Kathryn Sorenson, Director, City of Phoenix Water Services Department

Kathryn Sorensen is the Director of the City of Phoenix Water Services Department.

Who will you meet?

Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.

Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.


In a desert city like Phoenix, water is the foundation of public health, economic opportunity, and quality of life. Phoenix’s water supply is sound and sustainable as a result of multiple water sources and a logical, methodical approach to supply planning, infrastructure management, conservation, and drought preparation. Living in the desert imparts a deep appreciation for the value of water, which has driven the City of Phoenix to methodically manage water supplies for reliability in our desert environment. There are complicated tradeoffs between sustainable management of water supplies, conservation, affordability, infrastructure investment, and equity. At the same time, smart and equitable water management can foster broad opportunity for the entire community. In Phoenix, we’re continuously working on water management, and we’re now bringing water equity into focus as well.

Phoenix has been a leader in the reuse of wastewater for forty years.  We’ve also banked water underground that we don’t need today, for availability when shortages of Colorado River water occur. And we have access to over a trillion gallons of native groundwater, which we fastidiously protect as a savings account for future generations. Our supplies include water from the Salt, Verde, and Colorado Rivers, and reclaimed wastewater.

Conservation is the foundation upon which all of our sustainable water management strategies are based. Our water usage rates have fallen 30% in twenty years, which means that we deliver less water today than we did twenty years ago, while serving nearly 400,000 more people. We have effectively decoupled growth and water use in Phoenix. We did this by focusing on long-term culture change regarding the way people view water in the Valley of the Sun. Odd as it sounds, we don’t want our customers reacting to drought or hydrologic conditions. Instead, we want them to use water wisely everyday as a lifestyle choice here in our desert city. This culture change in the way people view and use water in Phoenix has been brought about through improvements in technology (water efficient appliances), through decades of extensive education and outreach, and through the use of a strong price signal in our water rates.

Phoenix’s water rate structure, first adopted in the early 1990’s, is pretty ingenious. Phoenix charges more for water in the summer than in the winter. This sends a direct price signal to customers to scrap the grass and lush landscaping that requires a ton of water to stay alive in our hot summers, and convert to desert-adapted landscaping, called xeriscape, instead. And this is exactly what has happened.  Back in the 1970’s approximately 80% of single-family homes had majority-turf landscapes. Today, that number hovers at less than 10%.

But Phoenix’s water rates, while effective at encouraging conservation, are also affordable for basic, indoor needs. This is important in a city where the municipal water utility is the monopoly provider, and temperatures soar over 115 degrees in the summer. Phoenix’s monthly fixed charge for water is very low—approximately $4.50 per month—and includes an “allowance” of water ample for basic household needs. So while Phoenix sends a conservation signal through summer pricing, it also manages to ensure that water remains affordable for basic needs. A 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Water Works Association ranked Phoenix’s water as most affordable among the 25 largest cities in the country.

The fact that Phoenix water is affordable for basic household needs helped us push a recommended two-year rate increase over the finish line. In January, 2019 Phoenix City council formally voted to increase water rates by 6% for two straight years. These rate increases were necessary to support a $500 million bond program, which will be used to fund infrastructure necessary to withstand shortage on the Colorado River as well as extensive pipeline rehabilitation and replacement in the oldest parts of town, generally in some of the poorest neighborhoods in our service territory.

  • Sustainably managed water supplies
  • Strong conservation price signal and a culture of wise water use
  • Affordable water for basic needs
  • Responsible investment in infrastructure

We’re done here, right?

Not done. Things get complicated here in Phoenix where the City Services Bill includes not just water and wastewater services but also solid waste services and various city taxes. Water might be affordable at basic levels, but its billing is joined with other city services that, combined, entail a larger bill and increase the risk of water insecurity through disconnects for nonpayment.  Water insecurity tracks poverty and can disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. Adding to this, an array of fees for utility starts and stops, unauthorized use, and late payments can place burdens on vulnerable customers that are difficult to overcome.

