Drought Smart: 6 Things You Can Learn About Water In 6 Minutes

By Kathleen Ferris

AMWUA member cities are focused on keeping water flowing in and out of your homes and businesses day in and day out. At AMWUA, we’re all about solutions. Always have been. It’s our job.

We’re also well aware of how easy it is for many people to throw up their hands, bury their heads, and ignore a problem that seems overwhelming and out of their control. Others like to grandstand about pending doom. Knowledge is what we all need to move forward with purpose.

Here are six links to six things you can learn in six minutes that will make you smarter about the Greater Phoenix Metropolitan Area’s water supply. It will allow you to inform others, take action, or simply sleep better.

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1. This City of Phoenix interactive graphic will help you understand the Valley’s multiple sources of drinking water and how water flows into and out of the city.  (Here is an extra: Want to see Phoenix’s history of water use? Ok.)

Second Pioneer Park2. Valley cities recycle water. This water is called reclaimed water and supplements your city’s water supply. The AMWUA cities are storing reclaimed water underground for future use. The cities also provide reclaimed water for many purposes, including irrigation and to cool the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. 

3. State law requires every city to have a tiered drought preparedness plan. The plans incrementally scale back demands for water to ensure supplies meet our needs. Since much non-essential water use occurs outdoors, city plans often target exterior uses. It is important to understand that drought does not equal a water shortage. Despite nearly 15 years of drought, the AMWUA cities’ drought preparedness plans are not currently active. We have weathered the drought because of ongoing conservation and careful planning and management of our water supplies.  

4. Arizona’s forward-thinking 1980 Groundwater Management Act recognized that groundwater is a finite supply. If over-pumped, it will eventually disappear. The AMWUA cities have dramatically reduced their reliance on groundwater through conservation, the use of reclaimed water and available surface supplies from rivers. Today, AMWUA member cities collectively rely on groundwater for only about 7 percent of their water supplies.

5. Every AMWUA city has a water conservation program. The cities’ commitment to conservation and efficient water use is decades old and their conservation programs are always evolving. The conservation professionals of AMWUA’s ten member cities meet regularly to share data and ideas, learn from one another’s experience, and to build shared resources and materials for homeowners and businesses.

USE6. Underground water storage is an investment in the Valley’s water supply resiliency. Over the last two decades, the AMWUA cities have collectively invested $400 million in storing nearly 1.7 million acre-feet of water underground. That’s enough water to meet the needs of the AMWUA cities for more than 2 years, but it would never be used up that quickly because of the diversity of our 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 www.amwua.org.

WaterSense: High Performance That Saves Water And Money

By Kathleen Ferris

Do you remember the old low-flow shower heads? Some of them were awful, weren’t they? Those old shower heads began to give water-efficient fixtures an image problem that was hard to shake.

The U.S. Congress mandated more water-efficient household fixtures and appliances in 1994. It was an effective law that made a real difference in Phoenix and other big cities. Phoenix has calculated that homes built in 2009 use one-third the amount of water used by homes built before the law passed.

image.cidAfter the law passed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was looking for a way to promote the best performing water-efficient products and spur innovation.  In 2006, the EPA and industry partners created the WaterSense program. Now it’s easier for consumers to find high performing water-efficient products by looking for the WaterSense label.

For a manufacturer to receive the WaterSense label a product must use at least 20 percent less water than traditional fixtures or appliances and it must perform as well or better. The WaterSense program uses licensed, third-party certifying agencies to independently verify that the product meets both standards.

Water-efficient products have steadily improved. Today, most homeowners can’t tell the difference between a WaterSense shower head and a traditional one. The only indication is on a household’s water bill. For example, WaterSense bathroom sink faucets reduce water use by an average of 30 percent when compared to traditional faucets. That equals about 700 gallons a year for an average household, or enough water to wash 20 loads of laundry. Toilets that once needed 4-gallons of water to flush can now get the job done with as little as 1.28 gallons. By replacing old, inefficient toilets with a WaterSense model, an average family can reduce the water used by their toilets 20 to 60 percent.

