The Art and Efficiency of Fountains in the Desert

By Warren Tenney

Water is life and nowhere is that more apparent than in the desert. Fountains and pools of water were built into ancient cities, including desert cities, for both practical and aesthetic reasons. They provided access to water for human needs, to support livestock, to grow food crops and gardens. Water features also cool the air creating microclimates and mitigating noise. They allow city dwellers to experience the relaxing charm of moving water that make fountains natural gathering places. They connect people to a precious, shared resource that is often not top of mind in our modern world.

Our desert cities work to strike a balance between the beauty and practicality of fountains. The City of Scottsdale continually weighs people’s attraction to fountains against the need to conserve water and control the cost of energy and maintenance that fountains demand. The city has 21 decorative fountains, down from the 32 the city maintained before 2008. Scottsdale has removed eight and shut off the water to three. Scottsdale has saved an estimated 830,000 gallons of water a year by initiating these changes to its fountains.

Here are some of the ways Scottsdale has been able to maintain its most enjoyed water features.


  • In 1999, the City of Scottsdale began installing small water meters on every fountain. The meters allow the city to monitor water use, immediately find leaks and determine overflow. This sub-metering also helps the city to estimate how much water a proposed fountain would demand before approving it.
  • Nearly 100,000 people gather annually near the fountains and lagoon in front Scottsdale’s Civic Center Mall to enjoy festivals and concerts. The Mall’s 7-foot deep lagoon was an enthralling water feature with fish and swans, but it used a great deal of water and was difficult to maintain.  In 2008, the city raised the lagoon to a depth of 3.5 feet, reducing the volume of water it held by 550,000 gallons, and added a filtration and automated treatment system to the water feature to reduce maintenance.
  • Every fountain in Scottsdale now has a filter and automated treatment system, similar to systems used in commercial swimming pools. An employee regularly skims and cleans the fountains using portable and automatic vacuums, reducing the number of times the filter needs to be backwashed and saving water. In the past, backwashing happened every week, but now the city backwashes fountain filters only when needed. The added benefit: A partially dirty filter traps smaller suspended particles creating clearer water for the fountain. The employee who cleans the fountains uses brooms and leaf blowers to clean around the fountains instead of a hose.
  • Fountains that once flowed 24 hours a day now flow only when buildings and plazas are open and people can enjoy them. This saves water used, water lost to evaporation and electricity. (This also has eliminated the joy some people took in filling the fountains with soap in the middle of the night and creating a bubbling mess to clean up the next day.)
  • An art installation called Horseshoe Falls Fountain on the corner of Marshall Way and Indian School Road creates fog as its water flows. During the first month of its installation this popular piece of public art used 50,000 gallons of water. The city curtailed the fog to two minutes at the top of peak hours and added a button that allows people to view the enticing fog for 30 seconds. These changes reduced the fountain’s water consumption to 1,500 gallons a month.20161109-scottsdale-water-feature-volcano-2

The technology that created both simple and spectacular fountains around the world freed people from the need to live close to natural rivers, lakes or streams. Fountains helped to create cities. Now cities are working to keep water as part of their art and architecture while making fountains as water-efficient as possible.

If you have a fountain or water feature in your yard, you can get help to make sure it’s operating efficiently by calling your city’s conservation professional.

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

Salt and Verde: Protecting The Valley’s Water Supply

By Warren Tenney

The Salt and Verde rivers are two of the hardest working rivers in the United States.Traveling through Arizona’s northern high country and onto the desert plains, the Salt and Verde provide more than half of the AMWUA cities’ water supply. On November 15th, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and Clarkdale Mayor Doug Van Gausig convened a meeting of mayors, councilmembers, city staffs and business leaders from Central and Northern Arizona to discuss how to keep the Salt and Verde healthy for the benefit of all their communities. This is another example of collaborative efforts to protect the rivers from the threats of fire and drought.


Thanks to the foresight of Valley landowners that formed the Salt River Project (SRP), the Salt and Verde rivers flow into SRP’s system of man-made lakes and reservoirs.  Water from the Salt and Verde is then distributed to homes and businesses in the Phoenix Metro area through canals operated by SRP.


Communities, businesses and environmental groups recognize that the forests, tributaries and groundwater that feed the Salt and Verde rivers are in the midst of a 20-year drought and water flowing in the two rivers has decreased by 35 percent. In the last 15 years, raging wildfires also have burned nearly 2 million acres of northern Arizona’s forests, where waters that keep the rivers flowing originate. These catastrophic wildfires cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in fire suppression and economic development. Wildfires also leave behind a thick layer of sterile soil that washes into the Salt and Verde rivers and settles into reservoirs. The sediment makes the water delivered by SRP more difficult and expensive for cities to treat for drinking water.

