Water Affordability: Getting Efficient in Tucson, AZ

With our partners at the Water Center at Penn, we are shining a critical spotlight on the local leaders who are forging the path on water affordability. Joining us at our Community of Practice in April was Tim Thomure, Interim Assistant City Manager for Tucson, AZ, and former Director, Tucson Water. Learn more about how we’re supporting city leaders through our Water Affordability program here

Are you a mayor new to this issue? Start here with Setting the Agenda: A Mayor’s Guide to Water Affordability.

The second largest city in Arizona, Tucson is perhaps best known for its golfing and resorts. But despite the desert climate and high water usage that typically comes with golf courses, their water supply is secure. Why? Tucson Water has taken one of the most aggressive approaches to water conservation the US has ever seen. 

While Tucson Water serves as a national example on water conservation, they also serve as an example to other cities and utilities on how removing typical bureaucratic barriers can provide relief for people experiencing poverty or hardships.

On top of their conservation accomplishments sits a very steep tiered water rate system that heavily encourages conservation, and also allows for a generous customer assistance relief and emergency program, called CARE (not to be confused with the more recent federal CARES Act). The CARE program includes the common payment extensions & plans that most utilities offer, but they also provide:

  • $2M in courtesy adjustments (this proved critical for their steep tiered structure, which helped provide customer relief in the case of unlikely and unforeseen leaks and breaks). 
  • $1m in conservation-focused rebates and incentives
  • $1.5 M in low-income assistance programs: this was recently improved to offer 3 levels of relief based on income.
  • Emergency/special hardships for one-time emergencies. 
  • Safety net – general miscellaneous

Whether your utility is able to offer a tiered structure or not, there are several important takeaways that mayors and city leaders can draw from their work:

Mayors and city council play a critical role in driving innovation

Mayors and city council can play a critical role in advocating for innovation and supporting its utility’s water affordability efforts. Tucson Water’s conservation achievements and CARE program wouldn’t be what they are without executive support. As Tim put it, “The will of the mayor and council drove the program to what they are.”

Increase communication when times get tough

As of January 2021, Tucson Water had $9 million in delinquent payments. Instead of cracking down and turning off water, they encouraged customers who couldn’t pay their bills to connect with them to work something out. 

Empower staff to solve problems quickly and efficiently

When customers call in, call center employees are empowered to solve problems immediately whenever possible, instead of escalating to their managers. Eliminating red tape is especially important for those experiencing poverty, as simplicity in processing requests/concerns aided in limiting customer stress and confusion. 

Work with other city services to make qualifying for programs easy

Tucson Water worked closely with other utilities and city services to make the process of qualifying for the CARE program as streamlined as possible. Furthermore, residents with a fixed income, that qualify, are covered for 3 years.

Partner with neighborhood organizations that residents trust

To support their large Latinx population, Tucson Water works closely with trusted community organizations to help sign residents up for the CARE program.  

Thank you to everyone that joined us at our last Community of Practice! Sign up for our email list so you don’t miss out on future events.