It’s not hard for consumers to find WaterSense products. For example, for the last two years, Home Depot has won WaterSense Retailer Partner of the Year award for its dedication to promoting WaterSense products and Kohler Co. won for innovation. There are more the 1,600 models of shower heads and 1,900 toilets that meet WaterSense standards. The WaterSense stamp of approval is usually on the manufacturer’s label or consumers can visit the WaterSense product search site.

The WaterSense label isn’t just for shower heads and toilets anymore. WaterSense also tests and verifies weather-based automated irrigation controllers. That’s particularly important in the Phoenix area where as much at 50-70 percent of a home’s water is used outdoors.

All of the AMWUA member cities are WaterSense partners and each has a water conservation program designed to help you save money in your home and yard. Some cities offer rebates to help you pay to install new WaterSense fixtures and appliances. You could be saving some money and saving the rest of us a lot of water.

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.

Cities Store Water To Keep Taps Flowing Come (No) Rain or Shine

By Kathleen Ferris

The desert is not a place where water is taken for granted. In desert cities, water must be managed. Each of the AMWUA member cities has a water management plan and part of that plan is storing water. The water would be used during times of Colorado River shortages, such as those we might be facing because of falling water levels in Lake Mead.

Storing water is a tricky business in the desert. Pools and lakes lose large amounts of water to evaporation each year. Water tanks are just too small for the amount that needs to be stored to provide a cushion. Underground is the secret to desert water storage. Cities store water in aquifers.

An injection well in northeast Phoenix helps the city store water in the aquifer.

An injection well in northeast Phoenix helps the city store water in the aquifer.

Underground water storage is an investment in the Valley’s water supply resiliency. Over the last two decades, the AMWUA cities have collectively invested $400 million in storing nearly 1.7 million acre-feet of water underground. That’s enough water to meet the needs of the AMWUA cities for more than 2 years, but it would never be used up that quickly because of the diversity of our water supplies.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s involved in storing water in underground aquifers.

What is an aquifer? It is not an underground lake or river. It is not a basin deliberately carved out under the ground. Officially: An aquifer is any geological site that can yield usable quantities of water. Unofficially: An aquifer is an area deep underground where water settles between rocks and gravel like water would settle in a pail of golf balls.

How do cities store water in the aquifer? There are three common methods used to store water in the aquifer.

  • Recharge basins, each usually a couple acres in size, are constructed to retain water to allow it to quickly filter into the aquifer. Cities use tractors to regularly turn over a foot or two of dirt at the bottom of the recharge basin to make it easier for the water to seep through the soil. Recharge basins are usually in groups of five to seven to provide sustainable capacity.
  • Vadose zone wells are small diameter wells that reach only about 100 to 150 feet underground into the dry soil. (This space between the land surface and the aquifer is called the vadose zone.) If the wells are sited in a good geological location, gravity carries the water from the vadose zone into the aquifer. Vadose zone wells are inexpensive and have a small footprint, so they can be unobtrusively built in medians or parks. But over time they begin to clog and have only about a five to 10-year lifespan.
  • Injection wells are large diameter wells that inject water directly into the aquifer in a very specific area. Many injection wells are also used to pump water from the aquifer when necessary. The footprint of an injection well is slightly larger than a vadose zone well and they are far more expensive, but these wells have a much longer lifespan of about 50 years. The City of Phoenix has drilled three injection wells since 2010. Chandler has drilled 24 injection wells in the past 15 years.

Where does the water that is stored come from? The AMWUA cities store underground reclaimed water and a portion of their allocations of Colorado River water delivered through the Central Arizona Project. Water from the Salt and Verde Rivers delivered by the Salt River Project is generally not permitted to be stored underground. However, some AMWUA cities helped pay to increase the storage capacity behind Roosevelt Dam and are permitted to store underground their portion of the water captured by the Dam.

Who keeps track of how much each city stores? Each acre-foot of water that is stored underground to be pumped in a later year is called a Long-Term Storage Credit. The Arizona Department of Water Resources oversees underground storage, maintains an account for each city or person that stores water underground, and adds to or deducts credits from the accounts.   (One acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land a foot deep or to serve the annual needs of 2.5 average Phoenix area households.)

