WIFA: Little Agency Of Big Government Protects Arizona’s Water

By Kathleen Ferris

There are many Big Government programs you’ve never heard of that simply work. They don’t generate headlines, political debate or viral videos. They often have names that put people to sleep. For example, and stay with me here, the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona or WIFA.

WIFA provides low-interest loans to communities so they can deliver clean drinking water to their residents and safely treat wastewater.

Consider this example: The Colorado River provides Arizona with about 40 percent of its water. WIFA has funded $350 million worth of wastewater treatment projects along the Colorado River that stopped contaminants, such as nitrates and E. coli, from entering the river.outlet

To date, WIFA’s smallest loan has been $2,900 and its largest $61 million. WIFA loan money is available through a revolving fund. The money stays within Arizona to help Arizona’s cities and towns, private water companies and tribal communities. Here’s how it works:

  • WIFA was established in 1989 and received its first federal capitalization grant of $12.9 million in 1992 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. WIFA immediately started providing loans for Arizona wastewater projects. In 1996, it was authorized to provide loans for drinking water projects.
  • As the loans are paid back with interest, the money stays in Arizona and the amount of money WIFA has available to lend grows. It now can fund larger projects for new and repeat customers.
  • Since that first EPA grant, WIFA has used $575 million in federal money and turned it into $2.2 billion in water projects for Arizona. WIFA calls itself the perfect public-private partnership, working with the federal, state and local governments to sell bonds on the private market to the benefit of everyone.

globe hwy 70 pipe2WIFA continues to receive about $25 million from the EPA each year to help subsidize the cost of loans. WIFA can offer a 5 percent to 30 percent discount on each loan’s interest rate. Smaller and poorer communities and projects that protect the environment get the bigger discounts and, therefore, the cheaper loans. In 2014, WIFA loans averaged a 2.17 percent interest rate for public systems.

Here are a few samples of projects WIFA loans have funded:

  • City of Peoria: $14 million to help the city purchase the private New River Utility Company, improve the company’s existing infrastructure and integrate it into the city’s system. (Over the years, Peoria has used $160 million worth of WIFA loans to upgrade the city’s infrastructure.)
  • City of Prescott: $46 million to more than triple the capacity of the city’s wastewater treatment plant to keep up with demand.
  • Town of Payson: $25 million to help the town transport and treat river water and reduce its reliance on pumping groundwater.
  • Yuma County: $1.4 million to connect 722 homes with failing septic systems to the city’s sewer system.

Congress recently made it easier for WIFA to fund a wider variety of water projects, such as green infrastructure projects, storm runoff infrastructure, or thinning overgrown forests around watersheds.

So the next time you hear someone complaining about Big Government remember WIFA, the little agency with the funny name that’s been helping to protect Arizona’s water for 25 years.

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.










Sewer Fees: Helping To Recycle A Valuable Resource

By Kathleen Ferris

When you pay your water bill, a big part of the charges is something called a sewer fee. If you live in an AMWUA member city, it’s the responsibility of your city’s water department to drain wastewater out of your neighborhood as quickly as possible. Your city then treats that wastewater and puts it back to good use. Cities charge a sewer fee to pay for building, operating and maintaining this sewer collection, treatment and reuse system.


A sewer system relies mainly on gravity to carry wastewater to a treatment plant but needs occasional pumps to lift it over high points. Cities build their own sewage treatment plants or partner to build them. For example, the 91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant is owned by the five AMWUA cities of Mesa, Phoenix, Glendale, Tempe and Scottsdale and is operated by the City of Phoenix.

AMWUA’s ten member cities reuse about 95 percent of the wastewater they treat for many purposes. Treated wastewater, called reclaimed water, is used to cool the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, to irrigate crops, and to water large turf areas in HOAs or on golf courses. Some cities store reclaimed water underground for the future.

Cities calculate sewer fees in different ways. The City of Chandler has a flat single-family home sewer fee of $26.35 based on the cost of service.

Some AMWUA member cities base their sewer fees on the amount of water a customer uses during the winter months when use is lowest. These calculations are reflected in next year’s water bills. Here’s how the City of Peoria determines a homeowner’s wastewater rate.

