case of competing priorities. Officials weighed temporary geysers in city streets against losing access to river water considered vital to the desert city’s prosperity.

With predictions that a shortage of Colorado River water could be declared by Central Arizona Project managers as soon as 2011, endangering Tucson’s supply, officials put the Avra Valley projects in overdrive, funneling bond money toward them.

The declaration of a shortage would mean cuts based on priority and the amount used, not allocated, Basefsky said. So Tucson drove hard to use all it could, and pumping the water back into the ground counted as use.

Now the city likely won’t buy the full allocation this year and next. The shortage declaration is now expected in 2013 at the earliest, Basefsky said, and officials hope that will allow Tucson to use its full allocation just in the nick of time.

In the meantime, the city could save about $11 million over two years and take in about 100,000 fewer acre-feet of water – almost enough to supply all Tucson Water customers for a year at current rates of use.

If the council approves the proposals Tuesday, Tucson Water will also apply for about $3.5 million in state water loans for more Avra Valley construction. The money comes at a lower-than-market interest rate.

At the same time, the city is lobbying for more than $65 million in water-related federal economic stimulus money, with $30 million for improvements to the south Avra Valley CAP water storage facility and less than $1 million, or 11 miles, worth of main replacements.

That money, however, is not guaranteed. Neither is a new influx of bond money.

Tucson Water is due for a bond election in November, but with a large county bond proposal expected to be on the ballot and an upturn in the economy unlikely, officials aren’t sure asking voters to approve more borrowing will fly.

“We’re not sure what the alternatives are,” Basefsky said Monday.

The City Council is expected to review a list of reconsidered capital improvement priorities in the next few weeks.

The Shortfall

$11.1 million from reduced water sales

$4.3 million from development and growth-related charges

TOTAL $15.4 million

Making up the difference

$5.1 million in reduced operating expenses

$3.8 million in shifting capital expenses from water revenue to bond funding

$5.4 million in buying 35 percent less Central Arizona Project water

$400,000 in debt restructuring

Up to $750,000 for storing CAP water that is bought by another group

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