City Water Departments Answer Five Common Questions

By Warren Tenney

Your city’s water department does a great job using science and engineering, muscle and skill to get drinking water into your home 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The water professionals at your city can answer your questions about water quality testing, water rates and billing, the efficient use of water, free water conservation classes, water conservation rebates, and water leaks in the street. But there are things they can’t do, such as fix your plumbing or chill your water before it reaches your home. We called the people who answer the phone at city water departments and asked them to share a few of the most frequent questions they get from customers. Here they are:

1. Why does warm water come out of my cold faucet? This is, of course, a popular call when summer temperatures are peaking. Your water department cannot make the water coming into your kitchen or bathroom colder or hotter. Water distributed by your city comes to your house and up to your water meter through pipes buried 12 inches to 18 inches below ground. If temperatures are particularly hot, the ground is not cool at that depth. (If you are from a place with cold, hard winters, perhaps Connecticut or Minnesota, water pipes are buried 42 inches below the surface to prevent them from freezing.) From the water meter, the water coming into your house enters through a line (usually under your front yard) and then through an exposed pipe. Water has plenty of time to warm up before it gets to your kitchen or bathroom sink. You may want to keep a pitcher of cold water in your refrigerator for those summer days.

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2. Why does my water smell? There are times when you turn on a faucet and get a whiff of a sewer or rotten egg smell. Look under your sink and you’ll see a pipe shaped like a U. This is called the P-trap (because from a plumber’s angle, when it’s attached to another pipe, it looks like the letter P). It serves two purposes. First, if hair or food creates a clog, this is where it will happen – a place accessible to plumbers, instead of deep within your plumbing system where it would be tougher and more expensive to reach. Second, about a cup of water always sits in that P-Trap and serves as a barrier that keeps sewer smells from entering your home. The barrier can fail and develop gaps when the water in this pipe develops a thick layer of scum from hair or food. Sometimes the barrier fails because the water in the P-trap dries up, such as when you go on vacation or fail to use the guest bathroom for weeks. It’s likely to happen more often when the air conditioner is running and drawing the moisture out of the air in your home. When you run the water, it agitates whatever is in – or not in – the P-Trap, creating that whiff of sewer smell. Run the water occasionally in all of your sinks and, when on vacation, ask the person who is watching your house to run the water in your sinks. If the smell persists, clean your drains or call a plumber.

3. Why is my water cloudy? Air bubbles in the line can make your water cloudy. Sometimes it happens when your water department is flushing out fire hydrants in your neighborhood or when a plumber has been to your home. Run the water for a little while or let the water in your drinking glass settle. It will clear up.

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4. Why is water bubbling up from under my yard? It is your responsibility to identify and correct plumbing issues on your side of the water meter, which is most often located in your front yard near the street. Your responsibility includes the water line buried in the yard that leads to your plumbing and irrigation systems. If water is bubbling up anywhere in your yard, it’s most likely an irrigation line that has been leaking for a while. It’s time to call an irrigation systems professional or to make time for a little do-it-yourself project. It can be costly to ignore your irrigation system. Know where the main irrigation lines are buried in your yard and run the system occasionally when you have time to walk your yard and look for leaks. AMWUA’s Smart Home Water Guide can help you find and fix irrigation leaks.

5. Why is my water pressure low? The State requires cities to provide water at a minimum of 20 pounds per square inch (psi).  (Some individual cities have set their minimum pressure higher than 20 psi.) Getting higher water pressure can sometimes be physically hard to achieve. A water department employee can gauge the water pressure for you as it is coming into your home from the city service line to your meter. If the city employee finds that the water entering your meter is at an acceptable pressure then the problem is within your own plumbing system. A broken pipe or a clogged filter in your water softener can reduce your water pressure. It’s time to call a plumber.

For 48 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.

On The Job: Skill, Hard Work Ensures Water Gets To Your Home

By Warren Tenney

When someone asks Sal Correa what he does for a living, he answers this way: “You know the water you drink? I make sure it gets to your house.” That’s a pretty good description. Sal co-leads a 7-member City of Chandler team that replaces aging water distribution pipes, repairs breaks, and installs fire hydrants and new water meters. Sometimes his crew lays water lines to new subdivisions.

