"Nothing lasts forever."
As the oldest city in the valley, Phoenix faces more sewer headaches than other towns with newer pipes. Just check the number of sewer overflows.
According to Padilla, Phoenix has had 446 overflows in the past five years (spill reports and claims against the city, however, show more than 500, with more than 203,000 gallons of raw sewage rising to the surface). By comparison, Tempe has recorded just eight overflows during the past five years, none over 1,000 gallons.
Cities outside Arizona are in far worse shape.
In Los Angeles, which averaged more than a spill a day during the past decade, the city last year agreed to spend $2 billion to fix its leaky sewer system after an environmental group and the EPA sued, demanding that the city stop overflows. Under pressure from state and federal environmental regulators, Atlanta is spending $3.2 billion to fix its sewers. Louisville is contemplating a $1 billion fix.
These communities have learned the hard way that low sewer rates aren't necessarily a bargain. In Atlanta, for instance, ratepayers may soon see their sewer bills triple to pay for repairs.
"What cities ought to be doing is setting the sewage fees such that money is being put into reserve accounts for maintaining the system in perpetuity," says Dickson. That, he says, would cost the average U.S. ratepayer about $75 a month.
In Phoenix, homeowners pay $15.97, one of the lowest rates in the nation.
The EPA has bigger problems on its hands than Phoenix. "A few years ago, Phoenix, along with several other cities in Southern California and Arizona, got an information request letter from us," says Greenberg, the EPA engineer. "Based on what we got from them, it seemed like they were not having many spills. So we've not done any further follow-up."
Sewer systems don't fail all at once. Rather, it's death by a thousand cuts. Deferred maintenance and crumbling pipes and overloaded lines eventually add up to a crisis that can no longer be ignored. That's what happened in Los Angeles. In Phoenix, it will take lots of cash to prevent the same thing from happening.
Phoenix plans to increase sewer rates by 50 percent over the next five years and hope for the best. Politicians don't get elected on sewer-improvement platforms, and there isn't much glamour in making the first flush to dedicate a new sewer line.
Mayor Phil Gordon says he's not worried about the city's sewer system. "There's always been ongoing rehabilitation needs," he says. "I'm confident that we will address these issues expeditiously and professionally and get them taken care of."
The mayor says Steve Owens, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, has told him that Phoenix "has the best record in the Valley" when it comes to sewage overflows. Just how Owens might know that is a mystery. When New Times asked to examine ADEQ's files on Phoenix overflows, the department produced dozens of file folders stuffed with treatment-plant permits, test results on sewage effluent discharged to the Salt River, and other documents, with fewer than ten overflow reports thrown haphazardly into the stacks of paperwork. City records show more than 500 overflows.
City Councilwoman Peggy Neely says she was surprised by the capacity crisis that shut down access to lines this spring, but she says the city is being responsible. The water department's warning that the city is risking system failures and higher costs in the future is "a concern." But not worrisome enough to raise rates high enough to take care of everything.
"I think the council has sent a strong message that we're going to do as much as we can, but at the same time, we have to make sure we monitor to know where we are with systems that may have a failure," Neely says. "I think there may have been an attitude in Phoenix that we're not as old as some cities, so maybe we don't have these problems."