The municipal cost of water is not something many of us think much about given our many more pressing household pocketbook issues. Our household water bills are small compared to most other utility bills, but they will surely rise in the future.
So how much do we pay for water in the upper and middle Verde River watershed? The Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) suggests that an average household of four consumes 12,000 gallons per month. Cost varies considerably for such households among the larger communities in the Verde watershed. The greatest cost is found in Cottonwood at $73/month, and the least is in the Village of Oak Creek at $46. Other communities are in between -- Prescott $71, Camp Verde $64, Sedona $66, and Prescott Valley $48. Costs for water delivery vary among these communities depending partly on the proximity of the water source, the size of the service area, the energy costs of pumping, and whether the water provider is city government or private. Municipalities also typically increase water rates progressively with increasing household consumption to encourage conservation.
The average family of four pays less than a penny per gallon. Interestingly, we tend to value drinking water highly and think nothing of spending much more for a bottle of water than, say, gasoline. At gas stations, water costs almost 5 times that of gasoline ($2.15 a gallon for gasoline compared to water at $10.18 a gallon, i.e., $1.59 for 20 ounces of Aquafina).
Wastewater collection and treatment is a separate cost and is billed as a function of water consumption. Monthly rates also vary considerably among communities. Prescott is the highest at $69 whereas Cottonwood charges $26 for an average family. Camp Verde charges $50, Sedona $54, Village of Oak Creek $35, and Prescott Valley $59. Treated wastewater is routinely reused to irrigate golf courses, vineyards, and parks or is discharged into the groundwater.
The cost of municipal water is a function of several components some of which are common across providing agencies and others that are site specific. Labor costs and mechanical operations are fairly uniform. Energy costs for pumping and delivery, however, vary with the depth to groundwater, topographic relief, and the distance over which water must be delivered. Declining water tables translate into increased pumping costs.
Demand for water to supply an ever growing populace will contribute to increasing costs for water delivery. Arizona's climate is dry, and the available water is limited. Climate change is expected to reduce available water even more. Although water is a renewable resource, the amount Arizona can expect to have available from existing surface and groundwater sources is not infinite.
A study led by the Bureau of Reclamation and Yavapai County determined that the population in 2006 of the upper and middle Verde River watersheds, plus a part of Prescott Valley that is outside the upper Verde River watershed, was approximately 200,000. Population was estimated to grow to 600,000 by 2050. The study's estimate of resulting new water demand by 2050 is approximately 45,280 acre-feet per year, which could supply about 102,000 average households.
Where can we get the water we will need? Some of the need could be offset by wide application of water-conservation strategies. These could include replacing lawns and high water-use ornamentals with low water-use landscaping, conversion to drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting, increased recycling or recharging of treated wastewater, and changing priority from farming to domestic use of water. Such changes will incur increasing cost as our demands for water continue to increase.
What about the value of a free-flowing Verde River? The Verde River and its tributaries provide almost 40 percent of the water supply to Maricopa County and they are a regional economic driver in the Verde Valley. The business sectors that rely heavily on the river include recreation and tourism, agriculture, and the expanding wine industry. The river and its tributaries account for up to16 percent of the total economic activity, which is approximately $1 billion to $1.5 billion per year in the Verde Valley. The river also enhances real estate values and quality of life. As the last free-flowing river originating in the state it provides an essential ecosystem for wildlife of all kinds.
Hard choices face Arizonans in managing our water future. But one thing remains certain: as population growth continues and water supplies diminish, we can expect an increased demand on our pocketbooks. Keeping the Verde flowing is worth the cost.
Phil Roark is a board member for the Verde River Basin Partnership.