Beyond the Headlines: Facts about Your Drinking Water

By Warren Tenney

When media reports mix together the words “water” and “toxic” it’s no surprise the public would have concerns. Throw in a reference to an award winning film with Julia Roberts and certainly it must mean something is wrong with our water. This happened last week with stories about chromium-6. It is important to step back, make sure we have all the facts, and read beyond the headlines or sound bites. Chromium-6 is a substance found in small amounts in most American cities’ drinking water including those in the Valley.  Here’s what you need to need to know.2-2-8-nozzle

Fact 1: The municipalities in the Phoenix area consistently meet or exceed all of the safe drinking water standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Cities are required to do so under the Safe Water Drinking Act.  In fact, water utilities are among the most regulated industries in the country.  Your tap water is safe to drink.

Fact 2: The more significant but less sexy story is that Valley water utilities collectively perform millions of tests and measurements throughout the year to ensure water treatment and distribution systems are safe.  Each of the AMWUA cities has an aggressive  water quality program with dedicated staff.  These professionals fan out daily across the various water service areas to take thousands of tests for hundreds of substances using state of the art equipment and laboratories to make sure your water consistently meets the safe drinking water standard.  Each city provides an annual water quality report to its customers, which should be newsworthy in their demonstration of the reliability of our safe drinking water.  If water quality is ever an issue in your city, you will be notified.

Fact 3: Chromium-6 is one of many components EPA is analyzing for health impacts to consider regulation or limits.  Because the EPA is analyzing chromium-6, the Valley Cities have been conducting tests to determine baseline levels of chromium-6 in the Valley.  A major source for chromium-6 in drinking water is mostly a naturally occurring element found in volcanic geologic formations in the Southwest.  While chromium-6 can also be discharged from industrial activities, here in the Valley its presence is predominantly due to Mother Nature.

Fact 4: Scientific research has not reached a consensus on what level and length of exposure to chromium-6 is hazardous. EPA set the drinking water limit of 100 parts per billion for total chromium, which includes the substances chromium-6 and chromium-3. EPA is in the process of reviewing and updating that standard. California is the only state to set a required maximum level for chromium-6 in drinking water, which is at 10 parts per billion. Scientists at the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment have determined a goal of 0.02 parts per billion reduces the risk posed by chromium-6 to a 1 in 1,000,000 chance of developing cancer based on daily consumption of unfiltered groundwater over a 70 year period.  Again, this is a goal, not a requirement, for water providers in California. 

Fact 5: The source of chromium-6 in the Valley is primarily groundwater, which utilities then mix with surface water, which dilutes the levels in your tap water.  That dilution becomes even greater when you consider that most Valley cities predominantly use surface water.  For example, 98 percent of the City of Phoenix’s water supply is made up of surface water from rivers, which contains virtually no chromium-6.

Fact 6: New technology allows the detection of components in water at smaller and smaller levels than was previously possible.  While we know more about what is in our water, much more research is usually necessary to determine the actual effect it will have on us.  Another key challenge is that the technical feasibility of removing questionable constituents usually lags behind the technology to detect. 

Fact 7: The Environmental Protection Agency sets the standard for drinking water.  The Phoenix metropolitan area cities always comply with any new water standards required by the EPA.  This can and has meant making the necessary investments to meet new water quality regulations.  Water utilities cannot and should not be expected to make changes to their operations based on each new study released, especially when a scientific consensus is lacking on what is the best remedy. 

Fact 8: Your tap water goes through more testing and meets a higher standard than required for bottled water. 

Finally, here’s a personal observation. In the 1980s, I lived a total of four years in South Korea and China.  During that time, water had to be boiled to make it safe to drink.  This meant I drank a lot of tea since that indicated the water had been boiled.  Each time I returned to the United States, I considered myself so fortunate to be able to walk up to a faucet and drink right out of the tap.  I didn’t have to worry about getting water in my mouth while showering.  It is disappointing how over the last three decades we question our tap water due to isolated crises and the slick marketing of bottled water. 

Let’s keep our water in perspective.  Nothing will ever be a 100 percent safe, including breathing.  Public agencies can be questioned and should be challenged when we have concerns.  This is what brought about the Safe Drinking Water Act.  How fortunate we are to be able to question how many parts per billion a substance should be in water, when 1.8 billion people around the world don’t have access to safe water and 2.4 billion lack access to adequate sanitation.  I’m appreciative of the professional men and women working around the clock in the water industry in Arizona to make certain I have safe drinking water at such an affordable price.  I will continue to enjoy drinking water from the tap.

For 47 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.

Cities Offer Classes To Help You Reimagine Your Yard

By Warren Tenney

Monsoon storms brought temperatures down and brought more desert dwellers out to their patios. It’s the time of year when homeowners begin to reimagine their yards: a new tree here, some flowering shrubs there, perhaps a new irrigation controller or some contouring to retain more rain water. AMWUA cities understand this and are offering dozens of free landscape classes that can help you create the look you want.

