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.

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.

Partnership Makes Desert Golf Courses Sustainable

By Warren Tenney

Since 1998, the City of Scottsdale has been treating about half of its wastewater to near drinking water standards. It’s an expensive process that uses reverse osmosis technology, but the city isn’t paying for all of it. The cost to build and operate the plant is shared between Scottsdale and 23 private north Scottsdale golf courses that use the water to keep their greens pristine.

It’s more difficult to keep golf courses green when irrigation water has a high salt content.  Saltier water means watering the greens more often and using more fertilizer. Before building the Advanced Water Treatment (AWT) Facility, the golf courses used untreated or “raw” Colorado River water delivered to the city by Central Arizona Project. The raw water has a salt content of about 600 to 650 milligrams per liter (mg/l). Wastewater recycled at the Advanced Water Treatment Facility is blended with raw CAP water and yields water with a sodium concentration below 125 mg/l, a level required to fulfill the city’s agreement with the golf courses. Using this low-salinity recycled water means the courses can use less water and fertilizer to maintain higher-quality greens. It also means the city can save more raw water to treat for drinking.

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Ozone piping at Scottsdale’s Advanced Water Treatment Facility

The water that flows out of your home from your sink, shower, toilets and laundry and into the sewage system is traditionally called wastewater. The name no longer really applies for AMWUA cities. Nearly 100 percent of what was once wasted effluent is treated by the cities and put back to use.  In other words, water is reused.  Treated wastewater from five AMWUA cities – including the other half of Scottsdale’s wastewater – is sent through a 36-mile pipe to cool the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Cities also use treated wastewater to irrigate parks, create fishing lakes and wetlands, or save underground for future use, which is called “recharging” the aquifers. Wastewater is now a renewable water source, most often called recycled water or reclaimed water.

All reclaimed water used in parks, golf courses, HOA common areas, school playgrounds or church campuses is treated to what the state deems as A+ quality. Grade A quality means the water is treated and disinfected until there are no routine, detectable disease-causing bacteria. It moves up to A+ when the treatment process also removes nitrogen compounds, which can contaminate groundwater. Scottsdale’s advanced treatment plant goes one giant step further. It uses reverse osmosis to remove mainly salts and inorganic materials from the recycled water produced at the plant.

Wastewater always has a high salt content because it passes through homes and businesses, picking up salt from cooling towers, food and other waste. Chemicals used to treat wastewater also add salt to the end product. The salinity of Scottsdale’s wastewater from homes in the northern part of the city is particularly high, around 1,100 milligrams per liter. Scottsdale estimates that water softeners account for more than 30 percent of the total salt concentration in the wastewater system. Water softeners work by exchanging salt for hard minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, creating soft water for homeowners but dumping the salty brine discharge into the sewer system.

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Water not used by Golf Courses is saved underground via a recharge well like this one.   Photos: City of Scottsdale

The advanced treatment plant is capable of producing 20 million gallons a day of low-salinity recycled water, although current rates of wastewater flowing into the plant are closer to 10 million gallons. In the summer, the golf courses use all of that water. When temperatures climb into the 110-degree range and above, recycled water is supplemented with raw water to meet summer irrigation demands. During winter months, the golf courses typically need an average of only 3 to 5 million gallons per day and, after a few rainy days, that need may drop to zero. Any additional low-salinity water produced at the plant is saved underground at the Scottsdale Water Campus for future use. Scottsdale also uses ozone and UV treatments on the water it saves underground to recharge the aquifer. These processes remove “emerging contaminants,” which are contaminants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is studying, but has not yet regulated. 

Scottsdale wanted to support its golf economy, but not use its precious drinking water supplies for irrigation. The dilemma was solved nearly two decades ago by a public-private partnership and technology. Today they call that innovation. Twenty years ago, it was just smart.

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.

