A proposed law in the Arizona Legislature could change how some Pima County residents receive a crucial public service.
Through lobbying efforts at the state capitol, Town of Marana officials have gotten a bill sponsored that would allow cities or towns to take over a county-owned wastewater treatment plant and get into the water treatment business.
“We have submitted to have a bill in the legislature to have as a city the right to operate like any other city in Arizona,” said Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson.
For Marana, the proposed law assures that the town would have the ability to continue to grow into the future by securing more water. But county officials say the law would break up the functioning regional sewer system and create disparities of service rates throughout the region, ultimately costing ratepayers more money.
At the center of the issue sits the small Marana Wastewater Reclamation Facility at the northern reaches of the town. Marana annexed the area in late 2007 in an effort to lay claim to the treatment facility, which currently services a small population in the town.
In response, the Pima County Board of Supervisors promptly declared the area a park. A lengthy legal battle ensued to determine ownership and whether Marana could go into the wastewater business. The court case continues today.
The value of wastewater
In Arizona, growth is inextricably linked to water resources, and wastewater treatment holds the key for Marana to grow in the future.
“We have the right amount of water for our population today,” Davidson said. “If we want to add new homes and companies, we need to add water supply.”
The town sits atop an active aquifer but has a minimal allocation of Central Arizona Project water of just 1,500 acre-feet per year.
An acre-foot is the average amount of water a family of four uses in a year.
Despite ample groundwater, Marana is limited in its ability to grow because it must show the ability to replenish groundwater through recharge efforts. In basic terms, groundwater has to be recharged on a gallon-per-gallon basis. That’s why town officials want wastewater treatment capacity — to access treated water or effluent.
In Arizona, whoever treats the water has the right to the effluent. The town could use a local effluent supply for irrigation and to recharge the aquifer, thereby minimizing its reliance on groundwater.
For county officials, Marana’s actions appear to be an attempt at a legislative solution where legal measures failed.
“Marana chose to implement a legal process,” Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said. “Now they’re trying to get what they couldn’t get in the legal process.”
As the only county in the state still in the wastewater treatment business, the law would appear to directly target Pima County.
Water an economic driver
In a lengthy written rebuttal to the proposed legislation, Huckelberry called it, “counterproductive from an economic development perspective.”
“The net result, and unintended or unforeseen consequence of this legislation, would be to create insufficient treatment capacity or conveyance capacity within the system leading to geographically-influenced, regulatory-driven building moratoriums: an economic deathblow to the region’s recovery from the present deep recession,” Huckelberry wrote in a memo to the county Board of Supervisors.
His litany of criticisms include claims that the proposed law would cause sewer-rate increases throughout the region, fragment the region’s wastewater treatment system, and ignite a series of water wars between municipalities in Southern Arizona.
Davidson said Pima County has continually used access to wastewater service to thwart the town’s efforts at growth and economic development.
“What happens in Pima County is, you have one entity — a czar — who can dictate who grows,” Davidson said.
He said the county has stood in the way of the town’s economic development efforts. For example, he said several years ago the county used its control of wastewater access to discourage construction of a hospital in north Marana.
“Our citizens have been denied health care services because of wastewater,” Davidson said.
Huckelberry said the county doesn’t use access to the sewer system to control growth.
“We have never, as a regional wastewater treatment utility, made a decision yes or no about who can grow,” Huckelberry said.
A ‘Balkanized’ system
The prime concern, according to Huckelberry, is the possibility of breaking apart the county operated treatment system that serves residents throughout the region.
“One of the largest concerns (with the legislation) is that it Balkanizes this regional system,” Huckelberry said.
Ratepayers throughout the county pay the same rate. If municipalities across the county started gobbling up pieces of the sewer system, the result would be a disparity of rates customers would pay, Huckelberry said.
Davidson said Huckelberry’s concern was misplaced and ignored the fact that other utility rates already vary.
“Each water utility may have a different rate,” Davidson said. “I think that’s a good thing because it encourages competition.”
Davidson said that the Town of Sahuarita already operates its own wastewater system.
He also noted that the county recently increased the rate its wastewater customers pay.
Marana looks to have important allies on this issue as well, with the entire legislative delegations of both districts that represent the Northwest.
The bill was sponsored by Sens. Frank Antenori (R-LD 30), Gail Griffin (R-LD 25), Al Melvin (R-LD 26), and Reps. Terri Proud (R-LD 26), Vic Williams (R-LD 26), Peggy Judd (R-LD 25), David Stevens (R-LD25) and Ted Vogt (R-LD 30).
“Marana is looking to chart its own destiny into the future,” Williams said.
The transfer of wastewater and other services the county traditionally provides to municipalities is a natural progression as towns grow, Williams said.
What’s it worth?
The legislation holds provisions for the transfer of a county treatment system to a city or town.
Among those, the municipality would have to assume all operating costs and outstanding debt associated with the system.
All pipelines, pumping stations, treatment facilities and other infrastructure would be included in a transfer.
“This would unfairly take assets from regional ratepayers and give them to one group,” Huckelberry said. “There’s no fair market compensation.”
He said the proposed law does not take into account the years worth of maintenance costs and other expenses put into the system.
Further, he argues that the county would be hesitant to invest in system improvements if Marana or another municipality could seize it at will.
Davidson disagrees. He said Marana ratepayers have been paying into the county system for years and have funded through rates and other fees much of the expansions and improvements over the years.
In addition, Davidson said Huckelberry has been unwilling to relinquish the Marana Wastewater Reclamation Facility for any price.
“We have offered to purchase the plant,” Gilbertson said. “At every turn, (Huckelberry) says ‘we’re not going to sell the plant.’”