Common Sense: Tax-Free Water Conservation Rebates

By Warren Tenney

Many Southwest cities help their utility customers pay for long-term water-saving changes they make to their homes and yards. These changes can include buying a more water-efficient toilet or replacing grass with low-water-use landscaping. Water conservation rebate programs are popular and growing, not just in Arizona and the arid Southwest but across the country. As water supplies are affected by drought, climate change and other factors, cities will continue to encourage customers to use water more efficiently. For many, rebate programs will play an important role.

Here’s the problem: The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) taxes water conservation rebate checks of $600 or more as miscellaneous income. As the number and size of these rebates have increased, the number of homeowners receiving an IRS Form 1099 reporting “income” of $600 or more also has grown.

Cities and utilities eager to reduce water use are concerned that continuing to tax such rebates will discourage their customers from using them and limit an important conservation tool. Water conservation rebates are not income. They simply defray upfront costs in order to spur investment in efficient water use, reduce water demand, and encourage onsite use of graywater and stormwater runoff. There is precedent for exempting water conservation rebates. The U.S. Congress exempted energy conservation rebates from federal income tax in 1992. Cities, utilities and conservation groups are coming together to ask Congress for an amendment to the tax code to give water rebates the same status as energy rebates or “tax parity.”

AMWUA has joined a national effort to ensure that federal tax code is not a disincentive to use water wisely. This month, the AMWUA Board of Directors passed a resolution supporting the exemption of water conservation rebates from taxes and sent it to Arizona’s congressional delegation. Other state and national organizations and utilities actively calling for the exemptions include the Northern Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, Texas Water Foundation, Western Urban Water Coalition, and the Alliance for Water Efficiency, which has championed the cause for several years.

The idea of exempting water conservation rebates is popular in Washington, D.C. The Treasury Department calls it a “desired amendment” in its budget request. The Congressional Joint Tax Committee determined the impact on the federal budget would be negligible. Here’s the hang-up: In January the IRS and the Treasury Department concluded it would take an act of Congress to exempt the water conservation rebates. U.S. Representatives Jared Huffman and Dana Rohrabacher of California introduced legislation in February that is still awaiting action. California’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein and six other U.S. Senators have requested the Treasury Department to put in place a moratorium on taxing water conservation rebates.

Arizona cities have encouraged residents to save water by offering water conservation rebates for decades. In 1986, the City of Glendale was the first city in the country to offer a low-flow toilet rebate program. Today, four AMWUA cities help customers pay for efficient toilets and showerheads. Six offer rebates to assist residents in converting to low-water-use landscaping. Five cities help customers pay to install smart irrigation controllers that fine-tune outdoor water use according to weather and soil moisture. The City of Tempe helps customers pay to harvest laundry water or “graywater” and use it to irrigate their yards.

Some cities find it easier to reimburse customers for their water conservation expenses by deducting the cost from their water bills. These deductions are not taxable.  Other cities with different finance operations cut their customers a check. For example, four of 10 AMWUA member cities provide rebate checks to their customers, as does the City of Tucson for higher cost rebate projects. Whether reimbursed or issued a check, the AMWUA cities agree it is important to remove any impediment to water conservation, including the federal tax code.

Want to help? A short email or Tweet to your Congressional Representative will help build momentum, assist utilities to entice more customers to save, and may even help you pay for a new, more efficient appliance or landscape without an additional tax burden.

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


Protect Lake Mead Now To Avoid Future Water Crisis

By Warren Tenney

Lake Mead has dropped to a historic low with a Colorado River shortage declaration looming as soon as the next couple of years. Arizona’s water managers have planned and prepared for a Colorado River shortage for decades. What worries them are projections showing that after a shortage is declared the levels in Lake Mead could swiftly fall and jeopardize the overall health of the Colorado River. To avoid that scenario, Arizona is actively working to implement measures to shore up Lake Mead and negotiate with its neighbors and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Last week, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) and the Central Arizona Project (CAP) held a joint briefing to highlight Arizona’s actions to prepare for a shortage and push back a water crisis for Arizona. 