Fix A Leak Week: Time To Hunt Down Leaks That Are Draining Your Budget

By Warren Tenney

Water leaks inside and outside the average American home waste up to 10,000 gallons of water a year. This drain on the country’s drinking water supply is so critical that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense Program dedicates a week each year to remind us to find and fix leaks. Fix A Leak Week is especially important to desert dwellers. A household may use as much as 70 percent of its drinking water outside. Keeping your landscape healthy and your pool full is one thing, but without regular maintenance irrigation and pool equipment are prone to wasteful leaks.

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Outdoor leaks are not as obvious and annoying as a dripping faucet, which makes them more difficult to detect and easier to ignore. It takes little time and very little know-how to keep these leaks in check. Water efficiency professionals at AMWUA cities understand this and want to help.

1. Get help from AMWUA’s #SmartPig. Let the AMWUA #SmartPig be your guide to the valuable information at the Smart Home Water Guide website. The guide shows homeowners how to find leaks inside and outside – and how even the least talented do-it-yourselfers can fix them. Water efficiency professionals from AMWUA cities developed this website and translated their experience, knowledge and methods into short and clearly illustrated lessons anyone can understand. Some outdoor leaks are obvious, such as water pooling around a sprinkler head. Leaks in pool equipment are tougher to spot. These leaks leave small wet spots that can evaporate quickly or white crusty mineral deposits that pool owners may not know indicate a leak. The guide is built for mobile devices so you can carry it around your home and yard on a phone or tablet. The guide allows you to check off steps as you complete your water-leak audit over the course of a day, a week or a month. The information in the website is also available as a free 24-page booklet in English and Spanish. Just call your city’s water efficiency professional and ask. The Spanish language guide also is available online as a flip-book.SmartPig_Final

2. Talk with your landscaper about water. Your landscaper can help you find and fix leaks in your irrigation system and ensure it’s running as efficiently as possible. Let your landscaper know that saving water is important to you. More than twenty years ago, Arizona recognized that landscapers could help their customers save money and help cities save water. With that goal in mind, Tucson Water, AMWUA, the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension and industry partners launched Smartscape. It is a low-cost desert-landscape training program for professionals. Since then, Smartscape has added advanced training dedicated to installing and managing irrigation systems. Since 1994, more than 1,300 professionals have completed Smartscape training in Maricopa County. A list of Smartscape trained landscapers is available online.

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3. Watch your water bill. If you have a spike in water usage that you can’t track down, call your city. But don’t be surprised if your city contacts you first. In some AMWUA cities, employees review individual water usage and billing data for all customers before sending out monthly bills. When employees discover a sudden spike in a monthly bill, they contact homeowners, send a postcard, or post a message to their water bill and offer help to find the source of the problem. Advances in water meter technology can now provide a city and a homeowner with valuable data that can help find a leak. When a spike in water usage is detected, an employee can download 96 days of water usage information – hour by hour – from the water meter in your front yard or back alley. This information is a valuable clue to what is causing the spike. The data may show a homeowner is suddenly using 2,000 gallons of water every other morning at 2:30 a.m. That indicates something on a timer, like an automated irrigation system set to water the yard. Perhaps a broken drip line is gushing instead of dripping. The data makes it easier for the homeowner and city employee to work together to find the leak.

New technology will eventually make it easier for homeowners to detect leaks on their own. Imagine watching your water consumption online in real time. The new water meter reading system is known as “advanced meter infrastructure” or AMI. While some cities are piloting AMI systems, the City of Tempe is pursuing the most ambitious meter conversion in the Valley. All Tempe water customers will have access to their water use online by early 2019. The AMI system helps to alert you sooner to a change in your water use. Being able to see patterns in your hourly water use gives you a better opportunity to pinpoint a leak and know where to investigate.

While technology is helping to find leaks, it still requires us to take action to fix them. Valley weather is always beautiful during Fix a Leak Week. It’s a perfect time to turn on your irrigation system and pool equipment and learn to find and fix leaks that are draining your budget and our drinking water supplies.

AMWUA is a long-standing WaterSense Partner and an active participant in the annual Fix a Leak Week campaign.  This year, we are pleased to host the annual #FixaLeak Week Twitter party as @FixaLeakWeekAZ on Monday, March 20, at 2 p.m. Eastern.

