Saving on irrigation costs
Joyce Reilly walks her dog Cayenne Thursday morning in a greenway southeast of Shomi Street and Wakial Loop in Ahwatukee Foothills that the Ahwatukee Board of Management is converting from grass to desert landscaping to save on irrigation costs. Ari Cohn/AFN

Annual Phoenix municipal water rate hikes have one large Ahwatukee Foothills homeowners association converting two-thirds of its irrigated public space to desert landscaping.

"To control it, we're getting rid of a lot of our turf," said Robert Blakesley, general manager of the Ahwatukee Board of Management.

City officials propose raising water rates by 7 percent in March. The rate increase would cost the typical single-family residential customer about $2.21 more each month, raising the average monthly bill from $56.25 to $58.46, according to the city's Water Services Department.

The ongoing rate hikes are needed for such things as repaying the cost of a $200 million upgrade at water treatment plants to comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act of 2012, covering $15 million a year in expenses to operate a mandated enhanced filtration system, building a water storage reservoir for fire protection and improved water pressure, and replacing 80-year-old water lines and rehabilitating substandard sewer lines, according to a water department report.

However, Councilman Sal DiCiccio, whose district includes Ahwatukee Foothills, called the increase "excessive." Rising water rates hurt the elderly on fixed incomes and the poor, and could hurt local businesses and HOAs by forcing them to cut back on usage, he said.

"You don't want to cut it to where it's going to detract from our quality of life," DiCiccio said.

Blakesley said the Ahwatukee Board of Management, an HOA that oversees more than 5,000 homes between Interstate 10 and South Mountain Park between Elliot and Knox roads, spends about $50,000 a year on irrigating its public spaces. Over the last five years, the HOA's water bill has increased by about 10 percent a year, he said.

A few years ago, the HOA began eliminating irrigation and switching over to desert landscaping, which does not require much water, he said.

"We saw the writing on the wall," Blakesley said.

Ken Kroski, a city spokesman, said next year's proposed 7 percent water rate increase is smaller than last year's 9 percent increase. And wastewater rates, which went up 4.5 percent last year, are not expected to rise this year, he said.

"It's substantially lower this year," Kroski said. "We try to keep the rate increases as low as possible rather than hit the customer with a double-digit increase."

Phoenix has saved money by delaying projects not considered critical, and even with the proposed increase, water rates here are among the least expensive in the nation, he said.

"We're still on the low end of things," Kroski said.

DiCiccio said the city's Water Services Department is bloated with too many staff members, and that a recently-proposed 3 percent departmental operating budget cut does not go far enough. The public should not be saddled with increasing fees, he said.

"They're not making the difficult choices," DiCiccio said. "They've had exponential growth in that department in the last couple of years."

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