Arizona depends on the Colorado River for about 40 percent of its water supply. The 336-mile Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal transports the water across the state to farms and cities in Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties. A 16-year drought on the Colorado River is exacerbating the fact that the Colorado River is already over allocated among the seven Basin States.

Photo: Central Arizona Project

Arizona knew this day was coming and prepared for shortages. For example, AMWUA member cities are not solely dependent on Colorado River water. Their supplies also include water from the Salt and Verde rivers, recycled water, water stored underground, and groundwater. The state has stored an additional 3.4 million acre-feet of water underground, or about two years worth of water delivered through the Central Arizona Project canal.

Lake Mead sits behind Hoover Dam and is the largest reservoir in the United States. It holds the Colorado River water that is delivered to Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico.  A shortage is declared when Lake Mead reaches an elevation of 1,075 feet per a 2007 agreement among the seven Colorado River Basin states. (The Basin states are Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.) The lake is currently hovering near the 1,075-feet level.  Under the laws that govern the Colorado River, the Central Arizona Project in Arizona takes the first cut in a shortage. While Nevada also would be impacted by a shortage, California can continue to take its full water allocation.

The concern for Arizona, California and Nevada is that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s modeling of the Colorado River shows Lake Mead has a one in ten chance of dropping even lower – to 1,025 feet – by 2020 and a 25 percent chance of reaching that point in 2023.  At 1,025 feet, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior can step in and take additional action to protect Lake Mead, including re-prioritizing deliveries among the Lower Basin states. This uncertainty could mean larger cuts for Arizona.  It also would mean that California could have to take an unknown cut. 

Growing risk and uncertainty have caused Arizona’s water managers to roll up their sleeves.  Arizona has been negotiating with California, Nevada and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to propose a plan that avoids the uncertainty of allowing Lake Mead to fall below 1,025 feet.  Under the proposed deal, Arizona and Nevada would voluntarily leave more water in Lake Mead. One of the most significant terms of the proposed deal is that California has agreed to take voluntary cuts should Lake Mead reach 1,045 feet. That avoids the unpredictability of the Secretary of Interior’s actions toward California should Lake Mead fall to 1,025 feet.

water sources

Chart: Arizona Department of Water Resources

Taking an earlier voluntary reduction would be a preventive measure to protect the health of the River for Arizona’s future. The action would slow the lake’s fall and improve the odds of keeping it above the 1,025-foot level. Farms and cities would have greater certainty about their Colorado River supply. More importantly, it would avoid a sudden, unmanageable water crisis with a solution dictated by the federal government.

Arizona hasn’t agreed to anything yet and we don’t know how these voluntary cuts would affect Maricopa County’s cities. This summer the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) is conferring with various water supply managers, including cities, farmers and Indian communities, to put together an agreement to implement and absorb the voluntary cuts among all sectors. The goal is to reach a consensus and develop a state plan. It is an opportunity for Arizona to expand its history of sound water management through collaboration for the overall good of the state. 

It is important to note Arizona already has been making significant strides in keeping water in Lake Mead.  These efforts have helped to push back a shortage declaration.  The Central Arizona Project—along with support from agriculture and municipalities—has engaged in voluntary efforts to preserve water in Lake Mead. These combined efforts have stalled a shortage declaration by raising the lake’s water level by 5.5 feet.

Colorado River and Lake Mead are at a tipping point, but Arizona’s water managers are both optimistic and realistic about what’s ahead. Whether the plan moves forward or another one is developed, Arizona is actively addressing the problems and figuring out solutions to avoid the risk of a future water crisis.

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

10 Questions To Ask Before Using Laundry Water In Your Yard

By Warren Tenney

People like the idea of reusing laundry water to irrigate their yards. It’s called a laundry-to-landscape graywater system. Installing a graywater system is part of a growing movement of homeowners eager to reduce their use of potable (drinking) water.

Water draining from your clothes washer, as well as from tubs, showers and bathroom sinks, is called “gray water.” This is not to be confused with “black water,” which drains from toilets, dishwashers and kitchen sinks and carries a risk of viruses, bacteria and pathogens.