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.

Sen. John Kyl: Compromise Is Key To Water Leadership

By Warren Tenney

This month, former Senator Jon Kyl told a gathering of elected officials and water professionals that Arizona’s past water successes had one thing in common: the willingness of competing forces to compromise for the good of the state. Now, Senator Kyl said, it is time we do it again.

Senator Kyl is a water lawyer who represented Arizona’s citizens for 25 years, first in the U.S. House and then the Senate. He was the guest of honor at an Arizona Water Reception, which brought together state legislators, mayors, city council members and others to highlight the importance of water issues for state leaders. The reception was held in downtown Phoenix and hosted by AMWUA with the help of nine sponsors.

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City of Goodyear Councilmember Joanne Osborne, a member of AMWUA’s Board of Directors, arrives at the Arizona Water Reception. Sen. Jon Kyl (right) was guest of honor. 

Arizona’s legacy of resolving difficult water issues offers a template to help solve today’s challenges, Senator Kyl said. Speaking of this tradition, he said that by “ making compromises for the good of the state – in a non-partisan way – we avoided those challenges becoming crises.” He pointed out some examples of compromises that solved big water challenges for Arizona.

  • Salt River Project. More than 100 years ago, Arizona farmers and ranchers from Mesa to Avondale agreed to offer their land as collateral to finance a federal loan to build Roosevelt Dam. Roosevelt Lake and a series of smaller reservoirs and canals became the largest source of water for the Phoenix Metro area. Salt River Project (SRP) operates the system to this day.
  • Central Arizona Project. After World War II, Arizona needed to bring its share of the Colorado River to Central Arizona, where its population was booming. Taking the water required an agreement among neighboring states, in particular California, before the federal government would agree to finance and build a 360-mile canal to transport the river’s water to central Arizona. Today, the Central Arizona Project (CAP) provides almost 40 percent of the water used by the AMWUA cities.
  • Groundwater Management Act. The 1980 Groundwater Management Act regulated and slowed the pumping of groundwater that was drawing down aquifers in the state’s most populous areas. The Act was the result of rancorous but successful negotiations among cities, mining companies, and agriculture, as documented in Groundwater: To Enact a Law for the Common Good, a documentary screened during the Water Reception.

Among the most pressing unresolved issues facing the state right now are falling water tables in some rural communities, Senator Kyl said. The Groundwater Management Act does not regulate groundwater pumping  in rural areas of the state as tightly as it does in urban areas.  Now, conflicts are brewing in many rural communities over new wells and decreasing water levels in underground aquifers.

 The state must also resolve the question of who has the right to use the state’s surface water supplies.  This seemingly simple question has been the source of litigation in the state for the last 40 years in a complex court case involving tens of thousands of parties in what is known as the “General Stream Adjudication.” This case complicates Arizona water policy because it makes it nearly impossible for thousands of water users to have legal assurance regarding their water rights.

In the context of his remarks about eventually resolving the General Stream Adjudication, Senator Kyl said that in the course of his public service he has learned that proposed solutions do not last if there are winners and losers. All sides must win at least 80 percent of what they want to create a successful and lasting resolution. When it comes to resolving the General Stream Adjudication, that may mean finding additional sources of water through augmentation and recognizing the impact of the Adjudication on small water users, Senator Kyl said.

Solutions to these complex problems depend on data collection, analysis and oversight by the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR). Speaking to Legislators in the audience about the importance of ADWR, Senator Kyl said: “Whatever they need, make sure they have it because their technical work is essential to the resolution of all these disputes.” He also remarked that in his view, ADWR is the number one economic development agency of the state. He observed that investors and businesses want to invest in a community that has a firm water supply in place.

Senator Kyl said he is optimistic that Arizona’s leaders will come together to overcome these and other water-related challenges.  This is particularly the case when he sees so many of Arizona’s leaders knowledgeable about water and eager to learn. “The thing is you got to have an open mind and you’re going to have to really think things through,” he told the gathering. “You have to have a sense of destiny in that these are big problems for the future of the state.” 

