Explorer staff reports

Residential sewer bills could increase 40 percent over the next four years in Pima County, according to a proposal from the county's regional wastewater reclamation department.

The increase is necessary because Pima County is undertaking a mandated $974 million capital improvement plan through 2018 to meet federal and state regulatory requirements and to maintain, rehabilitate and expand the regional wastewater reclamation system.

"This requirement has been around for years and we're the last in the state to comply," said Michael Gritzuk, director of the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department.

Gritzuk said the county has been involved in years of legal wrangling over the mandates, which have delayed implementation. The county has been ordered to clean water discharged into the Santa Cruz River from the Ina and Roger roads treatment facilities so it meets certain environmental standards.

Approximately $694 million of the capital improvement plan is needed for a regional optimization master plan, which requires the reduction of nitrogen concentrations in discharged water.

Treated water is discharged into identified riparian area that could be damaged by nitrogen concentrations, federal authorities have said. But because the Santa Cruz is a dry river, the discharged water actually creates the riparian area.

If approved, standard service fees and connection fees would increase 6.5 percent annually for the four fiscal years beginning this July 1. User fee volume rates would increase 10 percent annually beginning July 1.

Over four years, the average homeowner's sewer bill would grow from $29 a month to $40 per month, Gritzuk said.

More than meeting environmental requirements, the proposal seeks to make system-wide improvements and expansions. Those expansions are designed to serve the region's population as it grows in coming decades.

"We're comfortable that we can serve the population growth to 2030," Gritzuk said.

The proposed expansions would add an overall 3.5 million gallons of capacity per day.

Currently, the Ina Road treatment plant can handle 37.5 million gallons per day. The improvement will boost capacity to 50 million gallons per day.

Roger Road would be decommissioned and a new facility built nearby. Its current capacity is 41 million gallons; the new plant is expected to handle 32 million gallons per day.

A public hearing on the proposed fiscal 2010 financial plan, with rate increases included, was held Tuesday night in Tucson.

The county has made numerous other sewer system improvements over the years, including more than $100 million in improvements at Ina and Roger roads paid for by bonds in 1997 and 2004.

"All of those funds have been expended or committed," Gritzuk said.

He stressed that the proposed improvements are mandated by federal and state law and by population growth. Non-compliance could result in a bevy of fines and lawsuits, Gritzuk added.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors considers public comments on the increases. Copies of the plan are available at all Pima County libraries, or online at http://www.pima.gov/wwm/finance/finplans.htm.

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