El Rio: Cities Work To Restore Gila River Beauty

By Kathleen Ferris

Salt cedar is a bushy, invasive tree that can change the face of a landscape in a dangerous way. Three West Valley cities and Maricopa County are pushing to eradicate as much salt cedar as possible along an 18-mile stretch of the Gila Riverbed. Once destroyed, the goal is to replace the salt cedar groves with a wetlands habitat of native plants and trees that will attract wildlife, hikers, birders and horseback riders.

Here are three reasons salt cedar, also known as tamarisk, is a hazard in this section of the Gila Riverbed:

  • It has crowded out native trees and plants. Salt cedar now accounts for about 60 percent of the flora within the 18-mile stretch.
  • It has grown so thick within the riverbed and banks that it slows and stops flood water that courses down the river during heavy storms. The water has no place to go but over the banks and onto the flat land beyond. Since 1996, salt cedar within that stretch of the Gila River has added 7 square miles of land to the designated floodplain putting 200 more houses and active farmland in danger.
  • It catches fire easily and spreads quickly. In 2005, the Buckeye Fire Department battled the 500-acre Buck Fire along the Gila Riverbed within the salt cedar groves. The fire sent clouds of black smoke into downtown Buckeye and firefighters worry about fire reaching the populated areas closer to the city center.
Concept of trail along El Rio Watercourse levee

Concept of trail along El Rio Watercourse levee

In 2006, the AMWUA member cities of Avondale and Goodyear partnered with the City of Buckeye and the Flood Control District of Maricopa County to work together to create something better within the Gila Riverbed. The project is called the El Rio Watercourse Project.

The 8,000-acre El Rio Watercourse Project would be a grand addition to a trio of projects already built along the Salt River: the City of Phoenix’s Tres Rios Wetlands and Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area and Tempe Town Lake.

Hope was high for the project in 2006, when new housing developments were leaping across the West Valley. City and county planners expected that builders would be eager to reclaim and develop the land along the Gila. Developers would reduce the possibility of flooding by helping to eradicate salt cedar and building levees needed on both banks of the river. That would make it possible for the cities and county to move forward with the El Rio Watercourse Project.

Then the economic downturn brought the Valley to a rough stop, slowing but not totally eliminating work toward the river restoration project. The Flood Control District continued with two research projects in the Gila to determine the most efficient methods to limit the growth of salt cedar and encourage the growth of native plants.

  • One research project was conducted on a 50-acre site near Miller Road in Buckeye where salt
    Before and after restoration at Miller Road in Buckeye

    Before and after restoration at Miller Road in Buckeye

    cedar had been destroyed by fire. Researchers cleared the burned salt cedar and planted seeds of native plants and trees. They returned the first few years to take out salt cedar that continued to grow. The native species survived and decreased the density of the salt cedar.

  • The other research project was conducted on a 10-acre site within the county’s Estrella Mountain Regional Park. Researchers cleared the salt cedar, treated the ground and left it fallow. They returned after a year to install irrigation and nursery stock plants and trees. The salt cedar is sparse and the native plants are thriving. Visitors can see the restored area at Bullard and Vineyard roads where there is parking and an educational kiosk.

Here’s what researchers learned: eradicating resilient salt cedar and replacing it with native species is very expensive. The method used at the first site is the least expensive method. The method used at the second site is more effective, but the cost is prohibitive.

The three cities involved in the partnership are each moving ahead with a pilot project designed to showcase the possibilities of the completed project. The cities’ plans include parking lots, trails, educational kiosks, outdoor classrooms, lakes and wetlands. Currently, the cities are drafting common design guidelines for trails and other development along the river expected to be ready in the fall for public review.

The Flood Control District is creating a salt cedar management plan for the El Rio Watercourse Project that includes testing soil conditions and water availability to determine which native species would effectively replace the invasive species and in what areas. The District is also funding additional studies to help facilitate salt cedar removal in strategic locations along the river.

The District estimates it will need $150 million to build levees and at least $300 million to eradicate and replace salt cedar in the project site. The cities and the counties are working collectively to seek federal funding with help from members of Arizona’s congressional delegation. We’ll keep you informed.

For 46 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.

Gilbert: Irrigation Experts Save Millions Of Gallons Of Water

By Kathleen Ferris

There are 11 neighborhoods in the Town of Gilbert where residents have collectively saved 135 million gallons of water over five years. This achievement didn’t happen by accident.

About 25 years ago, these neighborhoods were organized into “Parkway Improvement Districts” or PKIDS. Instead of forming a homeowners association, the communities turned over to the Town the management and maintenance of their common landscaped areas, greenbelts, roadways and playgrounds. In return for the service, residents pay the Town extra property taxes. The neighborhoods range in size from 60 or 70 homes on large lots to 450 smaller homes.