A few  weeks ago, the City of Avondale presented “Fall and Winter Splashes for Desert Landscapes.” Those who attended learned how and where to plant 60 drought-tolerant trees, shrubs and vines to maximize their colorful foliage, fruit and flowers throughout the fall and winter. Here are a few of the trees and plants that were discussed. 

  • Cascalote Tree:  This hardy, moderate-growing evergreen offers yellow, lightly fragrant flowers throughout fall and winter.

    Cascalote Tree

    Cascalote Tree Photo: Kirti Mathura

  • Mexican-buckeye: This large shrub provides bright yellow foliage before it drops its leaves for the winter. (It also provides rose-pink flowers in the spring.)
  • Dalea: These bright shrubs come in several varieties that bloom purple, pink or yellow through the fall or winter.
  • Purple Prickly-pear: This low-maintenance cactus turns a dramatic deep purple during the winter.

    Purple Cactus

    Purple Prickly-pear Photo: Kirti Mathura

  • Queen’s Wreath: This fast-growing vine will keep its clusters of pink flowers deep into the fall.

There are still plenty of classes to attend. Avondale is offering free classes about landscape design, watering schedules and irrigation repair, pruning and vegetable gardening. Here is a sample of what is available in other cities in the coming months. (You’ll find a full list on the AMWUA website.) All the classes are taught by landscape experts and most require that you sign up ahead of time.

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Dalia blossom Photo: Kirti Mathura

City of Mesa: “Hydrate Your Plants” – Create a beautiful, lush landscape with rainwater harvesting.

City of Peoria: “Homeowners Guide to Lush Lawns” – Receive easy, practical advice to help you maintain a healthy, beautiful and water-efficient lawn. 

City of Phoenix: “Rain Gardens” – Learn how to design an earth-friendly yard using simple earthworks and low-water-use plants.

City of Goodyear: “Meet Your Irrigation System”  – Take charge and learn the ABCs of controllers, emitters, valves and zones.

City of Glendale: “Happy Soil=Happy Plants” – Improve your soil to improve the vigor of your plants and reduce the need for excessive watering.

City of Chandler: “Create Your Own Oasis” – Learn the concepts of design, how to plan for small spaces, the desert plant palette, plant selection and plant combinations.

Mexican buckeye

Mexican-buckeye Photo: Kirti Mathura

Town of Gilbert: “Hummingbird and Butterfly Gardens” – Explore the numerous options for a colorful and water-efficient yard that will attract nature’s pollinators. 

City of Tempe: “Drip irrigation” – Get advice from a pro to help you design, install and maintain a drip irrigation system. 

City of Scottsdale: “Managing & Reducing HOA Water Use” – Learn how much water your HOA’s landscape needs and identify opportunities to improve water efficiency.

There are three things to remember about your yard in fall. 1) It’s a great time to plant. The soil is still warm but the coldest temperatures are still months away. 2.) Stop fertilizing your plants. Fertilizing encourages new growth that is susceptible to damage by colder temperatures. 3.) Continue to water deeply but not nearly as frequently as summer. Trees and plants don’t absorb as much water in cooler months and the cooler soil retains water longer.

Get ready to open your windows to fall and open your door to winter visitors. It’s the beginning of the end of an especially long hot summer and time to get free advice from your city about maximizing the beauty of your desert landscape.

For 47 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.

Try Living A Day Without Water

By Warren Tenney

Here’s a dare: Spend a day without water. The truth is you can’t. Even if you are willing to give up showering, brushing, flushing, washing your hands, doing laundry, using your dishwasher, watering your yard, jumping into your pool, cleaning your house and car, it’s not enough. That tee shirt you just pulled on, the gas in your car, the hops for your beer take many gallons of water to produce.

The Value of Water Coalition’s “Imagine a Day Without Water” is one of the more thoughtful national water awareness campaigns. The campaign’s goal is to help people understand where their water comes from and how important it is to maintain the infrastructure that delivers clean water to businesses and homes – and takes away wastewater. The official day to imagine your life without water is Thursday, September 15, but AMWUA embraces the campaign’s goals every day.idww2016highdef2

Where does our water come from? Most of the water delivered to Valley homes and businesses is river water. Colorado River water is transported through a 360-mile canal operated by Central Arizona Project and water from the Salt and Verde rivers is stored in reservoirs and transported through canals operated by Salt River Project. The cities pump some groundwater from the aquifer. They also use highly treated wastewater – called recycled or reclaimed water – to irrigate turf and supply Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Cities’ water portfolios also include water they have stored underground for future use. These multiple sources mean you will not have to live a day without water as long as we remain vigilant in managing these sources and the infrastructure that moves the water.

