Businesses Can’t Afford To Miss Ways To Cut Water Bills

By Kathleen Ferris

A recent article in “Environmental Leader” magazine cited a study that called water conservation “low-hanging fruit” often ignored by property managers looking to save money. Many Valley cities offer businesses free water audits to help them save water and money. Many cities also offer cash incentives and rebates if businesses make their landscaping more water efficient. Here are tips from property managers who took advantage of their cities’  programs.

  • If you are a plant operations manager, make sure your landscaping maintenance contractor is at the table when creating a water-saving plan.

The plant manager for Banner Thunderbird Medical Center invited the hospital’s groundskeeper to his meeting with Glendale’s water conservation specialists. During the meeting he made a discovery: The groundskeeper reseeded the hospital’s lawn with winter grass every fall, set the watering schedule to get the grass started, and never changed the water timer again for the next three or four months. The hospital continued to saturate the mature grass as if it were newly planted seed. The city water-conservation specialists gave the plant manager a tool called a soil probe to measure the moisture in the soil every week and now the groundskeeper adjusts the water timer according to need. Regularly adjusting the timer, using more efficient sprinkler heads and converting to a drip watering system to prevent watering the sidewalk keeps the hospital’s landscape green and will save $13,000 on this year’s water bill.

  • If you own commercial property and want to replace grass with desert landscaping, don’t settle for the price offered by your current landscaping contractor.

Some landscape companies specialize in maintenance, while others specialize in installation. Mesa’s Paragon Center is a 76,000-square-foot commercial complex that houses a small manufacturer, a Sear’s outlet, a floral wholesaler, a gym and private offices. Last year, Mesa gave its owner $5,000 to help convert 25,000-square-feet of grass to gravel, lantana, sage and agave. The complex’s regular landscape maintenance company estimated the project would cost up to $40,000. After shopping around, the property owner found a landscaping company with more installation experience that charged her $20,000. That means Mesa picked up 25 percent of the bill. Mesa’s non-residential rebate program is funded by a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

  • If you manage apartments, take the opportunity to network with your cities.

Once a month Glendale apartment managers are invited to meet with the city’s police. It was at one of these meetings that the manager of the 164-unit Ridgepoint Apartments learned the city provided a water-bill rebate to businesses that convert from grass to low-water-use desert landscaping. That knowledge led to solving a couple of messy problems for the apartment complex. First, Ridgepoint’s monthly water bills were split among the renters and varied each month. That made it difficult for renters to budget. The second problem was four sad-looking Ficus trees that sat in muddy, over-watered basins. The property manager called in Glendale’s water-conservation specialists, who walked the property and met with the landscapers. In place of the trees and grass, the apartment manager installed desert landscaping in a 1,000-square-feet area. Ridgepoint qualified for a $1,700 rebate from the city. The manager plans to replace another 1,000-square-feet of grass with water-efficient landscaping next year. The rebate and other recommendations provided by the city helped Ridgepoint move to a flat monthly water fee for renters.

For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit

Water Shortages: The Big Picture

By Kathleen Ferris

The drought and potential shortages of Colorado River water have everyone talking. That’s good news because no one seems to pay attention to water issues if there isn’t a crisis brewing. It’s also the bad news because everyone–pundits, politicians and prognosticator–has an opinion, which makes it tough to determine how the pieces fit together so we can see the big picture.

Take for example the recent spate of news stories on the declining water level in Lake Mead. It has been accurately reported that Lake Mead is dropping precipitously because less water has been flowing into the lake than is needed to meet the allocations to California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. This shortfall is compounded by evaporation and other losses and by the 14-year drought.

If the lake level drops below 1,000 feet (a projected 13 percent to 29 percent likelihood between 2015 and 2026), barely enough water would be left in storage to meet California’s allocation for one year and California has the highest priority to water from Lake Mead. Translation: there might be no water left for the Central Arizona Project, which brings nearly 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to central Arizona to meet the needs of cities, industries, Indian tribes and farmers.

This is not good news and the seven Colorado River basin states, water users across the region, and the Secretary of the Interior are working to prevent this from happening.

But, the big picture is that the City of Phoenix and the other central Arizona cities would not be forced to cut their water deliveries to customers and will not dry up and blow away as some have suggested if Lake Mead levels continue to drop.