The Gilbert Parks and Recreation Department is responsible for the care of these neighborhoods. The department  contracts with landscape maintenance companies who kill weeds, mow grass, trim trees and shrubs, and keep the playgrounds tidy.

The department  does not contract out one important maintenance responsibility: the irrigation systems within these neighborhoods. Instead, Gilbert Parks department uses two employees trained as certified irrigation specialists to care for the systems. And that brings us back to the remarkable part of this story.graph pkids

The neighborhoods within the Parkway Improvement Districts have a total of 40 acres of grass, 20 acres of desert landscaping and 55 stand-alone irrigation controllers. The Gilbert Parks employees in charge of the neighborhoods not only wanted to make sure the irrigation systems were well maintained, they also wanted to make sure they were not over watering in some places and under watering in others.

In late 2009, Parks employees asked Gilbert’s Water Department for help. The Water Department’s conservation and irrigation expert went to work on a water budget for each of the 11 neighborhoods.

The water conservation specialist measured the acres of turf and the acres of desert landscaping within each community and determined the species of existing plants and trees. Using this information, the specialist calculated the volume of water needed to keep the landscape healthy and attractive in all seasons. Parks employees then set all 55 irrigation controllers each month to match the calculated water requirements created for each neighborhood.

Water and Parks employees began meeting every month to review water-use reports and determine if they needed to make adjustments in particular patches of turf or particular desert gardens. Monthly reports also can pinpoint a spike in water use down to an individual irrigation controller. That allows Parks employees to immediately investigate, find and repair the leak.

Here are the overall results of this partnership between the Parks and Water departments for the 11 neighborhoods:

  • In 2009, Parks used 54 percent more water than recommended by the water budget.
  • By 2010, Parks used only 13 percent more water than recommended by the water budget. That year, Parks saved the town 20.6 million gallons when compared to 2009.
  • By 2014, Parks used 15 percent less water than recommended by the water budget. In the last five year, Parks has saved 134.9 million gallons of the town’s drinking water. That’s enough water to serve 1,242 average Arizona households for a year.

If water use is within 10 percent of a water budget, the landscape water management is considered exceptional. 

Residents of Parkway Improvement Districts meet with city officials once a year to talk about scheduled renovations. Most renovation projects upgrade irrigation systems and add desert landscaping along the properties’ edges, where turf doesn’t work well for play areas and water from sprinklers can damage walls. When a renovation project is scheduled for a community, it means residents’ property taxes will temporarily increase to pay for the improvements.

This Town of Gilbert project has garnered national recognition, but it isn’t just innovative and vigilant town employees who deserve credit. Residents deserve a thank you, too. They paid for the savings.

For 46 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.

Arizona: Where Flushing Keeps The Lights On

By Kathleen Ferris

Arizona has a reputation for crazy ideas. Sometimes those crazy ideas are just crazy and sometimes they turn into marvels.

Take, for example, this crazy idea from 1969: Arizona knew a population boom was coming and it didn’t have enough power for the number of people and industries on their way. That’s when Arizona Public Service first started talking about building a nuclear power plant in the middle of a desert.

One thing everyone knows about a nuclear power plant is that it needs copious and steady amounts of water. 

This desert nuclear plant would need 110,000 gallons of ultra-pure water inside the reactor at all times. That could be satisfied with groundwater, formerly used by farmers on the 4,000 acres where the plant would be located. The groundwater could be treated to an ultra-pure state at the site. But that was only part of the problem solved.

The envisioned plant also would need 560,000 gallons of water circulating through each of the three cooling condensers at all times and a steady flow of up to 90 million gallons of water a day to keep the cooling towers operating. Crazy problem?

Here’s the crazy solution: The water you send down your toilets, showers, sinks, dishwashers, and clothes washers. Back then, cities considered wastewater a nuisance to be treated and disposed of quickly, mostly into dry riverbeds. Suddenly, a group of energy investors wanted to pay cities $20 to $30 an acre-foot for the stuff. (One acre-foot is enough water to serve three Arizona families for a year.)

In 1973, AMWUA negotiated an agreement with APS on behalf of its five original members: Phoenix, Glendale, Mesa, Scottsdale and Tempe. The cities agreed to ship treated effluent 36 miles west from the new 91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment plant in Phoenix to the nuclear plant through reinforced concrete pipe, most 8 feet in diameter. Gravity would power the water through most of the pipe and it would be re-treated on site.