Prescribed burn in Coconino National Forest

The first collaborative effort to address the stresses placed on the Salt and Verde rivers is the Northern Arizona Forest Fund.  Several AMWUA cities are contributing to the Forest Fund, which was spearheaded by SRP. The money is spent on forest thinning projects to protect the watershed.

Now the environmental group The Nature Conservancy has joined the effort to keep more water in the Salt and Verde rivers and ensure the quality and quantity of the Phoenix Metro area’s water supply. The Salt and Verde Rivers Water Fund aims to raise $7 million in the next three years to fund projects that protect these rivers for the communities in the Verde Valley and in the Phoenix Valley.  These projects include helping farmers along the rivers change to less water-intensive crops and to pay for automatic gates to make aging irrigation systems more efficient. The gates allow farmers to electronically control irrigation gates so just the right amount of water flows into irrigation channels to ensure crops thrive. Other projects under the Salt and Verde Rivers Water Fund could include thinning the forests to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires and protect the watershed.

Like any successful water management plan the new Water Fund relies on collaboration. At the meeting on November 15th, leaders from both the Valley and Northern Arizona discussed the state of the Salt and Verde, as well as how the Salt and Verde Rivers Water Fund could benefit users in both regions of the state. The meeting produced three key takeaways:

  • Your elected officials and cites are deeply engaged in water issues. This includes working with other leaders throughout the state to find innovate water solutions to our water challenges.
  • Initiatives such as the Water Fund show that unlike many of the battles of the past for precious water supplies, both urban and rural communities can find ways to come together to work on improving water security for all.
  • Although the Nature Conservancy has implemented pilot projects to demonstrate the range of possibilities for the Water Fund, the initiative is still in the planning stages. Ultimately, individual cities and communities must evaluate whether the goals of the Water Fund work for their citizens, businesses and communities.

The Salt and Verde Rivers Water Fund along with the Northern Arizona Forest Fund provide new avenues for cities in the Phoenix Valley and the Verde Valley to partner with environmental groups, businesses and farmers to protect and enhance Arizona’s water supplies at the source—high in Arizona’s forests and along its precious rivers.

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

Arizona Is Big Winner Of Water Innovation Prize

By Warren Tenney

Pima County’s Southwest Water Campus is the winner of the New Arizona Prize: Water Innovation Challenge and it has a big job ahead of it. These creative water professionals intend to increase the public’s acceptance of reclaimed water – that’s highly treated wastewater – for drinking, in this particular case for drinking beer. While the winner received $250,000, the real winner is Arizona.


The projects presented by the Water Innovation Challenge winner and four finalists show Arizonans continue to find creative ways to make the most out of every drop of our water.  This innovative spirit comes from our heritage of finding ways to re-use, stretch, recycle and augment water resources in an arid land. 

The winning team from Pima County is going to create a traveling treatment plant – imagine a tractor-trailer – that will tour the State to show how today’s technology produces the highest standard drinking water from reclaimed wastewater. The project’s water pros will then challenge local brewers to craft the best beer in the State with that water. The goal is to help people become more comfortable with using reclaimed water for human consumption. Gaining public confidence in the technology through a beer tasting competition could win public acceptance for directly supplying this important resource for consumption.


This innovative proposal builds on Arizona’s previous pioneering efforts to put effluent to beneficial use.  Back in 1926, a treatment plant was built at the Grand Canyon Village for the purpose of reclaiming wastewater for non-drinking purposes.  In 1932, the City of Phoenix produced reclaimed water for agricultural uses.  Most notably, AMWUA negotiated in 1973 an agreement with Arizona Public Service (APS) to provide reclaimed water for cooling purposes at the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant, the only nuclear power plant in the world to be cooled with reclaimed water. Reclaimed water is also stored underground for later use.

One of AMWUA’s members, the City of Phoenix, was a top finalist with a proposal to create a market-based technological tool to help water managers throughout the state collaborate and develop opportunities to exchange water.  The expert-designed, data-driven tool would create the Arizona Water Exchange Program.  Options would be created in the context of current Arizona water law, drought dynamics, and Colorado River conditions.

Phoenix’s state-of-the-art proposal uses technology to build on Arizona’s history of collaboration.  From the Groundwater Management Act to creation of the Arizona Water Banking Authority, collaboration has been the key ingredient to solving water problems. Since 1969, AMWUA cities have worked together to supply safe, reliable water to their communities. 

Another finalist, Freshwater Systems Co., proposed using solar heat to treat Arizona’s abundant brackish or semi-salty groundwater to irrigate crops more efficiently and increase growth of winter crops. Treating brackish water builds on the idea of how desalination could benefit Arizona in the future. West Valley cities and others are looking at ways to treat salty water to help increase water supplies. 