Over the last two decades, the AMWUA cities have collectively stored almost 1.7 million acre-feet of unused surface water and treated wastewater underground as a savings account for use in emergencies – like the one we might be facing from Lake Mead shortages. This stored water would meet our cities’ needs for over two years, but it would never be used up that quickly. That’s because Colorado River water delivered through the Central Arizona Project makes up only about 37 percent of the AMWUA cities’ water supplies, while Salt and Verde River water (51 percent), treated wastewater (5 percent), and groundwater (7 percent) make up the rest. Add to this the fact that for over 30 years, we’ve stretched every drop of water by making conservation part of our lives and our culture. The AMWUA cities supplies are so robust that the state Department of Water Resources has determined we have enough water for 100 years for existing and planned growth.

That doesn’t mean we can be lackadaisical about Lake Mead. It is in every basin state’s best interest to keep the lake’s water levels higher. Potential solutions include paying farmers to fallow land and non-urban users to conserve more water. Arizona and its water users will contribute our share to decrease the risks of shortages so our Colorado River water will be there when we need it. We are desert dwellers who hope for the best and plan for the worst. Keeping the big picture in mind and having the foresight to make the bold choices and investments needed in these challenging times will ensure that we maintain our resilient water supplies.

For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit


Mrs. Kelly Gets New Toilets, But Flushing Problems Persist

Low flow toilets can use as little as 1.2 gallons per flush. Old toilets use 4 gallons.

Low flow toilets can use as little as 1.2 gallons per flush. Old toilets use 4 gallons.

By Kathleen Ferris

Charlene Kelly lives on Phoenix’s Westside with her daughter and a grandchild who likes to flush toilets just for the joy of it.

Mrs. Kelly and her late husband bought their home 30 years ago and each time her grandson flushed those 30-year-old toilets he sent another 4-gallons of wasted water down the city’s sewer lines.

Mrs. Kelly also had leaks in her bathroom sink and backyard faucets. She knew about the state’s drought and that every drop of water mattered, but a plumber just cost too much. Instead, Mrs. Kelly captured the water from the outside leak with a bucket and used it in her washing machine.

A friend of Mrs. Kelly told her about a city of Phoenix program that would replace her old toilets with new toilets. The new toilets used only 1.2 gallons per flush and the replacement would cost her nothing.

Phoenix has been retrofitting older homes in low-income neighborhoods with water-efficient fixtures since 1987. The program started for two reasons: state legislation required the city to reduce its water use and the city wanted to reduce the impact of water costs on families who could least afford them.

In 2005, the city added an outdoor water audit to the services, which already included an interior water audit. Participants also began receiving water-saving landscape and irrigation information. The program helps about 300 households each year. Grants from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation help the city pay for the new toilets and other water-saving fixtures.

In February, Mrs. Kelly made the first of what she expected to be many phone calls to apply for the new toilets. Instead a real person answered her first phone call and sent her a simple two-page application. Mrs. Kelly had two new water-efficient toilets within a month.

Much to Mrs. Kelly’s surprise, the city’s plumber also fixed a leak in a pipe in one of the toilet’s footing and stopped the leaks in her bathroom and backyard faucets. What the plumber couldn’t fix was her grandson’s fascination with even the high-efficiency flush. For more information about Phoenix’s retrofit program call 602 261-8367.

For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit


Groundwater Management: Why It Still Matters


Pumping ground water opens fissures like this one in the West Valley.

Pumping ground water opens fissures like this one in the West Valley.

By Kathleen Ferris

It took until June 12, 1980 for Arizona to decide it was not ok for farmers, cities, developers, and businesses to pump as much groundwater as they wanted,whenever and wherever they needed it. By that time, water users in Maricopa County were depleting 30 times the amount of groundwater that was naturally replenished through rain and snow each year.

The 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act slowed this relentless mining of groundwater in the state’s most heavily populated areas, called Active Management Areas or AMAs. The Act continues to be the nation’s most forward thinking law for managing groundwater and is a major reason why Arizona has reduced water consumption despite rapid population growth.

When too many wells pump too much water from the ground, bad things happen. The ground shifts, causing home foundations to crack. Poor quality water migrates to drinking water wells and energy and water costs go up.

But the biggest problem with groundwater mining is that it is unsustainable. Naturally occurring groundwater accumulated slowly over past geologic ages and pumping this precious resource means it will not be there in the future. The goal of the landmark Groundwater Management Act is to achieve “safe-yield,” meaning that no more groundwater is pumped than is replenished annually. This important objective preserves precious groundwater as a savings account for times of water shortages.

In AMAs, the Act prohibits new agriculture, mandates water conservation, limits new wells, and prevents urban growth without a 100-year water supply.

