White Tanks plant at heart of water rate case - East Valley Tribune: West Valley

White Tanks plant at heart of water rate case

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Posted: Wednesday, August 3, 2011 8:45 am

Nestled at the base of the White Tank Mountains in a predominately agriculture-rich and undeveloped area of Surprise, a regional water treatment facility is capable of providing 14 million gallons of surface water every day to Surprise and other surrounding communities.

A bit of history

The creation of the White Tanks Regional Water Treatment Facility in late 2009 was a giant step forward by the West Valley, whose leadership for decades relied on the unsustainable venture of pumping groundwater to meet the demands of a growing populous.

Knowing groundwater supplies could eventually be permanently depleted, the leadership, known collectively as the West Valley Central Arizona Project Subcontractors, shared data and growth projections in the early 2000s to develop a strategic plan and ensure abundant supplies of water would be available for future generations.

As a result, WESTCAPS’ decision to partner with the Central Arizona Project in order to transport naturally occurring water from rain and snowfall in the Rocky Mountains, known as CAP water, to the West Valley became the obvious answer to reduce groundwater dependence, according to an Arizona American Water Co. report.

In 2002, Arizona American stepped in to lead this implementation by purchasing 46 acres of land at Cactus and Perryville roads to begin construction of the White Tanks Regional Water Treatment Facility.

Return on investment

Nine years later, Arizona American officials are asking ratepayers to begin paying for the facility.

The private water company is in the midst of petitioning the Arizona Corporation Commission for a water-rate increase for customers in the Agua Fria district that includes Sun City Grand and other parts of Surprise.

According to its ACC filing, Arizona American seeks to recover $73 million in rate base, of which $64 million is associated with the White Tanks Regional Water Treatment Facility.

Meantime, the company also is seeking a $17.9 million increase in required revenue, which would result in an 81 percent increase in water rates for residential ratepayers.

If corporation commissioners approve the proposal, Agua Fria district residents could see their monthly bills rise by almost $25. The increase in average residential customer bills, using 7,000 gallons of water a month, would be an estimated $24.62, or about 82 cents a day.

Joni McGlothlin, Arizona American spokeswoman, said although not yet being charged in water rates, the community is already benefitting from the water treatment facility.

In addition, McGlothlin said operating costs within the district have increased by more than 37 percent since Arizona American’s last rate case in 2007. This is largely due to sizeable increases in the cost of labor, fuel, power and purchased water, she said.

Speaking out on ‘rate shock’

The Surprise City Council is strongly opposed to the pending rate case as members believe customers were not sufficiently notified about whether they would be paying the increased rates.

Many customers were not aware until recently that they fell into the Agua Fria district service area since their monthly utility bills “rarely make mention of it.”

At its June 30 meeting, the City Council directed city staff to prepare a letter and resolution to the Arizona Corporation Commission expressing concerns about “rate shock” as customers could be paying an added $25 on their average $30 monthly bill.

City Council members intend to act on the letter and resolution at its next regular meeting, which is Tuesday.

Corporation commissioners plan an Aug. 17 public hearing on the proposal at ACC headquarters, 1300 W. Washington St., Phoenix, and have added an Aug. 22 public hearing at the Sonoran Plaza, 19753 N. Remington Drive, in Sun City Grand.

Day-to-day operations

The distribution of surface water to more than 100,000 customers in Surprise, Waddell and Verrado saves more than 3 billion gallons of groundwater annually, said Joe Cornejo, the treatment plant’s operations supervisor.

With future expansion, Cornejo said Arizona American could save almost 18 billion gallons of groundwater per year, while improving water levels in the community’s aquifer for the long term. The facility could pump much more water if required – it’s only operating at 70 percent capacity.

During a facility tour, Cornejo explained the process of how the untreated CAP water supply is initially strained to get rid of tree branches and leaves. Chemicals are then added to control algae growth, at which time the water is stored in two, 10 million gallons tanks.

Multiple filtering processes then begin, and a flocculent is added to remove any dirt or solid materials left behind. Carbon filtering and ultra-violet light processes help remove any other impurities.

Cornejo explained that the allocation of CAP water to the communities that Arizona American serves will achieve “groundwater safe yield” by 2025, an achievement when groundwater is pumped at the same rate it’s naturally replenished.

In the short term, Cornejo said distributing surface water, rather than groundwater, helps prevent subsidence, where the ground begins to give way and sinks in some areas.

Zach Colick can be reached at 623-876-2522 or zcolick@yourwestvalley.com.

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