Here are two examples:

  • The City of Peoria uses recharge basins and vadose zone wells to store about 11,000 acre-feet of water underground each year. The city began storing water in 2004 and now has 117,000 acre-feet in Long Term Storage Credits. To put that in perspective, each year Peoria uses about 30,000 acre-feet to meet the water needs of its residents and businesses. This means the city has nearly 4 years of supply in reserve underground.
  • The City of Chandler began using recharge basins in the mid 1990s and built its first of 24 injection wells in the late 1990s. Chandler stores from 10,000 to 200,000 acre-feet a year and has 350,000 acre-feet of Long Term Storage Credits. Chandler uses 60,000 acre-feet per year to meet the water needs of the city’s residents and businesses, so the city has almost 6 years worth of water stored.

So we have nothing to worry about, right? No plan is ever perfect and some cities will be able to pump their Long Term Storage Credits more easily than others. But there’s a bigger problem. Current law allows a city (or another entity) to store water underground in one location and pump it later from a completely different location. So someone could store water underground near Buckeye and later pump it in Apache Junction. In this case, the water being pumped is not the water that was stored, but groundwater, or just as bad, water stored by someone else. This disconnect between the location of water storage and the location of pumping can also lead to localized areas of groundwater decline. It is an unsustainable practice that Arizona lawmakers should address.

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.

Gardens: Why Your City Wants To Inspire You

By Kathleen Ferris

Etched on the wall at the entrance of the City of Scottsdale’s Xeriscape Garden is this: “Demonstrating the Beauty of Saving Water.” That is a lovely explanation of why some cities plant and nurture free public demonstration gardens. These gardens are thriving examples of how homeowners, businesses, and HOAs can create lush and colorful gardens and landscapes using very little water.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany of us would like a backyard that provides a little more wow each year without increasing our water use and water bills and, hopefully, even lowering them. Whether you’ve been in the Valley 10 years or 10 months, turning a yard into a shady and showy Sonoran Desert garden takes inspiration and a little know-how.

Your cities want to help you with both.  Here’s why:  In the Phoenix area, as much at 50-70 percent of a home’s water use is outdoors. Conservation of water used outdoors is critical in our desert environment. But cities also understand that beautiful landscaping and yards improve a family’s joy in their home, maintain property values, and increase a community’s appeal.

So, that is why cities invest in demonstration gardens, among other conservation programs, to encourage and teach people to plant beautiful yards that thrive with very little water and maintenance.

Renowned landscape designer Christine Ten Eyck designed the Scottsdale Xeriscape GardenSdale1 at Chaparral Park. It covers 5.5 acres and was completed in 2007 on the southeast corner of McDonald and Hayden roads. Scottsdale water conservation specialist Bill Casenhiser lovingly oversees the maintenance of the garden.

The garden can’t be seen from the road but still attracts about 50 to 60 visitors a day. It’s a living lesson about which shrubs and plants thrive in shade, which glow and grow in the sunshine, and how to plant a garden that stays green and blooming all year. The garden is a valuable stop before going to a nursery and being overwhelmed with acres of choices. The Scottsdale Xeriscape Garden offers visitors detailed signs that explain the value of particular plants and how to plant and nurture them.

Scottsdale also offers garden tours led by the garden’s caretaker. Check Scottsdale’s conservation office’s list of workshops and register early to secure a spot. A visit to the Scottsdale garden can help you plan your garden with a purpose:

  •  Are you looking to reduce maintenance or convert a grassy area into a desert-adapted garden? The solution is not more gravel but choosing plants that fit the space once they are mature. That means they won’t need much trimming. The Scottsdale garden offers examples of the size of trees, shrubs and plants when mature and how they look grouped and in rows. Did you know there is a large and dramatic prickly pear with very little of the prickly part? The pads on an Indian Fig prickly pear are smooth.
  • Do you want more flowers? Then visit the garden and make a list of trees, plants and shrubs that flower at different times of the year. The Texas Mountain Laurel blooms are large clusters of tiny blue flowers that smell like grapes, some people say wine. It’s blooming now at the garden.Sdale4
  • Do you want to attract wildlife? Scottsdale’s garden is a certified wildlife habitat. You can see trees with limbs conducive to nesting, find plants where butterfly larvae can feed, and watch plants and shrubs with seeds, berries and flowers attract quail and other birds.

