Schools: A Lesson About How To Save Water

By Kathleen Ferris

The people who keep school buildings operating have a big job, and data from the City of Phoenix show they’re doing it while saving water. Numbers from the city indicate that the volume of water used by school districts dropped 18 percent between 1990 and 2012.

It isn’t always easy keeping hundreds of teachers and students cool, bathrooms operating, cafeterias functioning, and landscaping healthy and attractive. It’s an endless chore of upgrades and remodels, particularly in districts where some buildings have been in operation since the 1950s and even earlier.

It’s more likely you’ll find water-saving changes taking place at public school districts than at high-rise downtown office buildings. School districts are helping to lead in water conservation for three main reasons:

1.     There is an urgent need to save money on utility bills so more can be spent on teachers and students.

2.     Schools are long-term, non-profit operations that have the ability and desire to invest in changes that will save money over decades, not necessarily within a few years. Some private sector building owners are not as motivated to look ahead for decades. They may be looking for quicker return on their investments or planning to sell the building.

3.     Changing to highly water efficient appliances and fixtures is a mechanism to finance loans. Schools often make water-saving changes as part of a long-term loan package with a private energy service company. An energy service company determines what changes can be made to lower energy and water costs within the district. The energy service company then makes the renovations and receives the money the district saves on utility costs as its monthly repayment with a small interest payment. The school district gets the money it needs for energy efficient upgrades, reaps the savings once the loan is paid off and helps to conserve energy and water.

Washington Elementary School District entered into a contract with an energy service company about 18 months ago. The contract will last 15 years and is expected to provide utility savings for many years beyond. Here are the water-saving changes the district made over the last two years.

·      Replaced 322 toilets that used from 2.5 to 1.6 gallons for each flush with toilets that use 1.28 to 1.1 gallon per flush.

·      Replaced 99 urinals that used 1 to .5 gallons each flush with urinals that use .1 gallons per flush.

·      Replaced 371 faucets that flowed at 2 to 3 gallons per minute with new faucets that flow at 1 to .5 gallons per minute.

·      Added smart irrigation controllers to irrigation systems that water about 180 acres of turf at 28 schools and one administration building. The smart controllers have soil sensors that measure the moisture in the soil and wirelessly send that message to the controller. The controller modifies the irrigation run times to match the moisture needed.

The changes made by the Washington Elementary School District reduced the district’s water bill by more than $200,000 during the 14-month period from April 2014 through June 2015, when compared to the same 14 months the year before. 

Do you know what the schools in your neighborhood are doing to save water? Advocating for more water-efficient fixtures and appliances in your schools is one way you can help to conserve water now so all students face a better future.

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

Putting A Price Tag On Our Urban Forest

By Kathleen Ferris

Have you seen them? They look like big orange plastic price tags, about 1 foot by 2 feet, hanging from trees around the City of Phoenix.

Handwritten on one side is the tree’s type and some of its attributes, such as the amount of carbon it cleans from the air, the amount of energy it saves, and the value it adds to the property where it grows. On the other side is the tree’s annual value to the community in dollars.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve missed them. They’ve just started going up this year and about 40 of the city’s 93,000 public trees have been tagged. Sometimes the tags are hung randomly and other times you’ll see them at a city event, such as the opening of a new dog park. Whether the tree is in a park or in front of City Hall, the tags only last about 2 weeks. Then, no matter how high they are hung in a tree, they go missing and are presumed stolen.

That doesn’t bother Richard Adkins, City of Phoenix Forestry Supervisor, and the guy whose handwriting is on the tags. Adkins figures they most likely end up in someone’s backyard tree and, at least, will start a conversation about a tree’s value. Cities around the country, including the City of Mesa, have been hanging similar tags on trees for several years. This is Phoenix’s first year and the goal is to hang about 200.

The tags are part of Phoenix’s campaign to help people understand that trees are more than decorative shade. Currently, Phoenix’s tree canopy coverage is 9 to 12 percent of the city’s 520 square miles.  Phoenix is committed to increasing that coverage to 25 percent by 2030. It’s an important goal supported by two recent studies.

The Cool Urban Spaces Project by the City of Phoenix, University of Arizona and Arizona State University showed that a 25 percent canopy could reduce near-ground temperatures in the city by 4.3 degrees.

Phoenix also learned more about the value of its trees by participating in Project Desert Canopy, a state and federal study funded by the U.S. Forestry Service to quantify the value of trees in Phoenix, Albuquerque and Las Cruses, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas.

