Desert Vegetables: Here, Just Taste This

By Kathleen Ferris

Remember those great vegetables picked from the summer garden back home? Vegetable gardens were a source of pride, but it didn’t take much skill to grow a great beefsteak tomato in Pennsylvania. So, can you grow a great beefsteak tomato in your desert yard?

Well, probably not, they take too long to ripen, but there are plenty of other great tasting varieties of tomatoes that you can grow without much skill – or water. Choosing the right variety of vegetable is the first step on your way to homegrown produce. You’ll become one of those gardeners who are forever saying: “Here, just taste this.”

If you don’t want to commit a piece of your backyard, you can get started at a community garden near you, such as the Mesa Urban Garden. The Mesa Urban Garden rents 4-foot by 6-foot raised beds for a $40 set-up fee and $120 to plant all year. The downtown Mesa garden, which opened in January 2013, provides soil and compost, water, a timed irrigation system, tools, classes and plenty of experienced people to guide you from seeding to harvests. Here are some suggestions for new gardeners offered by the Mesa Urban Garden team.1 - MUG Welcome

Choose the right variety: Don’t get your heart set on a variety that grew well back home. For example, tomatoes planted in the early spring need to ripen quickly, before the southwest summer heat hits. There are great tasting arid-adapted seed varieties of just about every familiar vegetable. These seeds are developed to grow in desert soils, grow with less water, ripen within the season and even repel garden pests.  Ask experienced gardeners or your local nursery for guidance.

Raise the bed: It’s not necessary to plant in a confined raised bed, but these beds make it easier to keep grass and weeds out of your garden. Most raised beds are just 6 to 12 inches off the ground and you can create a bed with blocks, bricks, or wood. Volunteers at the Mesa Urban Garden built one of their larger garden beds high enough to be accessible to gardeners who use walkers or wheelchairs.MUG Garden Beds & Mural

Don’t fret the soil: Desert soil doesn’t need as much help as you think to produce great produce. Starting soil needs to be made up of about a quarter organic-rich soil, such as composted green waste or composted manure. After that, spread a layer of composted organic soil on top of the garden every couple weeks. That’s enough to keep the vegetables nourished. The top layer also helps to save water by maintaining moisture in the soil. There’s no need to work it into the ground.

Think small: Plants don’t mind a crowd. You can confine each vegetable plant within a square foot. This method creates an intense garden that produces a wider variety of vegetables with less work, less weeding and less water.

Timing is everything: Don’t make a move without a reliable planting calendar. The one offered by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension (pdf) tells a gardener when to plant what vegetable, either seed or transplants, and when to expect to harvest that vegetable. There also is a helpful guide at Urban Farm Low-Desert  Planting and Harvest Calendar (pdf).

Don’t fear seeds: Use seeds, not transplants, when possible. They are cheaper and tend to mature just as quickly as transplants. If you plant in rows, plant the seeds in the indentations, not on the berms. Depressions in the soil help hold water or rain for the plants. Always read the seed packet for tips.

MUG garden bedsFear the birds: When growing seedlings, it’s a good idea to cover the area with a light cloth, such as frost cloth. That allows sun and rain to reach the seeds but not the birds. Birds will eat seeds and the seedlings, so keep the plants covered for about two weeks or at least until they are about an inch high. You can use old plastic cutlery to lift the cloth above the seeds after they’ve sprouted.

Water can kill: Okra, eggplant, squashes, asparagus, herbs and hot peppers can thrive even in the middle of a desert summer. What no vegetable can survive is over watering. Drip irrigation systems work well for vegetable gardens and keep water at the roots. Don’t water every day for 15 minutes. Soak the area less often to a depth of about 6-12 inches, depending the maturity of the plants. Vegetable plants will droop a little when they need water. During the middle of the summer, never judge the need for water by the condition of your vegetable plants during the middle of the day. All of them will look stressed. Only those that look stressed early in the morning may need watering.

Offer a little shade: For summer gardening, vegetables do best if planted with some shade from the western sun. A sheet won’t work. The shade needs to be filtered to let in some sun and rain. A nearby tree or frost cloth works. Some gardeners build arbors where the vines from squashes or gourds can grow up and over, providing just enough shade for all the vegetables.

Right now, gardeners are planting winter vegetables such as kale, Swiss chard and other leafy greens. Once mature, you can take off the outer leaves and leave the center, which will continue to produce several harvests of greens. Root crops, such as beets, carrots, turnips and radishes, also do well in desert winters. If you want to grow tomatoes, sweet peppers, beans or herbs all year, remember they are frost sensitive and must be covered.