There are a number of reasons to install a graywater system. Phoenix Metropolitan area households may use up to 70 percent of their potable water outdoors and a graywater system can help to reduce that volume. Using graywater can save money on your water bill and save your city the energy it takes to remove and treat your water and wastewater. It also can be a mistake unless you do your research. Here are 10 questions to consider before cutting that hole in your laundry room wall. 

Photo: Arizona Department of Environmental Quality

  1. How much water does your landscape need? First, understand how much water your grass, plants and trees really need to thrive. Second, stop and learn how to manage your irrigation controller. Third, find and fix leaks in your irrigation system. These steps are so effective at saving outdoor water many cities offer free workshops to help you with each one.
  2. How much graywater will your laundry produce? Every load of laundry creates from 10 gallons of graywater from a small front loader to 50 gallons from older top loaders. Consider how many loads you do a week and if you can use all that water efficiently. Graywater should only be stored if the tank has a tight cover to restrict access and prevent a habitat for mosquitos and other pests.
  3. Do you want to grow food with graywater? When it comes to growing food, graywater is suitable only for citrus and nut trees. It should not be used to grow vegetables, fruits and herbs that could come in contact with the water.
  4. What do you wash? It is unhealthy to use graywater in your yard when you wash diapers, oily rags or clothes stained with chemicals, such as antifreeze or clothes of someone who has an infectious disease.
  5.  Where are you going to use the graywater? Keep graywater a minimum of four feet away from the exterior walls of your home. It can stain and crack the foundation if you drain it close to your home.
  6. Are you ready to change detergents? It’s important to know what is in your detergent before pouring laundry water onto your plants and into the ground. The University of Arizona and Tucson Water has a guide to detergents (pdf) for graywater systems.
  7. Will graywater attract your children or pets? It’s not healthy to allow children or dogs to play in graywater.
  8. Are you ready to ditch your water softener? Water softeners add salt to your water. Desert soils are already salty and that much salt can build up in the soil and kill even sturdy plants.
  9. How well do you know your plumbing? A laundry-to-landscape system is more complicated than a simple DIY project. It’s also only practical if your laundry facility is next to an exterior wall. Unless you know plumbing, experts recommend you call in a professional to help set up even a simple graywater system. The City of Tempe offers a rebate to residents to help pay for the cost of components needed to install a graywater system. 
  10. Do you know where your graywater goes now? AMWUA member cities recycle all of the wastewater they collect, putting nearly 100 percent to beneficial use.  That wastewater is highly treated and reused to cool the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, restore groundwater, store underground for future use, and to irrigate large grassy areas, such as schoolyards, parks and golf courses. Check with your city. It’s likely the water you send to the sewer is put to good use.

The Water Conservation Alliance of Southern Arizona (Water CASA) has a helpful publication about residential graywater use guidelines. The Watershed Management Group has more information about graywater systems in its resource library.

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

AZ Water Association: The People Who Bring You Water

By Warren Tenney

By 1928 Arizona’s farmers, miners, loggers and ranch hands were migrating into the urban areas of the state. The state’s largest cities also began attracting tourists and new residents. This influx of people brought with it a need for reliable, safe and affordable water. To meet the demand, cities and other water utility operators found it necessary to share information about technology, infrastructure, financing and employee training. In 1928, water professionals founded the AZ Water Association to help build water and wastewater systems ready for growth.

Today the AZ Water Association has 2,200 members. Members include operators, engineers, scientists, technicians and managers from public and private water utilities. Members come from small community utilities with as few as two employees and big-city systems with hundreds, such as the AMWUA cities. Members include engineering firms that contract with utilities, companies that sell them pipe, valves, gauges and meters, and construction companies that build infrastructure.  Regulatory agents and university researchers and students also belong to the group.

Here’s why the AZ Water Association is important to you.

AZ Water 1Training: Safe and reliable water depends on professionals with a wide variety of skills to operate and maintain water distribution and wastewater collection systems. In an emergency or disaster, these workers are part of the community’s first responders to ensure we have the water we need. The AZ Water Association works with state agencies to help train, motivate and mentor these employees so they continue to meet certification standards. Operators, lab specialists and utility technicians in the field who are up to date about treatment techniques, regulations and standards can better serve their customers to ensure high quality water is always at your faucet.