Ironically, utility disconnects are necessary to ensure the financial viability of our water utility and the continued investment in the rehabilitation and replacement of aging infrastructure that provides safe, clean, reliable water deliveries in the first place. No water utility wants to disconnect customers, but failure to collect revenue can lead directly to a lack of funds for investment in infrastructure, which also can have disproportionate impacts on poor families who often live in areas most in need of improvements.  We have seen this story play out in cities back east, with tragic consequences for the most vulnerable.

Like other utilities, Phoenix Water uses various programs and procedures to avoid utility disconnects. We fund a robust customer assistance program, give ample notice before disconnects, offer payment plans, suspend disconnects on days of extreme heat, and work closely with the nonprofit community to match customers in need with the resources that can get them on their feet.

But is all of this enough? And here again, things get complicated in a desert city where water use has a direct and tangible impact on quality of life. While Phoenix water is affordable for basic, indoor needs, it is purposefully not affordable for outdoor water use to drive conservation. That conservation signal has worked very well and the use of desert landscapes has exploded. Those landscapes are good for local flora and fauna, but do little for, and maybe even exacerbate, the unrelenting urban heat island that keeps summer temperatures above 100 degrees even at night. Wealthy families, oblivious to the cost, plant lawns that mitigate the urban heat and increase property values. Poorer families swelter. As we face a hotter and drier future, the tradeoffs between conservation and quality of life will come into greater focus, and environmental justice will be the center of that conversation.

According to the U.S. Water Alliance, water equity occurs when all communities have access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water and wastewater services; are resilient in the face of floods, drought, and other climate risks; have a role in decision-making processes related to water management in their communities; and share in the economic, social, and environmental benefits of water systems.

We recently asked our citizens’ committee, as representatives of the broader community, to tackle issues of water equity.  Over the next year, they will examine where we currently stand on:

  • Broad access to safe, clean, affordable water
  • Our resiliency in the face of climate risks
  • The role customers have in decision-making related to water in their communities
  • The degree to which the benefit of our water system is broadly shared in the community

The citizens’ committee will be asked to determine whether there is more we can or should do in these areas to promote water equity. They will examine our current utility billing fees and procedures, whether our customer assistance program is adequately funded, the degree to which our plumbing retrofit program should be expanded, languages offered in our customer service center, investment in aging pipelines in struggling neighborhoods, our efforts to ensure resiliency in the face of shortage on the Colorado River, our grassroots involvement in neighborhoods and community groups, our small business enterprise programs, the trajectory and pace of our facility beautification program, and our efforts to create a water workforce pipeline in the community. This is a lot to take on, and there are a lot of tradeoffs at play, but these issues will only become more complex and more difficult to overcome if they are not confronted now.

Phoenix Water Services inherited an incredible legacy of wise water management—one that dates back to the ancient Native Americans who first built the canals that we rely upon to this day.  Phoenix exists where two major rivers come together—this place was carefully chosen. To stand the test of time, we must honor this legacy and continue to push forward with innovative water management strategies that ensure water remains the foundation of public health, economic opportunity, and quality of life—especially for the most vulnerable among us.


Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.


  1. An example of if we take the community along, it will lead to sustainable water supply for cities or a smart city.

  2. WaterBeads is a federal solution to water in the desert SW. It is an energy self-sufficient solution that is proposed to bring Mississippi River water across the continent to Los Angeles. In the first few steps it only has to collect water in East Texas where is rains more than 60 inches a year and deliver that water to Dotsoro Colorado where it goes into the headwaters of the Colorado River and ends up in southern Arizona and an existing man made canal takes it on to Los Angeles. As more of this spare 511 million acre feet of water is moved West the Colorado River channel may not be big enough so more WaterBeads system would be built next to the river. Federal laws will need to be updated to make this even legal. The water that the Mississippi River dumps into the Gulf of Mexico just causes a giant dead spot for marine life and does no one any good. As good stewards of the water God gave us we should move a small portion of that water to the desert southwest to feed the people who have moved there. Sun powers this and zero pollution is created. This is cheaper than desalination in LA.