The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station began construction in 1976. The first two units began operating ten years later and Unit 3 came online in 1988.

Here are three more things you didn’t know about the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station:

  • Palo Verde provides a lesson in the escalating value of effluent. Effluent is now highly treated and highly sought after. It is called reclaimed or recycled water. In addition to cooling Palo Verde, AMWUA cities use it for irrigation and fishing lakes and store it underground for future use. None of it goes to waste. In 2010, Palo Verde paid the cities about $60 per acre-foot of effluent and by 2025 that cost will rise to about $200 an acre-foot.
  • Yes, there is only one pipe carrying the effluent to the power plant. It has failed three times due to corrosion of the reinforcement materials: once in 1994 and twice in 1997. Shortly after these failures, an aggressive maintenance plan was implemented to prevent future problems. The plant has two reservoirs that hold 1 billion gallons of treated effluent used in the cooling towers. That’s about two weeks worth of water needed to keep the plant operating should the pipe fail again. (The three repairs to the concrete pipe took five days.) Here’s even better news: If the effluent suddenly stopped flowing it wouldn’t present a safety hazard. The effluent isn’t needed for a safe shutdown.
  • In 1986, Palo Verde was the largest power generator in the U.S. Three decades later that hasn’t changed. Palo Verde provides electricity for 4 million people around the clock, 1.8 million of them in Arizona. Aside from Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project, power companies in New Mexico, Texas and California also are invested in the plant.

Palo Verde remains the only nuclear plant cooled with effluent, but that’s going to change. As water becomes more precious, water and power managers from around the world suddenly are interested in this plant in the middle of nowhere. Palo Verde administrators are busy touring international guests and are in demand at international conferences to talk about this marvel. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a crazy idea and innovation.

For 46 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.

Your City May Be Willing To Help Pay For Six Home Improvements

By Kathleen Ferris

Thinking about some changes to your yard? Upgrading your kitchen, bathroom or laundry? If you upgrade to a more water-efficient home, your city may be willing to contribute to your project.

Seven of 10 AMWUA member cities have concluded that offering residential rebates help them meet water conservation goals. A city creates a water conservation program based on the demands of its  customers and its infrastructure. A city must consider its demographics, budget, age and size, and the age and size of its houses. For example, Phoenix doesn’t offer rebates but does offer to install free, water-efficient toilets in low-income neighborhoods. It has installed 300 so far.

Here are six water-saving changes you can make to your home that could earn you incentives from your city. Cities make these rebates generous enough so residents will take the time to fill out a rebate application. A few may surprise you.

  1. Toilet: The City of Tempe offers residents a rebate for half the cost, up to $75, if they replace a traditional toilet with a new low-flow fixture. The new toilet must use 1.28 gallons or less per flush. That’s up to $75 for each toilet in a house. The cities of Avondale, Peoria and Scottsdale also offer rebates on toilets and some include shower heads.
  2. Irrigation controller: The City of Chandler will pay for half of a resident’s new Smart Irrigation Controller, up to $250. These controllers also are known as weather-based or Evapotranspiration (ET) controllers. They make water adjustments up to 365 times a year based on weather and site conditions, such as soil, slope and plant type. The cities of Avondale, Chandler, Peoria, and Scottsdale also offer rebates on automated irrigation controllers.
  3. Water softener: The City of Scottsdale offers three water softener rebates.The city will give residents a $50 to $100 rebate to replace their current water softeners with a system that saves water or reduces the use of salt. Residents who permanently remove a water softener get a $250 rebate. Scottsdale is the only city to offer this rebate.
  4. Sdale1Turf removal: The City of Mesa offers residents a $500 rebate for removing 500 square feet of grass or more and replacing it with desert-adapted plants. The cities of Avondale, Chandler, Glendale, Scottsdale, Tempe and Peoria also offer a variety of turf removal rebates.
  5. Clothes washer: The City of Avondale offers residents $100 toward the purchase of a high-efficiency clothes washer if it replaces a standard top-loading model. Old top loaders can use up to 39 gallons for every load of wash while the front-loaders use 16 gallons. Avondale is the only city that offers a clothes washer rebate.
  6. Hot water recirculation system: The City of Scottsdale offers a rebate of up to $200 to residents who install a hot water recirculation system. These systems provide instant hot water to any faucet, saving the water that runs down the drain as you wait for it to heat up. Scottsdale is the only city to offer a hot water recirculation system rebate.

Cities budget a limited amount of money for these programs, so it’s smart to fill out an application quickly. AMWUA has links to details about all of these rebates on its website’s conservation pages. It’s worth taking a look.

For 46 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.