Here’s the best advice from the Mesa Urban Garden team: Just plant some seeds. That first crop of broccoli or peas will spoil you for anything but homegrown vegetables. Soon you’ll be sharing produce with neighbors, family and friends. “Here,” you’ll tell them, “just taste this.”

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

CAP: Tracking The Flow Of Colorado River Water To Your City

By Kathleen Ferris

In 1973, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation broke ground at Lake Havasu for an engineering wonder that would carry an average of 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water each year across Arizona to Phoenix and on to Tucson. One acre-foot of water is enough to serve three average Arizona households for a year.

Water finally flowed to Tucson in 1992 and the following year the federal government handed over operations of the completed canal to the state. It is commonly known as Central Arizona Project or CAP. CAP remains a vague notion to many city dwellers and is prone to misconceptions. Below are some questions we hear often and the answers that will make you look like an expert.

Question: I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen the Central Arizona Project. What does it look like?

Answer: The CAP has 336 miles of fenced canal or aqueduct. The canal begins at Lake Havasu and runs east to Lake Pleasant. It then turns south, skirting the eastern edge of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area, runs through Pinal County and ends 14 miles south of Tucson. Most of the canal is dug into the ground. Due to the geography in certain areas, the canal is built on top of the ground with reinforced concrete and earthen walls. The 8 miles of the canal that run through the City of Tucson are underground.

Question: It isn’t all down hill from Lake Havasu to Tucson, so how does the water get where it is expected to go?

Answer: The CAP uses gravity where it can. There are 14 pumping plants, also called lift stations, used to lift the water up when necessary so it can then continue to flow by gravity over the natural terrain. Water is heavy and lifting water uphill requires a great deal of power. The first lift is the largest. It takes six 60,000-horsepower pumps to lift the water nearly 825 feet out of Lake Havasu into the CAP canal. The average lift of other pumping plants is 150 feet.

Question: Wow, where does all that power come from?

Answer: More than 90 percent of the power to lift Colorado River water through Arizona comes from the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant near Page. CAP will end its partnership in the Navajo Generating Station in 2044 and is looking for an alternative power source. 

Question: So my city uses CAP water. Who else uses it?

Answer: The CAP carries and delivers water to cities, industries, agricultural irrigation districts, and Native American communities that have contracts for that water.  The Central Arizona Project also stores water underground for future use. This year, the Central Arizona Project marked the 30th anniversary of its first water delivery. It was to the Harquahala Valley Irrigation District about 136 miles southeast of Lake Havasu.

Question: You’re talking about a lot of infrastructure. Has it ever failed? 

Answer: Yes, once. In 2012, there was a blowout in a remote western section of a canal wall that was above ground. Since that time, each of the walled sections of the canal is examined regularly and reinforced where necessary.

Question: Wow. I never knew that happened. Why didn’t my faucet dry up?

Answer: Well, for two reasons.

1.     Lake Pleasant serves as the Central Arizona Project’s reservoir for Colorado River water. CAP water stored in Lake Pleasant kept Colorado River water flowing to every CAP customer. The CAP fills the lake in the winter, when demand is low, and releases water from the lake in the summer, when demand is highest.

2.     Colorado River water is only a portion of your city’s water portfolio. Most AMWUA member cities also receive water from the Salt and Verde rivers through the Salt River Project canals that crisscross the Valley. Your city also uses treated wastewater and a small amount of groundwater.

Question: How do you keep an eye on a system that stretches across a state?

Photo by Philip A. Fortnam

Photo by Philip A. Fortnam

Answer: Employees watch over the CAP system from its north Phoenix control room 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The control room has what looks like an electronic map the size of an entire wall. Employees, sitting behind computers, monitor where and how much water is being pumped to customers at any time of day. Half of the CAP’s 450 employees work at its Phoenix headquarters and half work on the canal and at pumping plants.

Question: This sounds like a big, expensive project. Did Arizona taxpayers foot the bill? 

Answer: The system cost the federal government about $4 billion to build. According to an agreement signed with the federal government, the Central Arizona Project is responsible for paying back $1.65 billon over 50 years. The CAP has repaid $1.16 billion of which $462 million is principal of the loan. 

Question: CAP water travels through a lot of arid country. Couldn’t we save a lot of water from evaporating if we covered the canal?

Answer: The canals lose about 1 percent of the system’s flow, or 16,000 acre-feet a year, to evaporation because the water is cold and moves constantly and quickly. The cost of covering the canal exceeds the gain. According to the CAP, the idea of covering the canals with solar panels has hit two main snags: the panels block maintenance work and there is not yet infrastructure in its remote locations to capture solar-generated electricity.

Question: This project is pretty important. I have more questions.