Phoenix’s entire population of public and private trees is 3.2 million. Here is a sample of what Project Desert Canopy discovered about the annual benefits of this urban forest:

  • Removes enough carbon to offset 10,412 cars.
  • Removes 1,770 tons of air pollution.
  • Reduces storm water runoff by 91.7 million cubic feet or enough to fill 23,000 swimming pools.
  • Reduces residential energy costs by $22.9 million.

Some trees work harder than others. California fan palm is among the top three most common species growing in Phoenix. Phoenix began planting the palms decades ago mainly to impress tourists. California fan palms are flashy, but don’t give much back to the community. The palms remove less pollution and provide less shade than other trees in Phoenix. They are costly to maintain and harbor pigeons, rats, scorpions and other unwanted creatures. The other two most common trees in Phoenix are Velvet Mesquite and Sweet Acacia, which are both easier to maintain and harbor mostly birds.

Here are some trees the Desert Canopy Project found to provide benefits and perform well in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area.

  • Lacebark Elm
  • Texas Honey Mesquite
  • Arizona Ash
  • Desert Ironwood
  • Palo Verde
  • Desert Willow
  • Chinese Pistache
  • Aleppo Pine
  • Live Oak

You can find more tree information on Phoenix’s urban forestry website, including a video about how to prune your trees and an interactive map comparing tree canopy coverage among Phoenix’s Village Planning Districts. There are photographs and descriptions of other trees commonly found in Phoenix and a link to the on-line inventory where you can review the value of trees in parks or on a street near you.

And, by the way, if you happen to find one of those tree tags lovingly handwritten by your city’s forestry supervisor, how about leaving it where it is and taking a photo instead.

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

Re-imagine Your Yard: Cities Offer Free Landscaping Classes

By Kathleen Ferris

Here’s the first rule about changing your landscaping: start with a plan. A plan takes a little know-how and right now many of your cities are offering classes about how to revamp, restore or refresh your yard this fall. The classes are free and registration is simple. There is a list of classes on the AMWUA website.

Chandler helped to kick off the fall classes in late August with Basic Yard Makeovers. The Basic Yard Makeovers class was packed with photos, ideas, inspiration and practical tips. Here’s a sample:

  • Killing Bermuda grass: Herbicides work best when the lawn is looking its best, well watered, richly green and several days after it is mowed.
  • Artificial grass: Yes, it saves water and has its application in commercial spaces, but Salt River Project research found it can reach temperatures up to 150 degrees in the desert summer. So how do homeowners make it work for dogs and children? Yep, you guessed it, they get out the hose and water it down, defeating the reason they installed it in the first place.
  • Making it rain: The Phoenix Metropolitan Area receives an average of 8 inches of rain each year. A lawn needs an average of 60 inches of rain annually to thrive. A little lawn can serve a purpose. Wall to wall lawns don’t match the environment we live in.

And that’s just a few minutes about grass from a two-hour class that included plenty of before and after photos of turf-to-desert landscapes. There were ideas about how to beautify that strip of yard between your house and your neighbors and how to create simple, inexpensive walkways to your front door and from your recycling bin to the sidewalk.

Wading through hundreds of desert plants can be overwhelming. The class helped participants cut through the confusion and sort out the right groundcovers, shrubs, trees and vines for your yard based on sun, shadow, color, texture and height. Like most city classes, there were plant, landscape and watering guides available to take home.

Classes are offered mostly in the spring and fall. If you miss a fall class, it’s likely to be offered in the spring. Some cities offer classes from fall through spring. Here is a small sampling of more than 70 classes offered by AMWUA member cities: 

  • Landscape Watering: Learn proper watering to save time and maximize the beauty of your yard. (Phoenix)
  • Landscaping for Small Spaces: Learn about design ideas for small yards, tight spaces and patios. (Avondale)
  • Passive Harvesting: Learn how to contour your yard to capture more rain and put it to work without gutters and barrels. (Goodyear)
  • Soils & Composing Made Easy: Learn about unique desert soil, how to build better soil, and easy-to-follow steps for composting. (Peoria)
  • Vegetable Gardening In Tune with the Desert: Learn about plant selection, soil preparation, and seasonal tips. (Glendale)
  • Program Your Irrigation Controller: Learn to take control of your landscape watering with step-by-step instructions. (Scottsdale)
  • Bringing Hummingbirds and Butterflies to Your Yard: Learn how to create a residential wildlife habitat. (Gilbert)
  • Grey Water Harvesting: Learn about repurposing water from washing machines and use it to water landscaping. (Tempe)

So check on what your city offers and then check your calendar. It pays to have a plan before it’s time to grab your gardening hat and gloves.

