On Nov. 1, Oro Valley's five golf courses and 16,000 other water utility customers will see a rate hike in their water bills, plus something new - a ground water preservation fee.

For the average 10,000-gallon per month user, the potable water rate will rise about 50 cents per month, said Shirley Seng, water utility administrator for the town. The ground water preservation fee will add another 21 cents per 1,000 gallons, or about $2.10 per month, to pay for the town's "renewable water infrastructure."

That includes a current project to bring reclaimed water to golf courses and other large turf users, plus any future development of a system to import potable water from the Central Arizona Project.

And Oro Valley can expect future increases in the potable rate every year over the next four to five years. The town is projecting it will need about a 4.7 percent revenue increase annually.

"We're a break-even utility," said Alan Forrest, water utility director. "Expenses will go up as we continue to build (potable) infrastructure."

On April 12, 2002, the town negotiated an agreement with the city of Tucson for its share of reclaimed water plus an annual CAP allotment of 4,454 acre-feet, bringing its total CAP allotment to almost 7,000 acre-feet. In 2002, Oro Valley water customers used 9,800 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, equal to water at a depth of one foot covering an acre, roughly the size of a football field.

"We know we'll have to go to CAP to meet demand, certainly by build-out in 2030," said Seng. "But it will be 10 years before we start firming up plans for that."

The ground water preservation fee pays only for infrastructure of the new reclaimed system, not operation and maintenance.

The town council approved the rate hike and the new fee in a 3 -1 vote Oct. 1, with Vice Mayor Werner Wolff absent and Councilmember Paula Abbott the lone dissenter. "This is a true dilemma," she said. "Everyone wants to get turf off ground water." However, she characterized the new rate structure as "troubling" and the ground water preservation fee as an "extra tax."

For the 90 percent of Oro Valley's water customers who use 10,000 gallons per month, most will see their water bill rise from $31 to $33.60, Seng said, "an 8.4 percent increase over what they pay today."

In contrast, according to town statistics, the average 10,000-gallon user in Marana pays $36.95; the same user in Tucson pays $19.39. "Tucson can keep its base rate lower because it has a bigger customer base," Seng said.

The potable water rate hike will fund operation and maintenance of the potable system and needed capital improvements such as new wells and boosters to gain capacity and the replacement of almost five miles of water main lost to new road construction, she added.

In 2002, residential customers accounted for 58 percent of Oro Valley's potable water use, while golf courses accounted for 28 percent. Schools, parks and medians, construction and commercial users accounted for the remaining 14 percent, Seng said.

At the Oct. 15 council meeting, Forrest predicted a ground water savings of 25 percent annually by moving large turf users (two acres or more) from the potable water system to the reclaimed system. Reclaimed customers will eventually pay for 42 percent of the new reclaimed system; residential customers will pay for 40 percent; and new development will pay for 18 percent (including an extra $3.7 million in alternative water impact fees).

"We've had an alternative water impact fee in place since 1996, now being used for the engineering and design of the reclaimed system," Seng said. "New development has been paying for this since1996."

Forrest believes that the fee structure to pay for the reclaimed system is fair, given that golf courses currently use only 30 percent of the ground water, while residential users use almost 60 percent. "We're all in this together," he said. "We're all going to share in the benefit of decreasing ground water usage."

The Oct. 1 town council also approved a third rate governing the price for reclaimed water along with the new potable rate hike and the ground water preservation fee. The reclaimed rate will be a flat $1.92 per 1,000 gallons, equal to Tier 1 of the potable rate.

"Only reclaimed customers will pay for reclaimed water when it comes on line in July 2005," said Seng. "But we needed to have the rate structure in place now before the town can sell bonds."

Many providers offer reclaimed water at a rate lower than potable water. "Our reclaimed rate covers 80 percent of the total cost of service," said Karen Dotson, the city of Tucson's reclaimed water program coordinator. "The other 20 percent is subsidized by the potable rates. It's an incentive to get people off ground water."

Based on its use patterns, for instance, the Gallery Golf Club at Dove Mountain would pay $818 per acre-foot for potable water versus $571 per acre-foot for reclaimed water, she said.

Oro Valley's flat rate for reclaimed is a way of offering a similar benefit, Seng said. To sweeten the deal, the Oro Valley Water Utility Commission has recommended that the town also give a 10 percent discount to reclaimed users.

"That's a common industry practice," Seng said. The discount issue will return to the council for a decision before the first golf course comes on line in the next two years.

That may not satisfy critics like Gordon Byrnes, golf course superintendent at the Hilton El Conquistador resort and county club, who criticized the reclaimed rate structure at the Oct. 1 council meeting.

"This is not a gift," he said. "This is lower quality water." He said that golf courses will need 30 percent more reclaimed water to leach their greens because of the high salt content of reclaimed water.

"That depends on the turf, the underlying soil and management practices," said the city of Tucson's Dotson. "When you look at total dissolved solids, they're higher in reclaimed than in ground water, but in the grand scheme of things, our reclaimed water is very good." With about 670 milligrams per liter of dissolved solids, Tucson's reclaimed water compares favorably to ground water, which can range from 250 to almost 400 milligrams per liter.

"I've never had a golf course superintendent complain to me," she said. "Once or twice a year they may do extra watering to flush the soil. If they were flushing on a weekly basis we'd hear about it." Oro Valley's courses will be getting the same reclaimed water as Tucson's.