Answer:  You’ll find the answers on the Central Arizona Project website.

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

Changing Landscape: Phoenix Grows Into Distinctively Desert City

By Kathleen Ferris

Arizona desert cities have a distinctive style. There are few other cities where you’ll find mesquite and palo verde trees in parks, giant blue agaves and golden barrel cactus in yards, creosote and brittle bushes in medians, giant saguaros and ocotillos along the freeways. Being young cities, it took us a while to grow up and express ourselves.

Like other teenagers, there was a time when we wanted to look like everyone else. We planted Mediterranean olives and sumacs, California palms and citrus trees, and Midwest lawns and pine trees. And, like any adolescent, we didn’t smarten up overnight. It was an evolution, and sometimes a struggle, but we finally found ourselves.

Consider these City of Phoenix figures about residential landscapes. Using water consumption and other data, the city estimates that during the 1980s from 70 to 90 percent of Phoenix homes had turf landscapes. Today, that number has dropped to 10 percent.trees

Thirty-five years ago the old rules still applied. Deciduous trees were not for public spaces because winter visitors came to the Phoenix Metropolitan Area to see green. Palo Verde and mesquite trees looked “too hot” for visitors. Some native plants, for goodness sakes, had thorns. Neighborhood parks were to be flat, grassy, trimmed, raked and filled with evergreen trees, such as pines and sumac. Homeowners mimicked what they saw when designing their yards. Within cities, the desert was confined to preserves and botanical gardens.

It’s clear now that the 1980s marked the beginning of the end for this kind of thinking in the Valley. There was no defining moment, just a gathering of forces that led to a new perspective.

  • New Breed: By the mid-1970s a new breed of architects and designers began to emerge. These young professionals considered how well projects matched their natural environments. The Southwest also was experiencing a severe drought, which helped their cause. In the desert cities, these young designers pushed the old guard’s rules for public spaces, struggling to get permission for colorful and attention grabbing desert landscape “demonstration projects.”  Desert flora very slowly began appearing in city parks, around city buildings and within street medians and freeways.sm_o_basilaris_1_med These public projects, in particular the freeways, created large-scale demand for desert nursery stock. It also gave drought tolerant and native trees and plants exposure and the opportunity to sell their beauty to commuters. People began to call the cities asking for the names of trees and plants they saw along the roadways. Then they visited their local nurseries and asked for them.
  • Style: This new breed of landscape architects and designers also started to attract high-end residential customers with large homes. These customers, some local celebrities, were often sm_c_boissieri_1_medfrom other states and enjoyed the dramatic look of the desert. They sought out designers who could bring that colorful drama to their yards. Private desert gardens began to show up in newspapers and magazines and win prestigious landscaping awards. Premium lots now backed onto desert washes, as well as golf courses. More homeowners began asking their local nurseries for the plants they saw in these outstanding landscapes.
  • Policy: Beginning with the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act, new regulations and policies reduced the amount of turf permitted in places such as parks, streetscapes and HOAs. Even golf courses and model homes were required to limit turf.

sm_p_macrocarpus_1_medCities established water and desert conservation programs. Newly hired water conservation experts actively promoted the desert aesthetic. They spread the word about its beauty, its ability to attract hummingbirds and butterflies, its practicality, its water and money-saving advantages. Some cities began to offer rebates to replace turf with desert landscaping and some developed demonstration gardens to inspire homeowners. Through AMWUA, member cities shared expertise and resources, launching programs and publications to help their customers select, install and maintain desert trees and plants.

sm_a_parryi_1_medAMWUA teamed with the Arizona Nursery Association and the Arizona Landscape Contractors Association to develop and provide marketing materials and training to the industry.  The industry, in turn, educated its customers about the increasingly diverse palette of desert-adapted plants available to them.

Eventually, what was once a novelty has become the norm – with room to improve.

  • Designers and conservation professionals disparage too much gravel and encourage more trees and adequate plant cover.
  • Untrained homeowners and landscapers can damage the potential of a desert landscape. For example, keeping desert shrubs sheared into geometric shapes results in ugly bare spots, stops them from flowering, and increases the plant’s water needs. It can eventually kill them.
  • And drought-tolerant landscapes don’t always save as much water as they should save when a gardener isn’t maintaining the irrigation system or monitoring irrigation times.

We have work to do, but we’ve opened our hearts and yards to the desert. That makes us distinctive and far more water-wise. We’re growing up.

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

So, What, Exactly, Is An AMWUA?

By Kathleen Ferris

AMWUA started its weekly blog posts in March 2014. This is our 83rd message to a growing audience. The AMWUA Blog is designed to explain where the Valley’s water comes from, how cities deliver, measure, and conserve it, and how homeowners and businesses can help. Here’s something we’ve never written about: What is an AMWUA?