The cities of Chandler, Gilbert, Glendale, Mesa, Peoria, and Tempe also have demonstration gardens. They are worth checking out even if you are just looking for a peaceful and beautiful urban setting. Cities also offer free workshops to help with planning, planting, and maintaining a desert yard. It’s planting season, so the workshop calendars are full of events. See if one fits into your schedule.

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.

Is It Time To Turn Your Yard Into A Wildlife Habitat?

By Kathleen Ferris

Tired of winter guests? How about inviting some colorful visitors to your backyard who can entertain you instead. It could be time to turn that bit of grass and gravel, with its smattering of sheared shrubs, into a Sonoran Desert wildlife habitat. Sure, the birds and butterflies you attract will need a little food and shelter, but they’re pretty low maintenance as guests go.

A Queen butterfly sips nectar from a Mistflower (Eupatorium greggii).  Photo: Donna DiFrancesco

A Queen butterfly sips nectar from a Mistflower (Eupatorium greggii).
Photo: Donna DiFrancesco

Building a backyard habitat is not difficult or expensive. It can be planned over time, planting in spring and fall. The right native and desert-adapted plants and trees will provide a lush and colorful landscape in every season using very little water. You could have some of the basics already planted, and too much maintenance is actually discouraged. Consider the following guidelines to determine if a backyard habitat is right for you.

Shelter: Diversity is key here. Migratory and native birds need high and low places to hide, to rest and to nest. They look for tall cactus, tall shrubs, and trees. Birds, including quail, and lizards, also like ground cover, so they look for vines, low shrubs and cactus in groupings where it is easy to hide from predators and find shade. This offers layers of protection for wildlife. Wildlife also needs open spaces in between groupings of plants to hunt for seeds and insects.

Maintenance: An impeccable garden won’t attract much wildlife. Birds are attracted to insects under leaves and seeds shed by plants and trees. Don’t be eager to rake it up. Go easy on the pruning. Over pruning or shearing will remove flowers, seeds and berries that birds and butterflies are looking for on your plants and trees. A shrub sheared into a ball or triangle offers no lower branches to shelter birds or lizards. Visit your city’s demonstration garden to see how those shrubs should look so they keep wildlife coming into your yard. Use non-toxic methods to control pests and weeds.

The Verdin, a tiny, active songbird, perches on a Hesperaloe flowering stalk.  Photo: Al Sinclair

The Verdin, a tiny, active songbird, perches on a Hesperaloe flowering stalk.
Photo: Al Sinclair

Plants: First the caterpillar then the butterfly. A butterfly garden needs plants that butterfly larvae can feed on and plants with flowers that provide nectar once a butterfly emerges. Desert milkweed, desert marigolds, and fairy dusters are common plants that offer both. Once mature, butterflies enjoy flame honeysuckle, several varieties of bird of paradise, and the desert willow. These same plants will attract hummingbirds along with the hardy aloe plant with its towering stalks of orange and yellow blossoms. Look for plants that flower and also offer berries and seeds. Here is AMWUA’s guide to help plant a backyard where something attractive to wildlife is blooming every season of the year.

The trickier part of creating a habitat is deciding how much time and money you want to spend on keeping fresh water, hummingbird food, and store-bought bird food in the backyard. You can opt to provide fresh water for bathing and feeding but it must be changed every two days to keep it from becoming a mosquito breeding area.

Experiment with retail seeds, suet, and feeders to get an idea of the wider variety of birds you can attract. A sock filled with thistle seed can bring a colorful variety of birds into easy view. All-weather suet cakes attract large-billed birds, such as flickers and woodpeckers. Some seeds and suet can attract pigeons, which is why it’s best to buy in small quantities at first.

Hummingbird feeders can be frustrating. The sugar water can attract more wildlife than you want, such as bees and ants, and the feeder must be cleaned frequently to keep it bacteria free and safe for the birds. Many successful backyard wildlife sanctuaries rely solely on plants to attract hummingbirds.

AMWUA and its member cities have classes, free handouts and advice about improving your backyard landscaping, saving water outdoors and turning your backyard into a bird and butterfly habitat. Contact your city’s water conservation office for help.

Best of all, it’s a good time of year to plant. Hand those winter guests a couple of shovels.

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.