Sal is a Lead Utility Systems Technician who organizes his crew’s workload and talks to Chandler residents about the work being done on their streets. He drives backhoes, digs holes and wields pipe-cutting saws. “I get muddy,” Sal said. “I like what I do.”

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Each day, Sal walks into work at 5:30 a.m. ready to coordinate each job with Chandler’s traffic and police departments. There is always something that must be done to secure the 1,230 miles of pipes in the city’s water distribution system. He orders equipment that may be needed from vendors and calls Arizona Blue Stake, which maps underground utility lines and helps prevent workers from disturbing other underground lines, such as electric or gas. If a job means Chandler residents will lose their water for a while, Sal makes sure they are notified within 24 to 78 hours in advance.

Sal’s first priorities are emergency breaks. Some can be underground breaks that fracture a length of pipe and send water seeping up through crevices in the street and sidewalks. Neighbors lose water pressure and dirty water comes out of their faucets and they call the department. Sometimes these breaks are more spectacular and blow out a hole in a main pipe sending water gushing 30-feet in the air. These types of emergency breaks are the hardest. Traffic must be redirected, the leak brought under control, and the break tracked down – even before unhappy customers are notified about why they suddenly have no water and how long they will be without it.

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Sal said most breaks – even large ones – can be fixed within three to six hours. Neighbors are always given a window of time that accounts for unforeseen problems, such as a fix that may not hold or trouble tracking an entire break. Most of the time Sal and his crew can finish well within the window, making customers happy again.

Replacing aging water lines and fixing breaks and repairs can mean working in a hole 3 feet deep or 7 feet deep. Anything below 5 feet requires the crew to shore the walls with an aluminum brace to prevent the hole from collapsing. Sal and his team members enter and exit the hole using a ladder attached to the shoring. Everyone shares the hardest parts of the job, the digging and pipe cutting, so one member of the crew is always resting while another is working. (That’s why residents often see one or two workers watching, while one is working.) During the hottest summer days, Sal makes sure members of his team use a canopy for shade and that each member works in short spurts. When Sal suspects a member of his crew is getting overheated, he’ll send him into a city vehicle to cool down in the air conditioning.

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Nine years ago Sal was cutting a pipe with a 12-inch-blade motorized saw, a job he had done hundreds of times. This time the pipe dropped and pinched the end of the blade, which suddenly kicked back and pinned Sal to the wall of the hole. The blade cut deeply into Sal’s mouth, causing damage that required two surgeries and numerous root canals. The accident left him with a thin scar from his lip to his chin that is just visible through his short-cropped beard. He went back to cutting pipe in those street holes as soon as possible. “After I got back in there, my coworkers said, ‘You’re not allowed to touch saws anymore, get out of there’,” Sal remembers.  He admits the first cutting job after the accident was a little terrifying. “I tried not to show it, but yes, it was.” Since that accident Sal said he has cut thousands of pipes. 

In 2001, Sal sold everything he had and followed his wife’s parents from Chicago to Arizona. Sal wanted more opportunity for himself and his wife, Gladys, and a good place to raise their 5-year-old son. Sal started working for Chandler as a meter reader. He took courses to be certified as a Utility Service Operator I and II in the water distribution department and was then promoted to crew leader. Sal’s son, Damien, attended Northern Arizona University on an academic scholarship, just graduated with a pre-med degree, and is waiting to hear from the medical schools where he applied for acceptance.

Damien’s academic pursuits left Sal and Gladys at home with Bella the Boxer and two toy Yorkshire Terriers, Blu and Jax. Sal gets home by 4 p.m. every night and has dinner made by the time his wife, a health care administrator, arrives home. Late last year, the couple joined a neighborhood co-ed kickball team.

Sal is tough when it comes to his job, but gets a little teary-eyed when he talks about the parents and the seven siblings – including a twin – he left behind in Chicago. He is the youngest, visits the city twice a year and still misses them. One sibling has just moved to California. He hopes more family will move west, because Sal said he’s staying in Arizona’s sunshine.

For 48 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

Water Advocacy: It’s Easier Than You Think

By Warren Tenney

Is this your year to become a water advocate? Yes, I know, we’re all pressed for time, but water advocacy doesn’t have to take much time. What it takes is a question or a suggestion to the right person at the right time. Sometimes that moment arrives on an elevator with your building’s facilities manager, on a golf course with an HOA board member, or in an email to your legislator. Here are a few suggestions for ways you can get started.