How does water get to our homes and businesses? The infrastructure that transfers water from the canals to treatment plants and into homes or businesses is underground or behind walls. So is the system that removes and treats wastewater. Unlike other infrastructures, such as roads and sidewalks, residents can’t monitor the aging of treatment plants, water pipes and pumps. However, just like roads and bridges, these water and wastewater systems fall into disrepair and cost money to maintain and replace. If this infrastructure breaks down it can mean hours or longer without water delivered to homes and businesses. That’s when a day without water becomes reality and no one is left untouched, homes, schools, hospitals, power plants, aquariums, or manufacturers.

4th of July graphic

A recent article in Scientific American reported the nation suffers 240,000 water main breaks a year caused mainly by age. Estimates for upgrading the nation’s water infrastructure range from $682 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency to more than $1 trillion from the American Water Works Association.

The Phoenix Metro area is more fortunate than many older metropolitan areas. Many of our cities are younger with newer infrastructure or they are big enough and prosperous enough to fund well-functioning water departments. Water departments in most AMWUA cities are expected to pay for themselves, charging residents enough to pay for water resources plus operating and building expenses. The money you pay every month is used for two main purposes:

1. To cover increasing energy costs to transport and treat water and wastewater.

2. To build, maintain, repair and replace infrastructure to keep clean water flowing into homes and businesses and wastewater flowing out.

Without strong voices to advocate for investment in our water infrastructure, our water systems will remain out of sight and out of mind. There are places in the country, such as  Flint, Michigan, where people don’t have to imagine days without water. They have suffered through the ugly reality. The good news is city and private water utilities that invest in continual maintenance save money in the long run, protect the health of their customers, prevent disruptions in daily living, and sustain economic growth.

Community leaders, elected officials, business owners, residents and you need to advocate for continual support for our water systems. We need to plan and invest in our  water and wastewater systems today, so we may imagine a day without water, but never live through such a day.

For 47 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.

Defying Mother Nature: Creative Solutions To Avoid Shortages

By Warren Tenney

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently confirmed Arizona would not face a declared shortage of Colorado River water in 2017. This is good news but Arizona’s cities, farmers and industry leaders must continue to plan for an eventual shortage on the Colorado River, which could come as soon as 2018.

The U.S. Secretary of the Interior has the authority to declare shortages on the Colorado River. Under current agreements, this occurs when the Bureau of Reclamation projects that water levels of the Colorado River’s primary reservoir, Lake Mead, will be below an elevation of 1,075 feet in January of the following year. Lake Mead is currently right at 1,075 feet as the result of a sixteen year drought. Water levels are further exacerbated by the long-standing imbalance created from more water being taken from Lake Mead than what flows into it.

The primary reason we averted a shortage declaration in 2017 is because we did not rely solely on Mother Nature. This may sound audacious, but we avoided shortage in large part because Arizona and Central Arizona Project (CAP) led a successful effort to get CAP customers, the federal government, our neighboring Colorado River basin states, and Mexico to consider ways to slow Lake Mead’s declining water levels. The goal has been to keep water levels in Lake Mead from declining and jeopardizing the health of the Colorado River system. This is especially critical for Arizona because Central Arizona Project (CAP), the state’s main delivery system for Colorado River water, has what is called “junior priority” and must take the first cuts when a shortage is declared. This is why Valley cities are closely following what happens on the Colorado River and in Lake Mead.

CAP canal brings water to central Arizona. Photo: CAP

Here’s how Arizona has pushed back a shortage for now.  Over the last couple of years, CAP asked its agricultural and municipal customers to voluntarily leave water in Lake Mead. The target was to store 345,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead. This goal will be achieved by the end of this year. As part of this effort, the Cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Glendale and Peoria agreed not to take their full allocations of Colorado River water.  Also, 11 agricultural irrigation districts in central Arizona agreed to reduce their use of Colorado River water.  These voluntary efforts have collectively conserved water in Lake Mead and helped prevent a shortage.

Efforts to conserve and intentionally create additional water in Lake Mead should continue and be expanded to slow Lake Mead’s falling water levels.  Municipalities are willing to continue to find ways to leave more water in Lake Mead. There are rules about how much water a state can intentionally save in Lake Mead. Despite this obstacle, Arizona should continue to work with its Colorado River partners to find more ways to protect Lake Mead and strengthen the overall health of the Colorado River. This includes finding creative arrangements going forward that provide incentives for cities to leave even more water in Lake Mead.

A look inside CAP’s control room. Photo: Philip A. Fortnam

Addressing water challenges is complicated with the devil always in the details. This will certainly be the case as we seek to strengthen our preparation for a shortage declaration.  Key to that preparation will be creativity and collaboration, which were central to our efforts to hold back a shortage for another year. 

Arizona leads the nation in creatively managing its water resources.  Among all the western states, Arizona is in the best position to weather the challenges faced by municipal water utilities. That’s because Arizona’s water professionals and leaders in industry, agriculture and municipalities have a long history of working together to solve water problems. Arizona’s responsibility is to continue to collaboratively and creatively tackle our current challenge of how best to protect Lake Mead and the health of the Colorado River so we can continue to use this important water source.

For 47 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