  • The city averages how much water a residential customer uses in four months: December, January, February and March.
  • It then charges $2.09 for every 1,000 gallons used, plus a monthly base fee determined by the size of customer’s meter. For most single-family homes that fee is $8.65.
  • The city applies this rate to your bill the following July 1 and every bill through the next June. (By the way, Peoria has a utility bill estimator that can help you determine your water charges.)

    Illustration: City of Peoria, AZ

    Illustration: City of Peoria, AZ

Most cities’ websites show you how your sewer fee is calculated, and some cities allow you to request a sewer rate adjustment if your water-use was unusually high during winter months. 

So, reducing your sewer fee may be another good reason to conserve your water use.  You should reset your irrigation timers to water mature winter rye grass and not seedlings. You can also cut back on other outdoor water uses.  Many desert-adapted plants do well with no water, or very little, during the winter months. It’s not the time to fill your swimming pool, but it is time to check if it may be leaking. The Smart Home Water Guide gives you step-by-step help to find and fix leaks inside and outside your home.

There’s no time like the present to save water – and money.

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.

Master Gardener: It’s A Tough Title To Earn

By Kathleen Ferris

“Master” seems like a grand title for a gardener, doesn’t it? It’s not an easy title to earn and requires serious volunteer work. But if you love plants and are committed to finding a way to help your community overcome future water shortages, this may be your path.

There is only one place a person can earn the title: University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative Extension. Master Gardener candidates must attend 17 weekly classes and pass a cumulative final exam.

The course is based on UA’s latest research into all things green and growing in your community. That includes herb gardens and vegetable gardens, indoor plants and desert landscape plants, fruit trees and shade trees. Master Gardeners learn about basic botany and plant pathology, landscape design and irrigation, soils and composting. They learn how to prune and propagate plants and trees, how to diagnose plant damage, identify pests and use pesticides properly.MG1

Maricopa County’s Master Gardener program began in 1980. Master Gardeners immediately went to work spreading the word about the wide variety of low-water-use plants and trees available for landscapes. Master Gardener volunteers began using AMWUA’s early publication “Landscape Plants for the Arizona Desert” (now also a mobile-friendly website) to help homeowners save water and visualize a beautiful yard that included more drought-tolerant plants and trees and less grass.

In 2003, Master Gardener Press published “Earth-Friendly Desert Gardening” to help Sonoran Desert residents grow and care for their desert-adapted landscapes.

Maricopa County Cooperative Extension offers the Master Gardener course for 65 students twice a year. There are always more applicants than openings.  Just to get into the course requires an application, an interview, $275 for tuition (yes, scholarships are available), and a commitment to 20 hours of volunteer work during the course. New Master Gardeners also commit to an additional 30 hours of volunteer work during the year immediately following their classroom work.

To maintain the title, Master Gardeners attend 12 hours of continuing education a year and contribute 25 hours of volunteer work. There are about 500 certified Master Gardeners volunteering throughout Maricopa County. (There is now a program available for any person who once took the Master Gardener course and who wants to re-certify.)MG3

Ten years ago, most Master Gardeners were retirees with time to study and commit to volunteer work. Today, classes draw a more diverse crowd, including candidates in their 20s and young parents.

Maricopa County counts any work that educates the public about plants as volunteer hours. Many Master Gardeners prefer to volunteer with the Maricopa County Extension Program. These volunteers can choose from a variety of jobs.

  • Mentor candidates just entering their studies. Mentors stay with a group of new Master Gardeners for a year to help each member find an area of expertise that fits their interest and volunteer work that fits their schedule.
  •  Answer questions for people seeking guidance from the Cooperative Extension Help Desk. (The most common questions are about watering and irrigation systems and care of lawns and citrus trees.)
  • Organize Cooperative Extension events, such as garden tours and plant and tree clinics, and work the Cooperative Extension booths at garden shows and community festivals.
  • Join the speaker’s bureau and share their expertise with organizations and clubs.

You’ll also find Master Gardeners volunteering in school and community gardens, at the Desert Botanical Garden and city demonstration gardens.

Maricopa County’s next Master Gardener training begins January 12. Are you ready to claim the title?

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 amwua.org.

Drinking Water: You Have Better Things To Worry About

By Kathleen Ferris

Ever wonder about the quality of water that comes out of your faucet?

