Tim Steller: No Tucsonans at risk, just yet, of taking water walk of shame

2013-03-29T00:00:00Z Tim Steller: No Tucsonans at risk, just yet, of taking water walk of shameTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 29, 2013 12:00 am  • 

It horrified Tucson native Sean Elliott to learn in December that he and his wife were the second-biggest users of water in San Antonio.

The retired San Antonio Spurs star and UA alum found out his ranking when the local newspaper, the Express-News, published a list of the city water utility's 10 biggest users on Dec. 27.

He told the newspaper in an email: "As people who value water conversation efforts in our community, my wife and I are absolutely mortified to be on this list."

The biggest water users in Tucson are unlikely to get a similar wake-up call. Despite repeated public-records requests from the Arizona Daily Star and others over the years, Tucson Water has refused so far to release a database of its customers and their water usage.

As a city government-owned utility, Tucson Water is subject to the Arizona Public Records Law. But the city argues that it may legally withhold individual customer information out of concern for their privacy.

"We're trying to balance the public's right to know with the customer's right to privacy," said Chris Avery, the assistant city attorney who represents Tucson Water.

The city, he said, has worked with researchers in the past and would be willing to work with the Star to provide useful data about water use, but he draws the line at individual customer information, with name, address and water usage included. The city has an unwritten policy, he said, not to provide that information.

But that individual information is just what my colleague Carli Brosseau has been asking for since Nov. 19. The Star is at the stage of sending Tucson Water a letter from our lawyer in advance of what may become a lawsuit.

The conflict raises an interesting issue of privacy rights versus the public right to know. Many customers of Tucson Water - I'm a customer - may wish for our records not to be released. We may think it's between us and the utility how much we use. That's the position the city is taking.

But many of us may not care if our water usage is disclosed, and may also think it would be great to know who's using the most of our most precious resource.

I talked to a Tucson Water customer named Tracy Hubbartt who was hesitant about the idea of his name and water usage being in the paper. But Hubbartt, a retired Arizona Department of Corrections officer, could see the value of listing the top users - especially commercial users.

"I think we're all responsible for water," he said.

In the end, our opinions about the privacy of our water bills will have little to do with whether the information is released. It will come down to the legal question of whether the information is public under state law, the Star's willingness to sue and the city's degree of resistance.

But the fact is, in Tucson as in many cities, water service is a government-run operation, and the government's business is the public's business. Disclosure of individual records may be uncomfortable for some, but it would also be useful for all, benefiting the conservation of water in the desert.

In San Antonio's case, the disclosure seemed to have a positive effect on Elliott and his wife, Claudia Zapata. The Express-News reported they own a home on five acres that includes a man-made pond stocked with catfish, and they used 1.7 million gallons in the seven-month period ending Nov. 30.

"We do abide by any and all watering restrictions and suspect a possible irrigation leak on our property that we are resolving," Elliott said in the email to the paper. "In any case, we obviously have to do better. Much, much better."

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter

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