1. Inspire your business to set up an appointment for a free water audit. Some cities provide free indoor and outdoor check-ups for businesses. These water-efficiency audits take little time, provide data-driven calculations about a business’ water use, and offer a list of practical water-saving and money-saving recommendations. They apply to all businesses, such as restaurants, churches or hospitals, auto body repair shops or small manufacturers. Recommendations could include such things as fixing loose valves or leaks in toilets or fixing a reverse osmosis water filter that is recycling more often than recommended. Businesses in the Town of Gilbert that implement suggested recommendations developed during a Water Wise Gilbert audit also receive marketing materials, such as window decals, table placards and landscape signs explaining how the business is saving water.

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2. Bring in the city to check your HOA’s irrigation system. Water bills can be a contentious issue for Homeowners Associations and water rates are going up. Some cities offer water-efficiency specialists who will work with board members, managers and landscape contractors. In the City of Phoenix, water resource specialists can provide presentations about water efficiency  and common obstacles to achieving the healthiest  landscape using the least amount of water. In the City of Scottsdale, a conservation specialist starts by reviewing an HOA’s water-use history, which often means pulling data from multiple landscape meters. The specialist will then measure the amount of grass and desert landscaping in an HOA’s common areas and calculate the appropriate amount of water to keep the landscape thriving. The Scottsdale specialist then presents water-use findings to the HOA board, property manager and landscaper that include options for next steps. Your HOA could finally answer that frequently asked question: Would it be more cost effective to replace our aging irrigation system or make changes and repairs to the old system that would make it more efficient? Call your city to find out how it can help.

3. Take charge of helping the PTA find low-cost aerators for your school’s water faucets. An easy-to-install faucet aerator reduces water flow from 2 gallons per minute to .5 gallon per minute. It’s a simple money-saving project any parent organization could sponsor. Learning to install aerators on school bathroom faucets is part of the curriculum Arizona Project WET offers in its School Water Audit Program. University of Arizona’s Arizona Project WET offers four water-related programs for students in fourth through twelfth grades. It also organizes school Water Festivals and provides teacher training and professional development. As part of its School Water Audit curriculum, participating students measure the flow from their school’s faucets first as they find them and then again with a new water efficient aerator. They monitor use and convert their findings to gallons of water used daily. Then the students determine how much water and money their schools are saving each day, each week, and each year due to their actions. Is it time to bring this program to your child’s – or grandchild’s – school?

4. Speak up if you see ways to improve your apartment complex’s water use. You’ve probably noticed how often your apartment complex waters its grass. You’ve noticed sprinklers on when it is raining or the way the sprinklers water the sidewalk as well as the grass or the leak that creates a small fountain or puddle. Go ahead and let the apartment manager know that using water wisely is just as important to you as having a nice landscape. Explain that there are plenty of landscapes without grass that are just as attractive and colorful. Better yet, landscapes with desert plants and trees use less water and need less maintenance.  Some cities offer to help apartment complexes, condominium communities, and other businesses defray the cost of removing all or some of their grass and replacing it with desert plants and trees. For example, the City of Glendale has offered turf replacement rebates since 1986. Glendale offers apartment complexes, HOAs and businesses up to $3,000 a year toward the cost of replacing grass with desert adapted trees and plants. Some cities also offer rebates to businesses that upgrade to a more water-efficient irrigation controller. These rebates are substantial, save water and help reduce the cost of landscape maintenance. Here are the links to the seven AMWUA cities that offer rebate programs.

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5. Stay current on the impact of proposed water legislation and make your voice heard. This is easier than it sounds. AMWUA has a 2017 Bill Tracker that will keep you up to date on each proposal by the Arizona State Legislature that impacts water management, water investment, water policy, and water conservation. The tracker lets you know if AMWUA is supporting, opposing or monitoring each bill. Help make a difference. Check out the bills on our tracker and send an email to your legislator or the bill’s sponsor to let them know how you feel.

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For those who are interested in doing more, some cities offer tours, courses and opportunities to sit on water and utility advisory boards. Here are a few examples. The City of Glendale offers Glendale University for those who want an insider’s view of how the city works. The City of Scottsdale offers a Citizens Water Academy twice a year that provides insight into the city’s water planning and operations. Glendale also has a seven-member Water Services Advisory Board that helps to guide policies and strategies on issues, such as regional collaboration and water resources sustainability.  The City of Goodyear has a Water Conservation Committee that is developing recommendations for the city council.