If you live in the City of Phoenix, most of your water comes from the Colorado, Salt and Verde rivers. Water is delivered to treatment plants via aqueducts, reservoirs and local canals that crisscross the city. Only about 2 percent is groundwater delivered by the city’s wells.

The water is screened, settled, filtered and disinfected before it reaches your home.

1. Screen large particles 2. Add a chemical that makes tiny particle cling and sink. 3. Filter to clean remaining particulates. 4. Disinfect and add small amount of flu ride.

1. Screen large particles 2. Add a chemical that makes tiny particle cling and sink. 3. Filter to clean remaining particulates. 4. Disinfect and add small amount of fluoride.









Phoenix water professionals conduct millions of tests and measurements on that water every year, so you can stop wondering. Here are a few samples of the testing done by the city:

  • Turbidity: Turbidity readings measure the water’s clarity. Turbidity is an indicator that the treatment process is removing tiny particles, including microorganisms. Turbidity readings from individual filters are stored every five minutes. That’s about 5 million turbidity measurements a year.
  • pH levels: The term pH is used to indicate the alkalinity or acidity of a substance. Maintaining the appropriate pH levels in the water controls corrosion of lead and copper in household plumbing. The city measures the pH of the water leaving the treatment plants and within the distribution system more than 500,000 times a year. That is an average of 1,370 each day.
  • Coliform bacteria: Coliforms are bacteria that are naturally present in the environment. They may indicate that other, potentially harmful, bacteria may be present. Phoenix collects more than 360 routine samples each month, over 4,320 per year, to monitor conditions throughout the water’s distribution system.
  • Disinfection byproducts: Water managers must keep enough disinfectants, such as chlorine, in the water to ensure it is safe, but excessive levels of disinfectants can create additional contaminates. The city tests for disinfection byproduct levels at water treatment plants and in the distribution system 17,000 times a year. That is an average of 46 times each day.

water falling into handsIn 2012, Phoenix installed $200 million worth of new technology that cleans the water beyond the drinking water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

That was a smart move because drinking water standards change. Technical advances are making it possible to detect smaller and smaller amounts of existing contaminants and new contaminants that enter the environment. Public and private water agencies are always monitoring and collecting data on unregulated contaminants, such as certain compounds in pharmaceuticals and fire fighting foams, to help EPA make informed decisions. Water agencies also must stay one step ahead of changing standards so they have the time and money to meet the standards.

So how would you know if something unsafe has made its way into your drinking water? In a small area, a Phoenix employee would visit your home to alert you. On a larger scale, the city would notify the media and post information on its website. The good news: Phoenix’s water system has built-in redundancy. That means if water in one line is questionable, the city can often shut down that line and reroute different water to your neighborhood.

Here’s a surprise: As long as the water is safe, EPA isn’t as tough about how it tastes or smells or if it is hard or soft. These are considered “aesthetics” that cannot make people sick. The EPA has a set of recommended secondary standards or guidelines for drinking water aesthetics, important to many water departments eager to make their customers happy. Phoenix works to make its tap water tasty and odor free. Algae that grow in the Valley’s canals during the summer are the source of an occasional musty odor. Phoenix works with Salt River Project, which operates the canals, to control the algae. The city’s new equipment also helps to reduce aesthetic issues.

There is something you can do to help make sure your drinking water stays safe.

  • Use water wisely: Remember the money and time that has gone into cleaning the water that comes into your home. Know the right amount of water needed to keep your landscape thriving. Use AMWUA’s mobile-friendly Smart Home Water Guide to detect water leaks inside and outside your home.
  • Maintain home water filters: Neglected filters or softening systems you have installed at home can grow bacteria and contaminate your water.
  • Protect our water: Limit the amount of pesticides and fertilizer you use in your yard or on your business’s landscaping. Take household chemicals to hazardous collection sites to keep them out of the landfill. Never dump any hazardous substances, such as pain or oil, in a storm drain. Don’t flush used medications down the toilet.

If you want to know more, the City of Phoenix’s website has detailed information and answers to frequently asked questions about the drinking water it delivers. We all have enough to worry about. The quality of your tap water shouldn’t be one of them.

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.