Finalist WaterWorks@ASU has a plan to reclaim Arizona State University’s wastewater and use it in ASU’s cooling towers, among other applications.  The goal is to reduce the amount of drinking water used in cooling towers, which provide air conditioning in large buildings. ASU believes it would save 1.5 million gallons a day. This plan to treat and re-use wastewater on site is a big step toward making Valley buildings and campuses more water sustainable.

The last finalist, Friends of Verde River Greenway, proposed an exchange program that allows willing water users to temporarily reduce their water use and acquire “credits”. The credits can then be sold to water users who want to offset the impacts of their continued water use. The goal is to keep the Verde River flowing to benefit all those who use the Verde River including fish and wildlife, local residents and the Phoenix-area communities.  This new concept builds on the Valley cities’ long standing commitment to defend the Salt and Verde watersheds that generate water for the Phoenix area. It also builds on Salt River Project and The Nature Conservancy’s individual efforts to protect and manage our forests and watersheds.


The Water Innovation Challenge proves Arizona continues to create innovative solutions now to ensure ample water supplies for its future.

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

Desert Landscaping: Ten Tips For Winter Watering

By Warren Tenney

Here’s one of the easiest ways you can save money and water: learn how to manage your irrigation controller. AMWUA cities’ conservation professionals continue to report that many homeowners, businesses and HOAs irrigate their landscapes throughout the winter as if it were still 110 degrees outside. It’s such a waste because most desert-adapted plants can make it through the winter months with little or no water. Even rye grass can thrive with a watering only every week or two.

Water efficiency professionals at AMWUA member cities offer ten important things to know about winter watering.

1.) A “sewer fee” is part of the water bill you receive each month from your city. Most cities recalculate this sewer fee each year based on a homeowner’s average water use during winter months. You can lower next year’s monthly sewer fee by cutting back on the amount of water you use this winter.


2.) Overwatering can kill your desert-adapted plants. The roots need the soil to dry out between waterings so they can absorb nutrients from the soil. Soggy soil prevents plants from pulling in essential elements, such as nitrogen and iron, and can suffocate the roots. This leads to yellowing leaves, poor health and even death.

3.) Some shrubs and vines will grow rapidly when overwatered in early winter months, exposing tender new tissue to colder temperatures. This can make them more susceptible to frost and damage the plants.


4.) Cactus plants suffer less frost damage if they have not been watered for several months before cold temperatures set in. Cactus plants hold water in their cells. When the water freezes it expands and ruptures the cells, which can damage or kill the plants.

5.) Overwatering during the winter is more likely to produce pools of water in your lawn and around your plants that won’t evaporate as quickly as they would in summer. These puddles mixed with mild winter temperatures can breed mosquitoes. If you seem to have more of the pests around your patio and yard, check your irrigation schedule – you may want to let your yard dry out. During the winter, water also can pool near a home or building’s foundation, which can damage the foundation and invite pests, including termites.

6.) Most of your cities have water efficiency professionals with the right tools who can help business owners, apartment or facilities managers, and HOA board members determine precisely how much water a particular landscape needs to thrive. If you want to lower your water bill, give your city’s water efficiency professional a call and ask for help.


7.) It’s the time of year when your winter rye grass is established. That means your grass no longer needs the same amount of water as it did when you were germinating rye grass from seed. The sprinklers only need to come on once every seven to 10 days. You can cut back watering to once every two weeks in December and January. Established rye grass needs to be watered to a depth of 4 to 6 inches. Use a small wood stake or a screwdriver to check how deep the water has sunk into the yard.

8.) It’s not wise to assume your landscaper understands how to water desert-adapted plants and trees throughout the year without your direction. Let your landscaper know saving water is just as important as having the yard visually appealing.  You can also take matters into your hands and learn how to manage your own irrigation controller. Most controller manufacturers have how-to videos on YouTube as well as toll free help lines. Check with your city. Some offer free classes or videos about how to operate your irrigation controller.

 9.) It’s possible you are overwatering parts of your yard and don’t know it. While the weather is cool, occasionally turn on your irrigation system to find and fix leaks you may not see if you are irrigating during the night. When temperatures remain above freezing, night is the best time to water because less water evaporates.


10.) Trees should be watered deeply but far less often in winter. Native Palo Verde, mesquite and acacias only need a good soaking once a month. Other trees should only be watered once every two to four weeks.

If you need more details about watering a desert landscape you’ll find them at Water – Use It Wisely Landscape Watering Guide. It’s worth the effort because homeowners use up to 50 percent to 70 percent of their water outside. That’s why your city’s water department offers free classes, free videos, free brochures and free professional consultations to help you save water and enjoy a thriving landscape all year. Find out more at  Winter is the best time of year in the Phoenix Metro area and the best time of year to save water.

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