Our corner of the world is arid and water is its top priority. Many of us have embraced a conservation culture in our lives and support others who understand the importance of living a water-efficient life. Now, we need to help inform those who may be new to our world – or too busy in their own world – to recognize the importance of using every drop of water efficiently. Is 2017 your year to start?

For 48 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.

 

Groundcover: Green Makes A Better Carpet Than Gravel

By Warren Tenney

Some professional landscapers suggest homeowners design sections of their landscape as they would design each room in their home. This image helps homeowners give their yards dimension with layers of color and texture. Imagine vines as window coverings, group trees and shrubs as if they were furniture, and use groundcover plants as carpeting -a far better carpet than just having gravel. Groundcover can make the difference between a traditional desert yard and the lush look of a professionally designed landscape, which still is low maintenance and low water use.

There are practical reasons to use groundcover plants in a desert garden. These low-growing and sprawling, creeping or clumping plants serve the same purpose as gravel, without radiating excessive heat. Some professionals use both groundcover plants and a thin layer of gravel. Groundcover plants suppress dust and slow evaporation of water from the soil. Groundcover also controls erosion on a slope. Like the flooring in your home, groundcover can bring cohesion to an eclectic design that may have been planted without much thought or by several different homeowners.

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Lantana    Photos: Carol Ward-Morris

Groundcover plants need a bit more care than cactus. The University of Arizona reports that after two to four years many groundcover plants can develop bare spots, perhaps due to weather, watering practices, or a change to older, tougher and less dense foliage. Plan on buying a few more plants every few years to keep the groundcover dense enough to serve its purpose. Before you plant large sections of your yard with groundcovers, UA’s Ground Covers for Arizona Landscapes suggests asking yourself a few more questions.

1. What will this groundcover look like in the middle of winter or at the height of summer? Some groundcover plants have an off-season and are sensitive to the cold. Select the toughest plants available, particularly ones that can stand a desert winter.

2. How far and wide will a groundcover plant spread? Don’t choose a fast spreading flourishing plant for a small or narrow space, particularly along a walkway. That’s just creating work. Don’t assume a grass trimmer will keep a vigorous groundcover in check. 

3. Will this groundcover collect debris from trees and shrubs? If you choose a groundcover with thorns or spines it could be tough to rake and keep pretty when planted under trees or with shrubs.

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Blue Euphorbia

Spring is a good time to plant groundcover. After you select your plants at the nursery, keep the soil wet in their containers until you have time to plant them and then plant them in moist soil. These plants have shallow roots so water every two to three days for the first two to four weeks. Once established, water every five to 10 days during the hottest time of the year, but only every three to six weeks in the winter and only if winter rain is sparse.

It’s always best to narrow your selection before you go to the nursery. Visit the AMWUA plant selection guide before your visit and bookmark your favorite groundcover selections on your phone. Several AMWUA cities’ conservation professionals suggested these favorite groundcover plants.

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  • Gopher Plant or Blue Euphorbia (Euphorbia Rigida) This shrubby evergreen is native to the Mediterranean area and is gaining a following among desert gardeners. It has yellow-green flowers mid-winter to early spring. The stalks die off during the summer allowing new foliage to reemerge.
  • Lantana (Lantana hybrid) This popular and hardy favorite needs a moderate amount of water. It will bloom all year and is available in a variety of colors, including purple, white and orange. It attracts butterflies and is sensitive to frost but rebounds in the spring.
  • Trailing Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’) First, check whether the type of plant you see at the nursery grows into a shrub or is the “trailing rosemary” that is better suited for groundcover. Trailing rosemary is a hardy evergreen and has small blue flowers winter through spring. It is an edible herb that attracts bees.
  • Bush Morning Glory (Convolvulus cneorum) This fast-growing evergreen plant has silvery green leaves that create a beautiful setting for the other plants in your yard. It likes full sun and produces showy white flowers in the spring.
  • Damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana) This hardy evergreen plant has dark foliage with yellow daisy-like flowers in spring and fall. It likes full sun and is great for around pools.

 Visit the AMWUA plant selection guide to find the right groundcover for your yard. If you need help designing, selecting, planting or nurturing your desert landscape, AMWUA cities offer free landscape classes.

For 48 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.