Desert Landscape School: Professional Training Available For Everyone

By Warren Tenney

There are people who love desert trees and plants and want to learn more about them. Then there are those who want the knowledge and skills to confidently take charge of any desert-adapted landscape – design it, lay the irrigation, select and plant the trees, shrubs and groundcover, prune, tend and keep it thriving. These are the people who put in the money, time and effort to earn a credential from the Desert Botanical Garden. The Garden’s Desert Landscape School just became a bit easier to fit into your schedule and your budget.

The Desert Botanical Garden in the City of Phoenix has offered a professional landscaping course since 1997. More than 1,200 people have earned the Desert Landscape School credential. The Garden was eager to train landscapers in the techniques that have kept its 55-acres of plants flourishing for more than 70 years. Many Valley cities were designing desert-adapted landscaping into their buildings and parks and sent their landscaping crews to sharpen their skills. Some professional landscapers still take the course but the course has attracted a variety of people over the years. Students have included accountants, lawyers and administrators who wanted to change careers and start new landscaping businesses. Professional landscape designers and architects who move from other states have attended to learn about desert-adapted trees, shrubs and groundcover plants. Homeowners now make up the majority of students taking the extensive landscape course.  Some come seeking information about how to care for their own yards. Others come specifically to learn the skills and knowledge they will need to redesign and install their own landscaping.

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In the past, the Desert Landscape School program was taught over seven months. It met for four hours every week, included six exams and cost $1,250. That was a lot of money and a tough schedule for working adults with families. Drop out rates ranged from 10 percent to 20 percent.

For the past two year, the Desert Botanical Garden piloted a new idea with help from a Flinn Foundation grant. The Garden broke down the seven-month Desert Landscape School into six certificate courses. If you successfully complete all six courses you earn a Desert Landscape School credential. So far, the dropout rate has been less than 2 percent.

These new courses are two hours every week for 10 weeks and costs range from $259 to $374 depending on the course and whether the student is a Desert Botanical Garden member. Cities can now send their landscaping crews without the expense of becoming a corporate member of the Garden.  In September 2015, a storm (later determined to be a microburst) caused $100,000 worth of damage to the Tempe Center for the Arts landscaping.  The City of Tempe turned to the Desert Botanical Garden for help with specific plantings and to minimize damage in the future. Six members of the Tempe Center for the Arts maintenance and landscape team began the Desert Landscape School courses this spring as part of that effort.

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Desert Landscape School  Photo: Desert Botanical Garden

The six courses in the program are offered twice a year.  One track is offered 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays, the other at 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays. The classes have up to 30 students. The more hands-on courses have fewer students because it allows instructors to spend more one-on-one time with students. All classes are designed to be primarily outside, with students working and walking in the Garden. When students visit the Garden with family or friends, they can point to trees they’ve pruned or planted or irrigation systems they’ve installed.

There is a proctored exam at the end of each course. If it is an installation course, the exam is performance-based to determine if a student gained the knowledge and skills needed to plant a desert tree correctly and install an irrigation system that works. If it is a knowledge-based course, then there is a written exam. For example, the exam that follows the Desert Plant Palette course includes identifying the scientific and common names of 50 plants set up in an exam room.

No, it’s not for the weekend gardener, but if you successfully complete all six courses you will earn a credential from the Desert Botanical Garden’s Desert Landscape School. That credential gives homeowners the confidence to take charge of their own landscape and gives landscapers the knowledge and skills to better serve their clients.

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

Desert Adapting: Five Common Summer Landscape Mistakes

By Warren Tenney

So you’re looking at your trees and plants baking in the desert summer sun and you’re beginning to feel just a little sorry for them. Save your sympathy. Desert-adapted plants are built for this weather and will do just fine. Adjustments do need to be made to their care during the summer, but many homeowners and businesses make adjustments that harm – not help – their trees, grass and plants. Conservation specialists from AMWUA member cities offered these five common summer landscaping mistakes.

1. Thinning trees before monsoon season. For some homeowners, “thinning” a tree means removing all the smaller inner branches and maintaining the growth at the end of longer branches. This is a mistake for several reasons. First, it exposes the inner branches to sun damage. Second, it removes leaves, which are a tree’s energy source, and decreases its ability to defend itself against pests and diseases. Third, it leaves all the weight at the end of the branches. This is called “lion tail pruning” and makes the branches more vulnerable to breaking during heavy winds. It is better to prune just before growth starts in spring. If you must prune, confine the cuts to the outer 20 percent of the tree canopy and never remove more than 25 percent of the living leaves, stems or branches annually.

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2. Running the irrigation system for short durations throughout the day. This seems like a great way to keep your trees, shrubs and groundcover happy, but it does more harm than good. That water evaporates and never reaches the roots. When summer temperatures are peaking and humidity is low, your landscape needs a deep watering once a week. This allows the water to sink deeper into the ground, where the clay soil is built to hold water as a reservoir for desert plants. (Remember the simple rule: water 3 feet deep for trees, 2 feet deep for shrubs and 1 foot deep for smaller plants. Use a slender metal rod or long screwdriver to test your watering depth. You can probe easily in moist soil and it becomes more difficult in dry soil.) Even grass will do better with two longer soakings a week, instead of a little water every day. Sometimes when you irrigate sloped areas, especially lawns, water will eventually run off onto the sidewalk or street. Use the “cycle and soak” method to stop this waste and give your plants and grass an even watering. Break up the watering into a stop and go cycle.  For example, run your irrigation system just to the point prior to runoff, shut it off for 30 – 60 minutes and water again. This gives the water a chance to soak into the ground.

3. Shearing, shaping and over-pruning shrubs. It’s never smart to shear desert-adapted shrubs. Losing all that natural foliage forces a shrub to grow a shell of leaves that must work too hard to manufacture the sugars the plant needs to grow. Eventually, you’ll notice the shrub gets woody inside from lack of sunlight, woody holes begin to appear from the stress and the shrub dies. Think of foliage as a way a tree or shrub shades its inner core and roots from the intense sun. Leave your plants and trees alone for the summer and prune them delicately and minimally when the weather is cooler. Remember to select the right plant for the right space. Before planting a shrub or tree, make sure it has room to grow and spread. This helps to cut back on the need for severe pruning.

4. Adjusting your irrigation system twice a year. Landscape watering needs to increase incrementally in the spring and begin to decrease in July during the monsoon season’s higher humidity and rain. Adjusting your watering times gradually, preferably monthly, will save water and save you up to 30 percent on your water bill. That’s why some cities will help you pay for a new smart irrigation controller that adjusts watering cycles based on weather and the amount of moisture in the soil.

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5. Failing to regularly check your irrigation system. It’s hot out there and it’s easy to leave the watering chores to your irrigation controller. Homeowners and businesses often set irrigations systems to run during the night. It’s a good idea to water when temperatures decrease after sunset, but there’s no one around to spot a broken emitter or water bubbling up from the ground due to a broken line. A broken sprinkler head can waste up to 7 gallons of drinking water – per minute. A leak also means that somewhere in your landscape some grass, plants or trees are not getting enough water to survive. Take a walk periodically to see if there are signs of any leaks. Watch your water bill for spikes in use. These spikes could indicate a leak. It’s worth your while to turn on your irrigation system monthly and walk your property to look for leaks. Ask your landscaper to manually turn on your irrigation system and alert you to any leaks. AMWUA’s Smart Home Water Guide is an easy step-by-step guide that can help you find and fix leaks.  Many cities also offer free irrigation classes to help you.

Here’s a bonus tip: The summer sun rises a little farther north from where it rises during winter months. Plants that likely live in shade in the winter may have to stand up to a tough few hours of afternoon sun in the summer. Bring your potted plants into the shadier areas of your yard or porch. Planting a few hardy, fast growing trees, such as Palo Verdes, or installing some yard art, such as a shade sail, can provide relief for those plants hardest hit by summer sun. If you are just designing or redesigning your landscape, keep in mind the seasonal adjustment of sunshine. It can guide you to choose the right trees, shrubs, plants and groundcover for each section of your yard. AMWUA’s landscape pages help you select, install and succeed at getting the maximum beauty out of your landscape with minimum care – and just the right amount of water.

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

Get To Work: How To Qualify For A Job In Water

By Warren Tenney

Skilled people who treat and distribute drinking water and collect and treat wastewater are retiring at a high rate. Jobs are opening up in Arizona’s small towns and big cities. It takes smart, ambitious and persistent job seekers to get started in these public health jobs. Utilities will hire people who trained just after high school and those who opt to change careers. Cities have hired veterans, former health care providers, chemists, environmental study graduates, food workers, sales people, construction workers, auto mechanics, warehouse workers, janitors and police officers. Arizona has about 1,500 water systems and 800 wastewater systems. Interested? Know someone who might be? Here are the basics.

91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant Phoenix

91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant in City of Phoenix

What do I need? To start as an entry-level water or wastewater operator you need a high school diploma or a general education degree (GED) and Grade 1 certification in one of four areas:

  • Water Treatment or Water Distribution certification qualifies a person to work for a public water system.
  • Wastewater Treatment or Wastewater Collections certification qualifies a person to work in a plant that treats wastewater for reuse, such as irrigation or direct injection back into Arizona’s aquifers.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) grants these certifications. To earn Grade 1 level certification in any of these four areas a candidate must receive a 70 percent grade on a three-hour, 100-question, in-person, proctored exam. These exams are given throughout the year and throughout the state. Once you earn Grade 1 certification, you can advance by earning Grade 2, Grade 3 and Grade 4 certification in each of the areas. 

How can I prepare for the exam? Gateway Community College, 108 N. 40th St. in Phoenix, offers a two-year and a one-year program in Water and Wastewater Treatment. 

  • Two-year program: This program’s goal is to teach students the knowledge and skills needed to pass a Grade 1 certification exam and up to a Grade 2 certification exam. Students who complete the two-year program earn an Associate of Arts degree in Water and Wastewater Treatment.
  • One-year program: This program’s goal is to teach students the knowledge and skills needed to pass a Grade 1 certification exam in either Water or Wastewater Treatment.

The programs include online and in-person courses taught by local water managers, hands-on experience at local utilities, and internships. The program accommodates working adults, so most in-person classes are in the evening or on Saturdays. Graduates from both programs still must pass the ADEQ certification exams.

You don’t have to attend college to earn Grade 1 certification. There is information about study guides and classes at ADEQ’s website, AZ Water Association and Rural Water Association of Arizona.

Practice operator tests at ADEQ

Operators take water treatment operator practice exams at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.  Photo: ADEQ 

What does it cost? In August 2016, Gateway Community College opened the Surprise Gateway Training Center dedicated to Water and Wastewater Treatment courses. The facility is open to anyone wishing to take courses through Gateway Community College. There are currently 14 one-year scholarships available for people living in Surprise or Luke Air Force Base. West Valley residents also are encouraged to apply. Without a scholarship, tuition is $2,781 for Gateway’s one-year certification course and $6,736 for the two-year degree. AZ Water Association in partnership with the American Water Works Association also has a scholarship program that offers $2,500 for water operator training and educational expenses.

It costs about $100 to take the ADEQ exam, depending on the location. Once you pass the exam there is a $65 fee to apply for certification.

Where can I work? ADEQ grades each water and wastewater treatment plant in Arizona from 1 through 4 depending on the complexity of its equipment, the number of people it serves and its size. The grade of the plant determines the grade of the operator needed to run the plant. Many large treatment plants also hire Grade 1 and Grade 2 level operators as staff members.

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City of Mesa water treatment plant.

If you plan to move, it’s best to plan ahead because each state has its own requirements for accepting out-of-state certifications. Arizona uses exams created by the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC), which are used in many states. 

What does it pay? The median wage for treatment plant operators nationally is about $45,000 a year. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the 2016 median wage in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area is $52,370 and ranges from $47,000 to $40,000 throughout the rest of the state.

How can I get hired? All the cities hire differently. Gateway Community College makes internships part of its course work, while some cities have their own internship and trainee programs. Some cities allow you to volunteer or intern a few days a week to get an idea of what the job is like before going through the training and certification process.

Water professionals have a few tips. Whether you are interviewing as a potential volunteer, an intern or a job candidate, come prepared to talk the language of water and wastewater treatment, water distribution and wastewater collection. Study the plant where you want to work and understand how it works. Take a class in interviewing skills so you can express yourself clearly and concisely. The City of Peoria recently had an opening for a Grade 1 Water Treatment Plant Operator. The City interviewed candidates that had shown interest in the job, such as those who interned at any city or private water or wastewater plant, completed online courses, or were Gateway students or graduates. Peoria hired a former warehouse worker who had volunteered at a treatement plant on his days off, earned an Associates degree from Gateway and passed the ADEQ Grade 1 certification exam in both water treatment and wastewater treatment.  

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

 

2017 Legislative Session: Four Things That Went Right For Water

By Warren Tenney

So far 2017 has been a good year for water. The Southwest had a rainy winter, an official shortage of Colorado River water appears delayed another year, and there was broad support for water issues at the Arizona Legislature. The Arizona Department of Water Resources, Salt River Project, Central Arizona Project, Southern Arizona Water Users Association, counties, water professionals, agricultural interests and environmental groups joined AMWUA to make this a good Legislative session for water. It helps that Arizona’s Governor and a growing number of lawmakers recognize that water fuels our economy.

AMWUA worked hard this year to remind lawmakers that Arizona’s economic health is dependent on reliable water supplies. AMWUA sponsored two events for lawmakers to discuss the state’s water successes and the importance of continuing to plan, manage and invest in our water supplies. In addition to these events, here are a few highlights from the 2017 session.

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1. The Governor and legislators understand that the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) plays a key role in finding solutions to our current and future water challenges. To that end, AMWUA has long advocated for a well-funded water agency that can attract and retain the brightest water minds. This year ADWR received an operating budget of $15,990,100, an increase of $858,400 over last year. This modest increase will actually provide a good return for Arizona. Investing in the management of our water resources has always given us large dividends. This increase will help the agency address complex water issues facing the state. Here are just two examples:

  • Drought Planning: The water in the Colorado River’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, is over-allocated among the states that share it. On average, Lake Mead doesn’t receive enough Colorado River water to meet the demand of water users in Arizona, California and Nevada, which results in a decline in the Lake’s water levels. If Mead continues to fall to pre-determined levels, the federal government will declare an official Colorado River water shortage. A declaration of shortage would first impact farmers in central Arizona, and further reductions eventually could impact cities. ADWR is working with representatives from other states and water users within Arizona towards a negotiated agreement to help protect and conserve water in Lake Mead. The approved State budget includes funds to help with this effort.
  • Water Rights Conflict: The state must also resolve the question of the extent and priority of water rights in the Gila River and Little Colorado River systems. This has been a source of litigation in the state for the last 40 years. This litigation complicates Arizona water policy because it makes it nearly impossible for thousands of water users – particularly in rural communities – to have legal assurance regarding their water rights. ADWR’s budget includes funds to hire staff to provide the technical support needed to move this issue forward.

2. The Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) is the legal name of the entity that operates the Central Arizona Project (CAP), the 336-mile canal that delivers Colorado River water from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson. The CAWCD Board of Directors is responsible for maintaining the more than 30-year-old CAP canal. Board members also set the rates Valley cities pay to receive their Colorado River water, determine the amount of property taxes you pay for the CAP system, and establish policies to manage CAP water. The election of CAWCD board members, who serve six-year terms, has always been non-partisan. This year legislation was introduced that would have, in part, made the CAWCD election partisan. AMWUA opposed making CAWCD elections partisan and the Legislature agreed to remove that part of the bill. AMWUA continues to stand for the principle that water in the desert should be a non-partisan issue.

3. AMWUA opposed legislation that would have limited the ability of cities and counties to enter into intergovernmental agreements (IGAs) with other cities, the State, Salt River Project, Central Arizona Project (CAP), and Native American Communities for more than eight years. It would also have required a review of all existing IGAs to verify that a termination date was included. AMWUA testified that cities enter into many water agreements that last for decades to ensure they have a 100-year water supply for all new development and AMWUA cities hold long-term contracts with the Central Arizona Project to assure delivery of their Colorado River water supplies. After several meetings of the bill’s supporters and those who opposed it, no compromise emerged and the bill failed to move to House floor action.

4. AMWUA opposed legislation that would have weakened the State’s authority in managing water in Pinal County and undermined the requirement for new developments to have an assured 100-year water supply before building. This would have threatened the effectiveness of the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act, a key water law that prevents the depletion of the state’s aquifers and is credited with helping Arizona survive a 20-year drought. AMWUA sent a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representative asking him to hold the bill. With key opposition also within Pinal County, the bill never received House floor action. 

AMWUA will be active again next year advocating for sound water policy that builds on the 1980 Groundwater Management Act.  We do this because Valley residents and businesses recognize that managing and investing in water now means a healthy economy and a healthy way of life for their kids and grandkids. If you want to learn more, it’s all in AMWUA’s 2017 Legislative Review.

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.