The AMWUA cities understand the importance of preserving groundwater and have been stalwart supporters of the Act. They have stretched their drinking water supplies by implementing more than 300 measures among them to conserve water and by reusing nearly all of their treated wastewater.   They have added to their water supplies by storing over 1.6 million acre-feet of excess surface water and treated wastewater underground. (An acre-foot is enough water to supply the annual needs of 2.5 households.) Today, the AMWUA cities rely on naturally occurring groundwater for only 7 percent of their needs.

Despite the efforts of the AMWUA cities, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and other concerned parties, groundwater mining continues in many parts of the AMAs, to the detriment of our State. We must further restrict groundwater pumping.

A drill rig finds groundwater in the desert.

A drill rig finds groundwater in the desert.

  • We should increase limits on where new wells may be drilled.
  • We should curb groundwater use for new residential subdivisions.
  • We should promote smart growth on land with access to surface water and other renewable supplies.

We must ensure that water stored underground is protected for use in the future by those who have made the investment to put it there.

Outside of AMAs, the problems of groundwater mining are even more severe, because any landowner may drill a well and pump any amount of groundwater at will. Many rural areas are now suffering the consequences as wells dry up and competition for groundwater increases. These problems will only get worse without action.

As we celebrate the 34th anniversary of the Groundwater Management Act, there is work yet to be done. In the coming weeks and months, groundwater issues and potential solutions will be explored in greater detail. Stay tuned.

For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit










Myth: A Desert Garden Will Save Water and Money

By Kathleen Ferris

MYTH 1: A desert garden means replacing grass with ugly gravel.

Photo Credit: Linda Enger, Linda Enger Photography

Photo Credit: Linda Enger, Linda Enger Photography, from the guide Xeriscape: Landscaping with Style

Plants, not gravel, dominate the loveliest desert gardens. Gravel is a low-maintenance ground cover, or rock mulch, that reduces evaporation and cuts down on weeds and dust. Gardeners can get the same conveniences with decomposed granite. Unlike the traditional chunky rocks, this gravel is ground to less than a ¼-inch size and packs down so it is easy to walk on. It comes in a variety of colors and can be screened to give it a cleaner, more manicured look. Stone suppliers also offer smaller sized “rip rap”, which are stones cut in flat and uneven shapes that look more like natural desert.

 MYTH 2: A desert garden doesn’t give kids and dogs a soft, shady place to play.

Plant more low-water-use trees in strategic parts of the garden to offer plenty of shade to your house, pets, children and guests. Keep a small grassy play area close to the house where it can be most enjoyed. The outer edge of the yard can ease out of turf, but still offer water-efficient trees, plants, vines and ground cover safe for children and animals. Shade structures, flagstone paths, walk-able crushed gravel, and benches can help to entice visitors and kids into this area of the yard. AMWUA has a searchable database of more than 200 desert plants that thrive in the Valley and tips for maintaining a healthy lawn with minimal water.

MYTH 3: A desert garden doesn’t have showy, fragrant blossoms.

Plants with fragrant blooms that attract humming birds and surprise your visitors can thrive in desert gardens. Nurseries offer desert-adapted plants from around the world. Scented flowers grow on water-efficient plants, such as Lady Banks roses, and there are desert plants and trees with fragrant stems and leaves, such as salvias and sweet acacia trees. Valley cities offer free water-efficient gardening classes. You’ll find a list of these classes at every fall and spring to help homeowners create showy, blooming yards for every season.

MYTH 4: A desert garden is expensive to create.

Think of each section of your yard as a room. Plan the groundcover as your carpet, the vines as your window dressings, your trees, bushes and cacti as furniture. Plant one room each spring and fall. Some plants will produce offspring to transplant, so each room grows a little less expensive.

You don’t have to buy big. A University of Arizona study shows that with the same care a 5-gallon tree and a 15-gallon tree can reach the same height after five years. Many Valley cities will pay homeowners to replace grass with a desert garden.

Photo Credit: Charles Mann, Charles Mann Photography

Photo Credit: Charles Mann, Charles Mann Photography, from the guide Xeriscape: Landscaping with Style

MYTH 5: A desert garden saves water and money.

Studies show that many homeowners over-water desert plants and trees. It’s an alert desert gardener, not a desert garden, that saves water and money. If the gardener sets the automatic watering timer based on the maturity of the plants, the time of year, and the weather, a homeowner can reduce water use by 50 percent to 70 percent over grass. That kind of reduction can help homeowners save money and cities save drinking water for your tap. AMWUA offers a guide to help you design, install and maintain a desert garden that will fit your home and family.

For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit