2015: Cities Can Help You Keep Your Pledge To Save Water

By Kathleen Ferris

A different sort of national environmental organization has set its sights on Arizona. Change the Course wants to help maintain enough water in Arizona rivers to keep plants, birds and fish healthy, but also keep farmers thriving and faucets flowing in homes and industries.

We all do, but it’s a tough balance. Cities and towns need water for their residents and so industries can grow jobs. Cities also need water to create environments for people who want to visit or set down roots or start a business.

People are drawn to cities and towns that offer jobs, but also golf courses, open spaces, green parks and birds in backyards. They want to live near healthy forests filled with wildlife, rivers and lakes filled with fish, and wetlands filled with migrating birds.

Change the Course understands these connections. It also understands that traditionally competitive groups such as conservationists, corporations, and farmers will have to change their relationships.

Along Arizona's Verde River Photo: Cheryl Zook/National Geographic

Along Arizona’s Verde River
Photo: Cheryl Zook/National Geographic

Change the Course is all about relationships. It was co-created by Sandra Postel, FreshwaterFellow of the National Geographic Society. Postel is author of several books, including Last Oasis: Facing Freshwater Scarcity, the basis for a PBS documentary. Postel’s partners include Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which promotes sustainable business practices, and Participant Media, a film and television company.

In November, Postel presented the 2014 Centennial Lecture at Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College. In December, the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open golf tournament announced it has joined the Change the Course campaign.

Here is how the Change the Course program works.

Step 1 Awareness: Change the Course asks people to take a pledge (it’s free) to use less water by texting the word “River” to 77177 or making a pledge online at Change the Course. (You’re on your honor here. No one follows up.)

In response to each pledge, Change the Course promises to restore 1,000 gallons of water to a depleted river or wetlands. Since the campaign started two years ago, more than 93,000 people have pledged to use less water. The Phoenix Open will be asking fans to pledge online or on site at the TPC Scottsdale golf course.

Step 2 Money: Corporations that are seeking to balance their heavy water footprints, such as Coca Cola, Silk and Disney, donate money to Change the Course. The corporations help pay for projects that return water to depleted rivers, streams and wetlands.

Step 3 Restoration: In Arizona, Change the Course is working with restoration projects on the Colorado and Verde rivers. Both rivers provide drinking water to the Phoenix area.

In partnership with The Nature Conservancy, Change the Course helped to pay for farmers to install two automated gates within a 150-year-old irrigation system along the Verde River. The gates are embedded with sensors and operated by cell phones. They allow just the right amount of water into the irrigation channels to ensure thriving crops and to allow more water to flow back into the Verde River.

Change the Course also is working to maintain water in the Colorado River Delta after the U.S. and Mexico reached an agreement to release a pulse of river water into the long-dry delta. Now, Change the Course is helping to fund efforts to keep enough water flowing to newly created wetland areas to bring back cottonwoods and willows and create habitats for migrating birds and other wildlife.

For over three decades, AMWUA and its member cities and towns have helped people not just pledge to save water, but to take action. Cities have implemented programs to encourage homeowners and businesses to use water more efficiently.

Look around. Residents and businesses are always changing to more water-efficient landscaping, installing water-saving fixtures and appliances, and continuing to find ways to conserve. Our member cities also have found creative ways to restore and create riparian areas and increase wildlife habitats.

We are committed to efforts that will sustain our water supplies and balance the needs of competing demands. Is 2015 your year to take action? Contact your city’s water conservation office or visit AMWUA.org to learn how you can play a part.

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 www.amwua.org.

Let’s Face It, Most Of Us Are Not Frost Cloth People

By Kathleen Ferris

When it comes to protecting plants from cold weather, there are two types of desert homeowners: conscientious and casual.

The conscientious have a plan. They are prepared with large appropriately textured frost cloths. These homeowners use a frame to suspend their frost cloths (also called frost blankets) just above the foliage on a sensitive plant or tree. The cloth reaches the ground where the warmth of the soil can rise throughout the night and keep the fragile flora from frostbite.

Ficus trees are very sensitive to the cold. Photo: Dr. Chris A. Martin, Arizona State University

Ficus trees are very sensitive to the cold.
Photo: Dr. Chris A. Martin, Arizona State University

The casual, otherwise known as the rest of us, find that stack of old sheets and blankets in the garage or shed. We do our best to cover the plants, using chip bag clips or safety pins. It’s unlikely we’ll change.

A frost or freeze can be expected in the Greater Phoenix Metro area anytime after Thanksgiving and before Valentine’s Day. If nighttime temperatures are predicted to be 32 degrees or below, cover your sensitive plants before sundown. If the temperature falls below 20 degrees, you can expect even covered plants to sustain damage.

Here is advice from plant and tree experts about protecting your plants in cold weather.

  • If you don’t have frost cloth, cover plants with lightweight cotton sheets or painters cloth that let in air and light. Burlap and blankets, even paper and cardboard will work, but take care not to weigh down the branches. It’s best if the cover reaches the ground and can trap the warm air rising from the soil.
  • No, that old plastic shower curtain or tablecloth will not work. Plastic will freeze and transfer the cold, either burning or killing the plant.
  • If you get up early to go to work, don’t bother to remove the covers. It’s still too cold and you’ll defeat the purpose of covering the plants in the first place. (If freezing temperatures are predicted for several consecutive nights, it’s safe to leave your plants covered for up to a week. Some of your neighbors, however, may not be happy about this.)
  • Small old fashion electric Christmas lights hung or placed near the base of the plant (heat rises) will add warmth to a plant. New LED lights do not create the same heat.
  • Popular tropical plants are most sensitive to cold weather, such as ficus trees, bougainvillea, yellow bells, lantana, fairy dusters, and some succulents. Lemon and lime trees are more sensitive than other citrus trees.
  • Shrubs sheared into balls, squares and triangles are more likely to suffer from cold weather than those allowed to grow with their natural shapes.
  • If you plant annuals, snapdragons, pansies and flowering kale will tolerate the cold better than others.
  • When a cold night is forecast, water tropical plants and trees at their base a day or two before the freeze. (Remember to turn off your automatic sprinklers. Wet leaves and stalks will freeze and kill any plant.) Do not water cactus or succulents. Cactus and succulents withstand the cold far better if their soil is dry.
  • Potted plants are more susceptible to cold weather damage. Place these plants under large evergreen trees, on your porch, or in your garage or shed. Even moving them closer to the wall of your home helps.
  • Place Styrofoam cups on the ends of columnar cactus arms to protect growing tips.
  • Wrap trunks of young or frost sensitive trees to provide them another layer of protection.

Many plants and trees damaged by cold weather will grow back. Yes, they look brown and ugly for winter guests, but the ugly parts help to insulate the rest of the plant from further damage. Wait and trim them in the spring when nights begin to warm up.

Here is the best tip: If you need to cover a plant, save yourself some time and money by replacing it with a hardy native that can shake off the desert’s coldest nights. Frost and freeze damage is nature’s way of telling us what plants don’t belong in our yards.

Find more information about designing, planting and maintaining a desert garden at AMWUA.

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 www.amwua.org.

Quaggas Muscle Their Way Into Your City’s Water Delivery System

By Kathleen Ferris

A mussel about the size of a dime is breeding by the millions in reservoirs fed by the Colorado River. These invasive creatures, which can grow a little larger than a quarter, threaten the delivery of water to the Greater Phoenix Metropolitan area. They also can cost you and your cities a lot more than small change.

Quaggas, like most transplants, love Arizona’s weather. Back East these mussels reproduce once or twice a year. In our sunshine and warm water the mussels reproduce up to 10 times a year. These are the types of transplants we don’t want to encourage.

Photo: SRP

Photo: SRP

Adult quagga mussels spread by hitching rides on boats, other watercraft and anything that might hold water. Their microscopic larvae can be transported in just droplets of water.

Quagga mussels, natives of Eastern Europe, were first discovered in the U.S. in 1989 in the Great Lakes. In 2007, biologists discovered quagga mussels in Lake Mead, a Colorado River reservoir created by Hoover Dam. Soon, the mussels made their way throughout the Arizona’s  Colorado River reservoirs. The mussels have few natural predators in this country and no one has yet found a way to stop an infestation once it begins.

Quagga mussels grow in massive colonies. The mussels live for three to five years and females release up to a million larvae each year. Quagga larvae that survive grow a shell heavy enough to start sinking after about 21 days. The mussels also grow sticky hair-like threads and attach themselves to mostly hard surfaces. Those surfaces include pipes, canals, pumps and grates needed to transport and clean the Valley’s drinking water. Clearing the quaggas out of equipment takes time and money.

The Central Arizona Project operates one of the state’s water-delivery systems. The system includes hundreds of miles of aqueducts, pipes and 14 pumping stations that bring Colorado River water to La Paz, Maricopa, Pinal counties and down to Tucson in Pima County.

The mussels have made their way into some cities’ water systems, including Cave Creek and Scottsdale. Most of the mussels have to be removed manually, shell and all. If you just kill the mussels, their shells fall into equipment and continue to cause problems.

In 2013, Scottsdale found quagga mussels in a pumping station where Central Arizona Project water flows into its system. Employees scrape off some mussels by hand, but most are removed with a high-pressure sprayer and then vacuumed into a container. So far, Scottsdale has been able to minimize damage done to its pumping equipment.

Photo: CAP

Photo: CAP

Salt River Project also delivers water to the Valley. It operates the dams and reservoirs along the Salt and Verde rivers. So far, these lakes in the eastern part of Arizona are quagga free. Each month, SRP biologists send out water samples to be analyzed for quagga larvae. The biologists also use 6-inch by 6-inch plates at different depths in the lakes to monitor for adult mussels. (By the way, SRP also uses these plates in the Phoenix area canal system, but it keeps losing them to well-meaning residents trying to keep the canals clean.) So far, SRP has found a limited number of adult quaggas in the canals.

Researchers are still trying to determine why quaggas are prolific in the Colorado River area but have yet to reach the Salt and Verde rivers on the eastern side of the state.

In addition to damage caused to water delivery systems, quagga mussels harm the environment. For example, quagga mussels are very effective filter feeders and can remove enormous amounts of critical food from the water. This food is needed by other species, especially juvenile fish, to maintain adequate population sizes.

Arizona Game and Fish Department promotes a Don’t Move A Mussel campaign and requires boaters and anglers to clean, drain, and dry their boats and fishing gear. The agency also requires day-use boater to wait five days before moving a boat from an infested lake into another body of water. There is more information about preventing the spread of quagga mussels and a list of infested lakes at Arizona Game and Fish.

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 www.amwua.org.

First Water, Then Development

By Kathleen Ferris

In 1978, swindler Ned Warren was convicted of 20 counts of fraud for selling land in Arizona without access to water. Two years later, the drafters of the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act decided to put an end to that practice by requiring that an “assured water supply” must be demonstrated in advance of selling subdivision lots. Ironically, Ned Warren died in prison that same year.

In 1980, an assured water supply meant a renewable surface water supply, such as Central Arizona Project water from the Colorado River or water from the Salt and Verde Rivers. It did not mean groundwater. That’s because the Groundwater Management Act aims to halt the over-use of groundwater that plagued the state for decades.

The requirement to use renewable supplies encouraged cities to make investments in surface water treatment plants and to store excess surface water underground for use in times of surface water shortages. It drove them to clean their customers’ wastewater so that it could be used instead of drinking water to irrigate turf in parks and on golf courses, and to restore riparian habitats. The result is that 34 years after passage of the Groundwater Management Act, the major cities in the Phoenix area rely on groundwater for only 7 percent of their water, and can boast of redundant, stable and secure water supplies for today and tomorrow. Take a look at California where landowners are racing to drill ever-deeper wells at the cost of $250,000 each and you see the nightmare central Arizona would be in without the Groundwater Management Act.

But there were some interest groups who did not like the assured water supply restrictions on groundwater pumping. So in 1993, the Arizona legislature created an exception. The exception allows houses to be built on raw desert land and their owners to use groundwater on the assumption that the government will purchase water supplies to replenish the groundwater that is pumped. The government agency in this case is the same entity that operates the Central Arizona Project.

These new desert developments are permitted to use groundwater, but pumping this resource creates problems for homeowners and others. Over-pumping groundwater causes land subsidence as the earth literally sinks. This shifting of the ground can crack foundations and damage buildings and roads. Energy and maintenance costs go up as groundwater is pumped from deeper depths. Groundwater quality may worsen, resulting in even higher costs. Add to this the fact that the Central Arizona Project is not required to replenish (put water back in the ground) in the areas where groundwater is pumped. Inevitably, the groundwater will run out. Who will rescue these homeowners if groundwater is no longer usable or available?

It is cheaper to develop desert land and use groundwater, so the 1993 exception to the assured water supply requirement is now the major vehicle for residential growth. The Central Arizona Project currently has the obligation to replenish for 100 years the groundwater pumped for 1,094 subdivisions, about 264,000 houses. This obligation will continue to grow because the Central Arizona Project lacks authority to say no to new subdivisions. Drought and shortages of Colorado River water will increase competition for water supplies that can be purchased for replenishment.   Subdivision developers are not required to pay the full cost of the water needed for replenishment and, ultimately, homebuyers will foot the bill not only for the groundwater they actually use, but for replenishment water as well.

On December 4, 2014, the Central Arizona Project approved a Plan of Operation for the next ten years to meet its expected replenishment obligations. The Plan will now be submitted to the Arizona Department of Water Resources for review and approval. The Arizona Municipal Water Users Association believes the Plan falls short of mitigating the risks posed by continued growth before renewable supplies are in hand.

We need to get back to the model envisioned by the 1980 Groundwater Management Act where sustainable water supplies are developed in advance of growth. Unfortunately, it appears that changes to state law will be necessary to ensure this result.

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 www.amwua.org.

Desalination: Is It A Practical Solution For Arizona’s Future Water Supplies?

By Kathleen Ferris

Engineers can take salt out of ocean water and create water for drinking and irrigating crops. Desalting water on an industrial level is a great technological achievement. The process, however, remains expensive and messy. The world, pushed by need, has moved ahead with desalination projects while researchers work to create more efficient and Earth-friendly technology.

Desalination requires an enormous amount of energy to push streams of water at very high pressure through membranes, which trap salt particles. As fresh water is produced, so is a wastewater stream with highly concentrated salt.

The Yuma Desalting Plant was built to clean irrigation runoff, not ocean water.

The Yuma Desalting Plant was built to clean irrigation runoff, not ocean water.

Researchers are working to reduce the cost of desalting by finding ways to use energy more efficiently and add solar to traditional energy sources. Newer plants are often co-located with power and wastewater plants to help reduce transmission costs and to clean up the waste on-site.

Water poor, energy rich countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, were among the first to build large desalination plants. Technological advances have reduced costs enough to entice more countries to desalt water for their citizens. The plants are more practical for countries with large coastal population centers, such as Israel, China, and Australia.

Concern about availability of fresh water is pushing this country to consider desalination as a way to augment supplies. The largest U.S. plant to desalinate ocean water is now being built in Carlsbad, California.

Building the Carlsbad plant hasn’t been easy. It took six years and 14 lawsuits before Carlsbad broke ground in 2012. It will be completed in 2016, but delivering water by the end of 2015. According to the San Jose Mercury News, it will take 38 megawatts a day to power Carlsbad, enough energy to power about 28,500 homes for a day. Carlsbad will produce 7 percent of San Diego County’s drinking water needs and the water will cost twice as much as water from a new reservoir or reclaimed wastewater.

So, how does all of this impact Arizona?

The state already has a desalination plant near Yuma. The plant does not desalinate ocean water. The federal government built the plant to clean salt from agricultural runoff. The U.S. was mixing the salty runoff with Mexico’s legally allotted share of Colorado River water. In the early 1970s, Mexico protested and the U.S. agreed to build the Yuma desalting plant.

The plant was completed in 1992 but shut down shortly after it began to operate. The cost of cleaning and desalting the runoff was too high. It was much cheaper to send Mexico Colorado River water stored in Lake Mead.

Since then, the plant has operated sporadically, never at full capacity and never longer than a year. It was last operated at 1/3 capacity for 328 days in 2010 through 2011. The plant needs to be upgraded and is being used mainly for small research projects.

Some Arizona water experts see the Yuma plant as a worthwhile project to revamp and use to supplement the Colorado River water supply. About 100,000 acre-feet a year of agricultural runoff can be delivered to the plant through a 20-mile canal. Arizona State University Professor Rhett Larson is not convinced it is the most efficient option for Arizona.

Larson, a water law and policy expert, envisions an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico to build new and more efficient desalination plants, co-located with power and wastewater treatment plants, in northern Mexico and along the Baja peninsula. Water from these plants could be routed directly to Arizona, but delivering the water would add to its expense. Larson said a more cost-effective solution would be for California to use the desalinated water generated by the plants and leave more water in the Colorado River for Arizona to use.

For now, water managers across the west are watching the fate of Carlsbad to determine the future of U.S. desalination projects.

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 www.amwua.org.