water bills lawn

Grassy yards and common areas, together with mature trees give RD-1 a parklike feel, but this summer’s brutal heat threatens to take a toll as the HOA deals with a rickety irrigation system and high city water bills.

When he thinks about climate change, Craig Sullivan isn’t necessarily thinking about melting glaciers and rising sea levels.

For Sullivan and the other residents of the 68 units that comprise the tiny Ahwatukee homeowners’ sub-association called RD-1, “climate change is banging on our doors.”

In fact, the front and back doors at RD-1, one of the 16 age-restricted subdivisions among the 56 communities that comprise the sprawling Ahwatukee Board of Management master HOA.

Located along Cheyenne Drive just off 51st Street, lush grass yards and common areas make RD-1 a stand-out in an area dominated by concrete and desert.

And those grassy areas, as well as the trees, have put Sullivan, the vice president of the tiny HOA’s board of directors, and his neighbors in a nearly losing battle with Mother Nature.

The unusually hot and dry summer – combined with an antiquated irrigation system and rising city water rates – threaten to doom the nearly 6 acres of grass that make RD-1 such an inviting place to live.

Watering that grass is the association’s expense, paid out of its annual budget of about $155,000.

But last month, the board told residents they’d have to use their own water to feed their back and front yards because the HOA is getting closer to going broke.

The news unsettled some RD-1 homeowners who physically can’t maneuver a hose because they use walkers or wheelchairs.

To help them out, more abled neighbors are pitching in.

Other neighbors are conscious of the dire straits confronting their community and have already been watering not only their yards but nearby trees, which also are showing the stress of a period between June 1 and Sept. 30 that saw only an inch of rain, 37 days of temperatures over 110 degrees and another 14 days that topped 115 degrees.

Add to that back-to-back annual increases of 6 percent in city water rates and a steadily aging irrigation system that keeps springing leaks and the RD-1 HOA board is feeling strapped.

“The two biggest issues that are killing us is the water and the irrigation repair,” said Sullivan, who has lived in RD-1 for four years.

Sullivan said the crisis hit a peak as summer neared an end.

From June to August, the water bills “were the highest we’ve ever had and I’ve got records going back to 2013.”

“When it got to September, we’re looking at the bills and saying ‘We can’t continue like this; we have to do something.’”

Initially, the board decided to water the lawns only two days a week, Sullivan said, but “the bills are just outrageous. We budgeted $60,000 for water this year and I’m projecting we’ll be closer to $85,000 by the end of the year.”

Then there’s the irrigation system, a cheap network of thin-walled PVC pipe that the original developer nearly 50 years ago buried no more than an inch or two below the surface.

It breaks frequently, spewing more water than needed and demanding an increasing number of costly repairs.

Between 2013 and 2019, the board has spent between $11,740 and $19,467 on repairs annually. This year, it projects it will be the most expensive at just over $21,000.

“We’ve done our best to Band-Aid,” Sullivan said, “by repairing those irrigation leaks knowing full well that at some point in time, we’re going to have to go in and just redo the whole irrigation system.”

“You can’t Band-Aid the problem so long but you know, we were hoping that we would have some time to do this, maybe a couple of years,” he explained, adding:

“We had put together a committee of homeowners called Long Range Planning Committee to take a look at what we want to do in terms of our community, what we want it to look like and what kind of irrigation system do we need to install so that we can match what we want to have.”

Hounded by the seemingly unending heat and arid months, the HOA’s back is against the wall.

“We’re trying to come up with solutions that will get us through this year and then take a look at what we need to do next year,” Sullivan said.

He explained that replacing the irrigation system “is a can that’s been kicked down the road for the last 20 years but we can’t kick the can anymore. We’ve got to do something but it’s going to require homeowner approval.”

In the meantime, Sullivan worries that RD-1 will lose its special character.

“I had a homeowner several years ago telling me that when he bought his home, his Realtor said, ‘You live in a park’ and we do. We have these nice big tall trees around us. We have all this nice green grass and it is a park-like setting and we don’t want to lose that.”

 Homeowners are doing what they can to help neighbors who can’t handle a hose.

“People are stepping up,” Sullivan said.

They also rose to the occasion when the board expressed concern for the survival of 17 trees the board planted in May to replace dead ones that had been torn down over many years.

“We’re trying to keep our community still green or keep it as green as we can,” he said. “Fortunately, we’re getting into cooler weather. The grass is starting to go into dormancy and we don’t seed in the winter. But we still have got to do some watering.”

As for the future, he’s concerned – especially since the board might have to sell homeowners on a plan that could require an increase in their $220-a-month HOA fee. 

“It’s a beautiful community,” Sullivan said, “and we don’t want to lose it.”

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