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

On The Fence About That Lawn? Here’s An Incentive

By Kathleen Ferris

Grass does have a role in our desert environment with proper care and appropriate irrigation.

There are heat-tolerant and less thirsty varieties of turf for those who love that patch of green in their backyard retreat and for those with children and pets who play on the lawn.

But it’s hard to argue in favor of growing swaths of grass in the desert just for ornamental purposes. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Phoenix area receives only 8 inches of rain a year on average and, like much of the West, Arizona is 15 years into a drought.

Unless you have a good reason to have that grass, is it worth the time, energy, and money, andgrass water?  Most of us don’t have the time to spend mowing and pampering the lawn the way our parents did.

Maybe the kids have grown and gone and the grass doesn’t have the same place in your life.  Perhaps that patch of grass is beginning to try your patience.  Or maybe you bought a house and not all the grass is really useful. With the right planning, grassy yards can become shady and colorful landscapes that use far less water any time of the year. 

If you’re on the fence about replacing it, your city may have some encouragement to offer.

Seven AMWUA member cities decided, some as early as the 1980s, to offer water bill rebates or a check to encourage residents to give up on lawns and try desert landscapes. Since then, these rebates have directly helped to convert hundreds of acres of grass into low-water use plants and trees at homes, HOAs, apartment buildings, churches, schools, shopping malls and businesses.

Three important things to consider:

1. In most cases, tearing out the grass isn’t enough. A property owner must replace the grass with low-water-use plants to earn the rebate.

2. No city requires that you give up all your grass. Plenty of homes and businesses include some grass in their desert landscape designs.

3. Not all cities offer rebates. It’s not because they don’t care, it’s because water conservation programs differ from city to city depending on the city’s age, size, demographics and neighborhood landscaping guidelines.

Here is a summary of the turf-conversion rebates offered by AMWUA member cities.

  • Glendale offers homeowners from $150 to $750 to remove from 500 square feet of turf to 4,500 square feet or more. The city offers commercial properties and HOAs $1,500 to participate in the city’s Water Budgeting Program and, then, $150 for every 1,000 square feet of grass removed up to 3,000 square feet.
  • Tempe offers homeowners 25 cents for every 1 square foot of turf they remove. The city does not set a limit on the amount. The city offers commercial properties 25 cents per square foot up to $3,000. The city also offers commercial property owners $1 per linear foot, up to $500, to remove the hard-to-water grass between the curb and the sidewalk.
  • Scottsdale offers homeowners 25-50 cents per square foot up to $1,500 to remove grass. Homeowners must remove a minimum of 500 square feet to qualify. The city also offers commercial properties 25 percent of the cost, up to $3,000, to remove grass and install city-approved low-water-use landscaping. Commercial property owners must remove a minimum of 1,000 square feet of turf.
  • Avondale offers homeowners up to $400 for converting a high-water-use landscape to low-water use. The city offers up to $200 for a backyard conversion and up to $200 for the front yard. The city offers commercial properties and HOAs $200 per 1,000 square foot up to $3,000.
  • Peoria offers homeowners and commercial customers from $90 to $1,650 to remove a minimum of 500 square feet of turf up to 5,000 square feet or more. The wide range of rebates offered depends on the amount of property covered with low-water trees and plants once the grass is removed. The higher the coverage, the higher the rebate.
  • Mesa offers $500 to homeowners who remove 500 square feet or more of turf. The city can offer commercial properties and HOAs $5,000 if they remove 10,000 square feet or more of turf. 
  • Chandler offers homeowners and commercial customers $200 for every 1,000 square feet of turf removed up to a maximum of $3,000.Sdale1

The savings on your water bill doesn’t stop with the rebate.  Research shows that an acre of desert-adapted landscaping uses about half the water that an acre of turf would use.  That’s a big savings on your water bill every month. That also means each acre of turf converted to desert-adapted landscaping saves about 2.35 acre-feet of water, or enough to serve seven average Arizona households for a year. 

While that’s a lot of water saved, property owners who take advantage of these rebates set an example for their neighbors. With the cities’ encouragement these homeowners, HOAs, and businesses have helped to promote a culture of conservation and led many other property owners to embrace desert-adapted landscaping.  And that preserves our precious water resources for future use.

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