Water Equity Clearinghouse

Tucson Water

Tucson, AZ

Tucson Water is the public water utility serving residential, commercial and industrial customers in the Tucson area. Given its desert climate, Tucson’s water supply challenges are a part of its history, dating back to the population boom in the mid-twentieth century. After groundwater supplies were overdrawn and surface water was no longer perennial, Tucson Water became a pioneer in water conservation and reuse. Today, Tucson Water is a leader in water reuse and climate resilience, recognizing the importance of a diverse and reliable water portfolio. In 2016, the utility met 100 percent of its potable water demand with recovered water. Tucson Water has operated a reclaimed water production, storage and delivery system since the mid-1980s, providing water to irrigation and other non-potable uses. Their use of renewable water sources minimizes reliance on groundwater, raising the aquifer to sustainable levels. Tucson Water also works regionally, helping other water providers use renewable water sources and reduce their reliance on groundwater.

Efforts to Advance Water Equity

Despite recent conservation efforts, water scarcity is still a risk as the climate gets hotter and drier. There is a need for increased investment in water systems, while keeping in mind affordability challenges for vulnerable communities. One in five families in Tucson lives below the poverty line, with 30 percent of Latino households and 18 percent of white households living in poverty. The city is also home to a large undocumented immigrant community. Warming temperatures create urban heat-island effects, often in neighborhoods that are home to vulnerable communities. That’s why environmental sustainability and conservation, transparency with customers, and infrastructure investment are central to Tucson Water’s 2020 Strategic Plan. Additionally, the utility adopted a Drought Preparedness and Response Plan in 2006, which established four drought response stages, outlined an action plan for responding to potential drought-related impacts on Tucson Water’s system and water supplies, and addressed the issue of emergency supplies.

Tucson Water has partnered with the Arizona-based Sonoran Environmental Research Institute to strategize ways to make rainwater harvesting more accessible to Tucson residents. Tucson Water offers its customers rebates and technical assistance to install their own rainwater harvesting systems. In partnership with Tucson Water and the University of Arizona, SERI created a pilot program to encourage low-income and minority households to participate in rainwater harvesting. Supported by an EPA Environmental Justice grant, the pilot program was very well-received, and served as a model for Tucson Water’s Low-Income Rainwater Harvesting Program. The Low-Income Rainwater Harvesting Program offers qualifying households zero-interest loans to build systems, in addition to being eligible for the existing rebate. Very low-income families—at or below 50 percent of the area median income—are eligible for grants as well as loans. SERI conducts outreach and education around the benefits of rainwater harvesting, using its longstanding connections to vulnerable communities to make sure the program reaches the households that need it most. The partnership taps the expertise of the utility and the community organization to connect low-income households to the resources they need to build rainwater harvesting systems. Neighborhoods benefit from more greenery, reducing the urban heat-island effect. As more customers supplement their water use through rainwater harvesting, there is the potential to lower water bills and reduce overall pressure on the drinking water supply.

Tucson Water also hosts in-class and guided tour programs through partnerships with the Environmental Education Exchange and Arizona Project WET (Water Education for Teachers). Tailored to multiple age groups, the free programs provide age-appropriate lessons and interactive activities on water supply, quality, and conservation. Utility staff hold regular public meetings with a citizens’ advisory committee, to ensure that customer concerns are central to Tucson Water operations. Through these meetings, the public has the opportunity to weigh in on issues like budgets, water rates and fees, conservation, and education programs. Tucson Water also collaborates with a number of organizations that represent vulnerable communities, including faith-based and environmental groups.