The total cost of Phase 1 of Oro Valley's reclaimed system, estimated at $12.6 million. Construction is expected to begin in January 2004 and be completed by July 2005.

"Once completed, the pipeline will link to Tucson's reclaimed system at Thornydale and Tangerine, which serves Dove Mountain," Seng said. Included in the first phase of the plan is a booster station to pump water to higher elevations, 11 miles of pipeline, a 1.5 million gallon concrete reservoir and another booster station on Rancho Vistoso Boulevard north of Moore Road.

The first phase will serve large turf users north of Tangerine Road, including Painted Sky Elementary School and Vistoso, Stone Canyon and Sun City golf courses.

"In Tucson, almost every schoolground in the city and most municipal golf courses use reclaimed water," Seng said. "You don't want to drink it but skin contact is not harmful."

Phase 2, a $5.7 million project now slated for completion in July 2006, will serve large turf users along La Canada Drive south of Tangerine Road to Lambert Lane, including the Hilton El Conquistador Country Club, the Naranja Town Site and CDO Riverfront Park, said Seng. If needed, Phase 3 will serve an area south of Lambert Lane, including the Hilton El Conquistador Resort golf course, James D. Kriegh Park and Canyon del Oro High School. Cost has not yet been assessed for that phase, said Seng.

Once on line, Oro Valley's reclaimed water will come from Tucson's treatment facility adjacent to the county's Roger Road wastewater treatment plant. Explained Dotson: "Treated wastewater (effluent) is given additional filtration and then we chlorinate it - that's reclaimed water."

Anyone with two or more acres of turf will have to be on reclaimed water, Seng added. Other users could tap into it if they supply their own connection. Including 350 single-family residences and 14 golf courses, the city of Tucson has more than 600 connections for reclaimed service.

Forrest predicted that when both phases are complete the reclaimed system will bring 2,000 to 2,500 acre-feet of reclaimed water to Oro Valley each year, and possibly as much as 4,000-acre feet at build-out.

In December, the town of Oro Valley Municipal Property Corporation will issue Series 2003 bonds to finance several water utility projects, said town Finance Director David Andrews. The town has projected the total cost of the bond issuance at $33.1 million to be financed over 25 years. Included in the bond package is $12.6 million for Phase 1 of the reclaimed system, $12.8 million for potable water system improvements, $3.7 million to refund water system expansion bonds issued in 2000 and $4 million to refinance the Tucson water settlement agreement. A bond package for Phase 2 of the reclaimed project will be developed at a later date.

OV has water-wise official

Too much of a good thing - overwatering desert landscaping - is Oro Valley's No. 1 water waster.

"A lot of people feel you can water with impunity and it won't hurt anything," said Kevin McCaleb, the town's new water conservation specialist. "That's not true."

Known as the Water Wizard, McCaleb has been in the irrigation and water conservation business for more than 20 years. Since May, he's done 100 in-house water audits in Oro Valley, for everybody from single-family homes to large homeowner's associations to the town site itself.

"What I try to teach people is if you're watering your oleander three or four times a week, you're killing it with kindness," he said. "If you've got emitters to yucca, aloe and cactus, you're wasting water."

Take the colorful favorite, bougainvillea. "As long as you don't plant it in direct sun, once it is established, you can give it a teaspoon of water a month and it's happy."

That may be a slight exaggeration, but not much more.

"Desert plants have a metabolism to deal with extremes of drought and moisture. When the rain comes they draw in everything they can and store it in specially adapted tissue. When the rainy season stops the switch cuts off. If we emulate Mother Nature, plants are healthier."

McCaleb's other pet peeve is the annual October over-seeding of Bermuda grass with emerald green rye grass for winter color.

"As our temperatures cool in winter, we should see less water use, not more," he said.

"When you plant new grass, it takes two to three times the amount of water to establish that grass."

The Bermuda grass may be dormant, but that just means it's asleep. "If you scalp back the grass at its roots, you're leaving them vulnerable to disease," he said.

Other water saving tips:

Landscape - Established cactus, agave, native trees and other desert-adapted plants thrive on their own without extra water. If plants have been watered since planting, reduce frequency to gradually allow them to develop a broad root system. Otherwise, cap off emitters and water only if they show signs of stress. If water is easy to get, plants will not develop a broad root system, especially trees. Don't leave irrigation on seven days a week. Turn it off when it rains.

Showers - Reduce shower frequency and time. Low-flow shower heads use 2 to 3 gallons per minute. If you reduce your shower time by five minutes a day, a four-person household can save 1,500 gallons. If you don't have low-flow shower heads, you can get them free at the Town of Oro Valley Water Utility office.

Brushing teeth - Turn off the bathroom faucet. Otherwise, three to four gallons a minute goes down the drain.

Turf - Cut turf watering by 10 percent and only water after 10 p.m.

Pools - Pools can lose as much as an inch a day (250 gallons). Bubble covers save 95 percent of evaporation. When you back flush, use that water for plants.

Water fountains - Don't leave them on constantly and try not to use them at all during the day.

Laundry and dishwasher - Do full, not partial, loads. One washing machine load uses 25 -30 gallons. A dishwasher uses 35 gallons per load. Wash pots and pans in the sink and use leftover soapy water to water plants.

For more help or to schedule a household, commercial or HOA water audit, call the Water Wizard, Kevin McCaleb, at 229-5024. Or ask e-mail him questions at www.ci.oro-valley.az.us.

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