Pima County’s management of wastewater services - Tucson Local Media: Voices

Pima County’s management of wastewater services

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Posted: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 3:00 am

Contrary to (Marana) Mayor Ed Honea’s recent guest opinion (“Passage of SB 1171 would be great for business,” March 16, 2011) alleging that Pima County’s wastewater services system has not “…been run properly,” a quick check of the facts show that the opposite is true.

Pima County has a stellar, verifiable record of operating 11 wastewater treatment plants and 3,500 miles of conveyance lines in our system to serve our 750,000 customers. The facts are:

• The wastewater service connection and user fee rates through 2008 were below $20 per month and among the lowest rates in the U.S. for communities of our size, thus allowing this region to provide quality service at the lowest possible cost, which is attractive to new businesses interested in moving to our region.

• Decades ago, Pima County appealed the federal and state regulatory authorities’ insistence that its two major treatment plants be upgraded at significant expense. In conjunction with other arid western states, Pima County developed and submitted scientific data, proving that the national “cookie cutter” approach to establishing water quality standards proposed by the federal government was inappropriate for this region. The 20 or so years of postponing federally mandated expenses allowed us to maintain extremely low service fees.

• In 2007, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality agreed to a plan for upgrading the two major plants that allowed for ample compliance time to plan, design, finance and construct these upgrades without the need for increased expenses due to unrealistic state mandates.

• Pima County undertook extensive planning and preparation for launching the largest public works project to date that involves upgrading our two metropolitan treatment plants and interconnecting them for maximum flexibility in managing the service demands. These efforts were supported by financial planning that resulted in the Board of Supervisors authorizing a series of rate adjustments that have given assurances to our financial rating agencies of proper fiscal management that has yielded high ratings and lower interest expenses for our debt-financed improvements.

• To date, Pima County has saved approximately $60 million from the originally budgeted amounts for the entire Regional Optimization Master Plan program based on advance commodity purchases and innovative project delivery approaches, and we are ahead of schedule for completing the required upgrades. How many projects sponsored by public agencies can make and document that statement?

Mayor Honea suggests that we could have set aside the necessary funding for the upgrades that are under way. Attempting to “set aside” $800 million for such improvements is, simply, not fiscally prudent. I am sure the mayor’s own Town of Marana’s budget reserve policy does not reflect a similar standard.

The mayor also mentions a 300-percent increase in monthly sewer service bills over 10 years through 2013. In fact, the user fee rates over the last 10 years have gone up $19 per month, or an average of $1.90 per year. The major share of this increase in fees has occurred in the last three years to address the need to finance major improvements that are now under construction.

The phenomenon of wastewater rates being higher than potable water rates is a fact of life faced by many communities throughout the United States. The suggestion that proper management of the wastewater system could avoid this condition reflects either a lack of knowledge or recognition of the national trend that has been under way for the last 10 years with the increasing emphasis on improved water quality standards and the replacement of the aging infrastructure to support such processes.

The Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department is the recipient of numerous awards for quality business practices and high standards of regulatory compliance. These include the International Organization for Standardization certification for the Conveyance Division (ISO 9001:2000, which specifies requirements for a quality management system; ISO 14001, which addresses various aspects of environmental management; and OHSAS 18001, which addresses health and safety standards and requirements); more than 34 National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) water-quality awards, including 10 Silver, 20 Gold and four Platinum awards since 2004; and was most recently recognized for the creative planning and management with the 2010 NACWA National Environmental Award.

The facts speak for themselves. The Pima County wastewater system is an extremely well-managed utility that is closely overseen by the Pima County Administrator’s Office with clear guidance and policy direction from the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

Jackson Jenkins is the director of the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department. He can be reached at Jackson.jenkins@pima.gov.

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