Inspiration: The Association also helps to cultivate new generations of water professionals – from plant operators and utility workers to engineers and scientists – ready to take charge of Arizona’s water needs. For example, for nearly 50 years the Association has provided up to $15,000 worth of scholarships annually to community college and university students planning careers in water.

Advocacy: The AZ Water Association helps elected officials understand why it’s important to dedicate time and money to train water employees and maintain infrastructure. The Association also helps customers understand where their water comes from and the value of water in the arid Southwest.

Collaboration: On Wednesday the AZ Water Association kicks off its 89th AZ Water Annual Conference & Exhibition. This three-day conference in the City of Glendale includes training, panel discussions, awards for outstanding water and wastewater projects, and a career fair.

AZ Water-AWWA-WEF logo

A highlight of this year’s conference is a screening of the documentary “Groundwater: To Enact a Law for the Common Good.” The film follows the conflict among farms, cities, and mines that, eventually, led to the passage of the groundbreaking 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act. Creators Kathleen Ferris, AMWUA’s legal advisor and policy analyst, and film writer, producer and author Michael Schiffer will discuss the film after the showing. Other panel discussion topics include desalination and the 107th Arizona Town Hall report on water.

Here’s the best part of this story about the people who bring you water: Busy water professionals around the state do the bulk of the organization’s work by sitting on the Association’s boards and committees. They are committed to AZ Water Association’s mission because they understand that safe, reliable and affordable water is the lifeblood of Arizona.

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

Shoring Up Tempe Town Lake With A New Dam

By Warren Tenney

The City of Tempe is finishing the largest public works project in its history. Tempe Town Lake has a new $47 million steel dam 900 feet long and, in some places, sunk 80 feet into bedrock. The new dam is the nation’s largest hydraulically operated steel gate dam system and is designed to last more than 50 years.

Tempe Town Lake is a manmade lake carved out of the Salt Riverbed.  It is a 17- year-old flood control project turned into a recreational amenity and a draw for commercial and residential development. The lake now attracts 2.4 million visitors a year and hosts 45 annual events. The city estimates its economic impact at $1.5 billion. With its new dam, Tempe Town Lake is guaranteed to be a landmark in Tempe for decades.

The new Tempe Town Lake dam has eight steel gates that are 17 feet high and 106 feet wide. Each gate weighs about 260,000 pounds or 130 tons. Two hydraulic pistons raise and lower each of the gates in and out of slots in the foundation. These pistons are set to automatically adjust to water levels within the lake.

Tempe Dam 1

Like any public works project, the new dam had its challenges. The groundwater is close to the surface in the Salt River bed. Twenty dewatering wells had to be built to remove water from the foundation site, move it to a pond and, eventually, feed it to the riparian habitat on the west side of Tempe Town Lake. A record rain in 2014 dumped 5.6 inches on some parts of Tempe and runoff from the storm wiped out the initial excavation work for the dam’s foundation. Granite was closer to the surface than expected at two points in the dam site making building the foundation more time consuming than expected.

The original inflatable rubber dam was installed in 1999 and it had to be replaced. Tempe considered several proposals to remove the old rubber dam, including using divers. Draining the lake was the least dangerous and most cost-effective option. The city drained Tempe Town Lake in February. As much water as possible was pumped into the Salt River Project canal system and put to use. The rest was sent downstream to benefit riparian areas.

Tempe began refilling the lake on April 12. It takes two weeks to restore water to the lake. Tempe Dam 3The new dam is set back about 100 feet from the old inflatable rubber dam, making Tempe Town Lake just a little bigger. The lake is from 5 feet to 18 feet deep and mostly filled with water from the Upper Salt River and Colorado River. The lake also captures water from storm drains and rainwater runoff that rushes through Indian Bend Wash. 

Thousands of fish rescued from the lake and temporarily held at the Marina were the first to return to their habitat. Water activities for everyone else resumed this weekend. The City of Tempe is planning a dedication of the new dam at 9 a.m. on Saturday, May 14 at Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway. Construction, engineering and water experts will give informational talks about how Tempe Town Lake works.

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