  3. This is a really comprehensive blog; it touches on a lot of issues that affect water equity. Is Phoenix considering a fee system for water utilities that is progressive, i.e. adjusted for income especially for people of very low income or at poverty level? An adjusted fee system might help reduce the number of disconnected customers.

  4. “A remarkable feature of this tale is how failure is so commonly portrayed as success. Western boosterism is key to understanding that contradiction. Selective, willful optimism obscures risk, forgives failure, and promises rectification in the future.”

    The Mirage in the Valley of the Sun – Including eight pages of footnotes – 2008 – from professors at Arizona State University.

    Link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249293306_The_Mirage_in_the_Valley_of_the_Sun

  5. Could we have access to the materials used for creating awareness among citizens, for us to do the same here in Chennai, India?
    What were some of the roadblocks faced? The city does not meter residential households and the capital cost of installing water meters is a constraint. Any ideas?

    • Hello Mr. Parayath,

      We would be happy to share water conservation materials with you. Much of it can be found at the following link: https://www.phoenix.gov/waterservices/resourcesconservation. We can also e-mail you PDF copies that you can print yourself.

      If metering water is cost prohibitive, you can consider a flat fee based on the type of connection. For example, you could impose a flat fee for residential customers and a different fee for commercial or industrial customers. Of course, imposing fees is normally controversial when customers are not accustomed to paying for water service. You could also consider metering your largest customers, such as industries, if that would be politically acceptable.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

Middle-Mile Networks: The Middleman of Internet Connectivity

Middle-Mile Networks: The Middleman of Internet Connectivity

The development of public, open-access middle mile infrastructure can expand internet networks closer to unserved and underserved communities while offering equal opportunity for ISPs to link cost effectively to last mile infrastructure. This strategy would connect more Americans to high-speed internet while also driving down prices by increasing competition among local ISPs.

In addition to potentially helping narrow the digital divide, middle mile infrastructure would also provide backup options for networks if one connection pathway fails, and it would help support regional economic development by connecting businesses.

Wildfire Risk Reduction: Connecting the Dots

Wildfire Risk Reduction: Connecting the Dots

One of the most visceral manifestations of the combined problems of urbanization and climate change are the enormous wildfires that engulf areas of the American West. Fire behavior itself is now changing.  Over 120 years of well-intentioned fire suppression have created huge reserves of fuel which, when combined with warmer temperatures and drought-dried landscapes, create unstoppable fires that spread with extreme speed, jump fire-breaks, level entire towns, take lives and destroy hundreds of thousands of acres, even in landscapes that are conditioned to employ fire as part of their reproductive cycle.

ARISE-US recently held a very successful symposium, “Wildfire Risk Reduction – Connecting the Dots”  for wildfire stakeholders – insurers, US Forest Service, engineers, fire awareness NGOs and others – to discuss the issues and their possible solutions.  This article sets out some of the major points to emerge.

Innovating Our Way Out of Crisis

Innovating Our Way Out of Crisis

Whether deep freezes in Texas, wildfires in California, hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, or any other calamity, our innovations today will build the reliable, resilient, equitable, and prosperous grid tomorrow. Innovation, in short, combines the dream of what’s possible with the pragmatism of what’s practical. That’s the big-idea, hard-reality approach that helped transform Texas into the world’s energy powerhouse — from oil and gas to zero-emissions wind, sun, and, soon, geothermal.

It’s time to make the production and consumption of energy faster, smarter, cleaner, more resilient, and more efficient. Business leaders, political leaders, the energy sector, and savvy citizens have the power to put investment and practices in place that support a robust energy innovation ecosystem. So, saddle up.

The Future of Cities

Mayors, planners, futurists, technologists, executives and advocates — hundreds of urban thought leaders publish on Meeting of the Minds. Sign up to follow the future of cities.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Wait! Before You Leave —

Wait! Before You Leave —

Subscribe to receive updates on the Executive Cohort Program!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This