It’s the acronym for our full name – Arizona Municipal Water Users Association. Yes, it’s a mouthful, but no one was thinking about branding when we were established 46 years ago. That’s why we use the shortcut AMWUA (pronounce am-wha).

Plant lovers, nursery owners and landscapers know us best because we’ve been publishing planting guides and championing desert landscaping since 1982. Our landscape pages remain our most popular website destinations.

While we have led in conservation information, it’s only part of our leadership history. AMWUA was incorporated in 1969 by the cities of Phoenix, Mesa and Scottsdale. Glendale and Tempe joined soon after that. The cities understood they had to work together to secure and manage water for their growing populations. AMWUA was designed to foster and advance that regional cooperation.

Here are five things you may not know about AMWUA.

1.     We are a non-profit organization, but not the kind that seeks donations and volunteers. Our budget consists of dues paid by Phoenix and nine other Valley cities.

2.     We’re a small group. We have eight full-time employees.

3.     Our governing board is made up of a mayor or city council member from each of our 10 member municipalities: Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, Glendale, Tempe, Chandler, Peoria, Gilbert, Avondale and Goodyear.

4.     We conduct monthly meetings with management, water resources advisors, and water conservation experts from our 10 member cities to discuss issues, share ideas and solve problems.

5.     In 1969 our member cities served the water needs of 800,000 customers. Today that number has grown to over 3.2 million.

Here are five things AMWUA accomplished to make the Valley a better place to live.

1.     Our then Executive Director was one of the negotiators of the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act. The award-winning law protects and conserves groundwater supplies in the state’s most populated areas, including the Phoenix metropolitan area.

2.     We helped our member cities negotiate contracts that bring water to the cities from the Colorado, Salt and Verde Rivers. This helps cities to save groundwater for the future and avert a drought crisis such as the one in California.

3.     AMWUA negotiated the agreement between Arizona Public Service and our five original member cities to send treated wastewater from their jointly-owned treatment plant to the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Palo Verde remains the largest producer of electricity in the country and the only nuclear power plant cooled by wastewater.

4.     In response to the Arizona Groundwater Management Act and to reduce groundwater pumping, AMWUA established a regional water conservation program in 1982. Through this collaborative effort, the cities have shared expertise and resources, launching programs and materials to help their customers reduce water use.  There is no other regional effort quite like it in the country.

5.     AMWUA pushed for laws to allow water users to store water underground for the future and to establish the Arizona Water Banking Authority.  The Banking Authority stores Colorado River water underground for use in times of future shortages.

This week The Value of Water Coalition, a partnership of private and public water agencies and business and community leaders, is sponsoring a three-day public awareness campaign asking you to “Imagine a Day without Water.” Imagining such a day is what has been getting water professionals in AMWUA member cities up and working each morning for decades. Here are five things AMWUA is working on right now.

1.     Restore the Arizona Department of Water Resources: In 2008, the Department’s budget was $22 million. By 2014, it had been cut to $12 million. Without sustainable water supplies, our economic growth will come to a screeching halt. The Department of Water Resources is the state agency charged with helping to ensure that catastrophe does not happen.

2.     Moving Forward Study: I co-chair a 30-member workgroup established by the Bureau of Reclamation to investigate how ten large metropolitan areas in seven states that use Colorado River water can help prevent significant shortfalls in coming decades. The workgroup published a report of its recommendations in May 2015.

3.     Save the Desert: AMWUA helped to stop a bill introduced in the Arizona Legislature earlier this year that would have stripped cities of their power to require developers to save saguaros and some native trees and to require drought tolerant landscaping. While this is hard to imagine, particularly after 15 years of drought, the bill is expected to reappear next year.

4.     Recovery of Water Stored by the Arizona Water Banking Authority: The Banking Authority has stored 3.4 million acre-feet of water underground for use by cities and industries in times of shortages of Colorado River water.  A plan still is being developed to pump that water back out and deliver the water to those who have rights to use it.

5.    Water First, Then Development: Arizona law requires a developer to prove that a 100-year assured water supply is available before building. In 1993, the Arizona legislature created an exception that allows houses to be built on raw desert land and their owners to use groundwater on the expectation that the government will purchase water supplies later to replenish the groundwater that is pumped. The 1993 loophole is now the major vehicle for residential growth. Ultimately, homebuyers will foot the bill. It’s a loophole we are working to close.

I know. Water is only sexy to those who fight to secure it, manage it and conserve it in the desert everyday. But now you know a little more about us. We’re a non-profit that doesn’t ask for money or volunteers. We just need your attention.

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