Water Wasters: Here Are Some of the Biggest in Metro Phoenix

Top residential water users in Tempe and Glendale suck up 10 to 30 times as much as average customers, with totals of 2.5 million and 3.6 million gallons consumed, respectively in 2014, research by New Times shows.

More than 400 million gallons were used in Tempe by the top non-residential user in 2014 (an amount equal to about half of the water in Tempe Town Lake). Tempe will not say whether the user is a business or government entity. About 55 million gallons were used by Glendale's top commercial or government user.

The city of Phoenix also declined to reveal certain information about its top water customers, saying it would be illegal to release it publicly. However, Phoenix did share monthly averages based on ZIP codes, as we related in this week's cover story, "Waterworld." The reports showed that the average single-family homes in Phoenix, Paradise Valley, and part of Scottsdale use about 100,000 to 200,000 gallons of water per year. In Tucson, where far more homes use low-water landscaping, typical single-family residences use about 100,000 yearly.

New Times selected Tempe and Glendale for analysis because of the lush landscaping seen there. Overall, outdoor landscaping accounts for 50 percent to 80 percent of urban water use in metro Phoenix.

What should be done about the Valley's massive, often impractical, use of water is a difficult question for civic leaders. As "Waterworld" explains, municipal officials fear that mandating even basic water restrictions on Valley residents would signal to the rest of the country that we are running out of water, leading to a slowdown in Metro Phoenix's biggest industry —  growth.

Though the Valley's abundant water supply would be reduced sharply in the next few decades if the most pessimistic projections of climate change and the ongoing 21-year drought in Arizona come true, water experts say it's more likely that drought-related problems will show up gradually, giving the state plenty of time to deal with a shrinking water supply.

At the same time, millions of new residents are expected to move here in the coming years, and they'll demand more water than is available now for urban use.

Urban areas could take more water from agriculture —  about 70 percent of the state's water is used for farming  — but this could cripple that industry.

Future water issues have come into sharp focus this year with wells and taps running dry in the California drought.

Drought-shaming seen in California and Canada hasn't caught on yet in Arizona, where the "oasis" culture still thrives. In the lush, green neighborhoods of Tempe, Phoenix's Arcadia area, Glendale, and other parts of the Valley, water from the Salt River Project is used heavily for flood irrigation on residential, commercial, and government properties. Some property owners also have water features installed.

Few limits are placed on how much water customers can use in any Valley city, and there are almost none on older homes in irrigated neighborhoods. But the pricing structure in Tempe and Glendale is tiered so that the more water customers use, the more they pay per gallon. The top water users have water bills that run into many thousands of dollars per year.

In Tempe, the top single-family water customer used 2,533,330 gallons in 2014, records show. This customer paid several hundred dollars a month for the year's water delivery, though it's difficult to calculate the exact amount without knowing how much was paid for treated water and how much for cheaper, untreated Salt River Project irrigation water. (UPDATE: Tempe officials got back to us on that question, saying the figure includes no flood irrigation water. Our calculations showed, then, that the customer would have paid just below $10,000 for one year of the potable water.)

In comparison, the 10th-biggest residential water customer in Tempe for 2014 used 1,294,700 gallons.

Glendale's biggest residential customer used 3.6 million gallons from August 2014 to July 2015, records show. The 10th-biggest residential customer in Glendale used 1.5 million gallons.

"It's hard to say who's doing what," says Doug Kupel, deputy director for water resources in Glendale.

On the non-residential side, the city has many water-intensive businesses, parks, and government properties, he notes. Some high-end residences, he says, may have such water features as extensive pools with lazy rivers or many acres of lawn and multi-spray showers. 

The city of Tempe, like certain other municipalities, has several water-conservation programs intended to pay respect to drought conditions and the limited water supply.

Water demand for Tempe is expected to grow considerably in the next 15 years, city reports show. A plan presented to the City Council on August 6 by city staff suggested a rate change that further penalizes high-end water users while giving a break to those using the least. Specific pricing and other information about the new plan will be presented at the September 17 council meeting.

New homes in Tempe are under mandatory conservation rules that include installation of modern plumbing fixtures, while other ordinances restrict how much water-intensive landscaping can be used on newly developed non-residential properties. The city offers $200,000 in incentives each year for installing conservation-geared landscaping, plus other features for saving water.

The latest pricing proposal "is likely to result in a reduction of the volume charges for [single-family-residence] customers using less than 12,000 gallons of water per month [approximately 68 percent of SFR customers] and potentially increasing the volume charges for those customers using more than 12,000 gallons per month," says an August 6 memo from the public works department to the Tempe mayor and Council. 

Only about 10 percent to 15 percent of properties in Tempe use untreated SRP water, while others keep their lawns green with treated potable water. Tempe has residential lots of up to five acres, some with horse privileges — some of these could be among the high-end users. 

Tempe isn't as imperiled by the drought as other Valley and state cities. It hopes to save up to 680 million gallons a year with various conservation tactics, city officials say. Plus, it has at least 13 wells that could provide water for years if surface water supplies dried up. 

* Correction — The story originally reported 25 wells for Tempe, based on documents we saw — officials say the city has 13.)