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Arizona communities to pay millions to meet standards

Jahna Berry
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Cities and private water companies across the state are under the gun to build plants and install systems that will make Arizona's water safer.

The large municipal water plants run by Valley cities, treating surface water and some groundwater, are shelling out millions to meet a new federal requirement to cut arsenic that begins Jan. 23.

But rural Arizona will be hit the hardest. There, hundreds of small private water companies pump only groundwater, which tends to have more arsenic. Those firms have less cash to treat water than a big city operation and will be more likely to pass the cost on, regulators and industry experts say.

In 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency slashed the federal standard for arsenic in water from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion to protect the public against the cancer-causing substance.

But that's little comfort to small-town residents who may have to dig deeper to pay for water.

"I heard if they have to put in more equipment, they will have to raise the bills," said Leroy Hunter, a 70-year-old Camp Verde resident, who pays $68 a month for water in the summer. "The people on fixed incomes can't afford the increases."

When the January deadline rolls around, most large cities will be ready, but some water taps would still have higher levels of arsenic, state officials predict.

But municipal and private water systems will have a little extra time to comply.

Even though the change starts Jan. 23, the water systems are tested for contaminants on a pre-set cycle, and the new arsenic rule will be rolled into those existing tests. The state won't determine if a utility's surface water complies with the tougher arsenic rules until December 2006, groundwater in December 2007.

"We want to make sure that everyone is on the road to compliance," said Steve Owens, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Owens' agency and industry groups are educating small companies about the rule and lower-cost arsenic technology.

"Our hope is that through our efforts, we can identify those systems that are not going to make it."

The penalty for violators is high. Under the worst-case scenario, a water company can be charged up to $25,000 a day for violating federal drinking-water standards or could be shut down.

That's why the state has focused on helping small companies comply, Owens said. Shuttering a utility could devastate a small town with no alternate water source.

The new rule has big cities feeling the pain, too. Scottsdale, which has 23 wells affected by the new rule, expects to spend $85 million on water system improvements. Chandler is spending more than $16 million, Phoenix $24 million and Mesa nearly $8 million for upgrades.

"It's been a huge financial hit," said Catherine Connolly, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.

Those municipal water customers should see their bills creep up gradually over time, city officials predicted.

The tap water most Valley consumers drink is surface water from the Salt River Project or Central Arizona Project Canal. Groundwater is a backup source during peak summer periods.

So even if all of Mesa's city wells don't meet the tougher standards this winter, water from faucets should be fine, said Alan Martindale, Mesa's water quality supervisor.

The tough new arsenic guidelines may force Mesa to take some of their wells offline permanently, which means the city has less breathing room during a crisis. This past January, Mesa leaned on its wells during the water-quality scare, Martindale said.

"We relied on every well we had during the Val Vista turbidity scare," he said. "We won't have the luxury next year."

It's a different story in small cities. Tucked at the feet of the Bradshaw Mountains, Prescott budgeted $23 million to treat water for its 20,000 customers.

"Up here in rural Arizona, we are groundwater dependent," said Carol Johnson, a Prescott water official.

Arizona Water Co., which serves 76,000 customers from Coolidge to Sedona, expects to spend $30 million on plant construction and water treatment to meet the federal arsenic guidelines, President William Garfield said.

"It's a rush to get them done as soon as possible," he said.

Some towns, such as Sedona, won't see dramatic changes in their water bills. But customers in nearby Rim Rock, which has higher arsenic levels in its groundwater, could see their water bills double, Garfield said.

In Arizona, the new federal arsenic rule is a political sore spot. Naturally occurring arsenic is more common here than in other parts of the country, so reaching the new standard is a bigger challenge.

The state originally resisted the move for tougher arsenic rules but seems to be implementing the new standard, said Sandy Bahr, conservation outreach director for the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

"Whether you get your water from a big system or a small system, your water should be safe," she said. "This is about public health."

While many studies link arsenic to cancer, there has been a debate about what is a safe level for human consumption.

"From an epidemiological standpoint, you can't say that Arizona has ever been affected," said Paul Westerhoff, an associate professor in Arizona State University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

While the standard was 50 parts per billion for years, "new health data suggested that the level should be lower," he said.

One part per billion is similar to a drop of liquid from an eyedropper in an Olympic-size swimming pool, according to state officials.

In Western states, where arsenic is more prevalent, some have argued that the tougher rules create a huge expense without significant health benefits. Now that the January deadline looms, everyone's focus has shifted, utilities say.

"We will conform to the new standard," said Garfield, who belongs to a coalition assisting small utilities to meet the federal guideline. "It's not for us to debate at this point."