The Arizona Water Reception was another step toward bringing leaders together who can solve these big problems. Now, it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep elected officials working on solutions for the common good, so our grandchildren and their children, will know we also had the will to act – and to compromise – on their behalf.

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.

Power Switch: Economics Driving New Energy for Moving Water

By Warren Tenney

In 2009, I was a new member of the Board overseeing the Central Arizona Project (CAP) and energy, not water, was the primary focus. I was surprised with my sudden immersion into the ins and outs of energy. Yet, there was a good reason for concentrating on energy.

As one of the largest energy users in the state, energy is crucial for CAP. CAP needs to pump water uphill from the Colorado River through the 336-mile canal that delivers water to cities, Native American communities, and farmers in Central Arizona and south to Tucson. Since the 1970s, nearly 90 percent of CAP’s primary energy source has been the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) in Page, Arizona near the Utah border. The plant is one of the country’s largest coal-fired power plants.

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So in 2009 and 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pushed hard to reduce the haze NGS produced in the scenic Four Corners area. It was estimated that NGS would need over a billion dollars in capital investment to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions to EPA’s satisfaction. Many felt EPA’s unspoken aim was to shut down NGS. CAP and the Salt River Project (SRP), the operator and part owner of the plant, took this attack on NGS seriously.

It was frightening to think of NGS shutting down or being forced to take on huge capital costs to meet EPA’s regulatory demands. The rallying cry was that NGS was critical to make sure CAP had power to operate and to keep energy costs low. At the time, many prominent voices correctly observed that keeping NGS open was important to Arizona’s economy, particularly to the City of Page and the surrounding Navajo Nation. NGS also provided CAP with a key revenue source. CAP sells surplus energy produced by the plant and uses the revenue to repay the federal government the loan it made to finance the construction of the CAP.

A concerted effort was made to find a compromise that EPA would accept to keep NGS open until 2044.  To the relief of many, in July 2014 the EPA and owners of NGS reached an agreement that would lower the levels of nitrogen oxide emission and keep NGS open until 2044.

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Inside the Navajo Generating Station  Photos: CAP

So fast-forward three years to today.  Many of us who followed the NGS story since 2009 are surprised with the news that the owners of NGS voted to close the power plant at the end of 2019. What has caused the 180-degree turn in the effort to save NGS?

Pure economics is driving the decision. The utilities that own NGS now are dealing with a power plant that is significantly more expensive than other energy options. Natural gas prices have dropped to record lows to become a viable long-term and economical alternative to coal power. This means pursuing the regulatory upgrades that were part of the compromise with EPA are even less cost-effective today. However, even if EPA loosened its coal regulations, the energy industry is headed towards having natural gas generation as the fuel of choice for many years to come.

So what does this mean to Arizona and particularly the Valley cities that utilize CAP?

First and foremost, CAP will have access to the energy necessary to move water through the CAP system even without NGS. In recent years, CAP has been looking at alternatives to NGS to be prepared for what is now happening. CAP can easily buy energy from the open-market power grid. Based on today’s energy market, CAP’s power costs would actually be significantly lower. Energy costs on the open market are much less than the cost to generate power at the NGS. This means CAP’s pumping energy rate – charged to the Phoenix area cities and others CAP users – will decrease.  Again, this new economic reality of the energy market is much different than just seven years ago when we were worried that an NGS closure would mean higher costs for CAP and its customers. 

NGS has been a reliable energy source for CAP.  While going on the open energy market will mean lower costs today, CAP faces the new challenge of how to best utilize the right energy sources to take advantage of low-cost power alternatives.

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Central Arizona Project canal.

While the decision to close NGS is not the dire situation we assumed it would be in 2009 and 2010, the closure of NGS still remains an enormous challenge for the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe and the community of Page. NGS has been a primary economic driver and major employer. Assuming the Navajo Nation extends the existing land lease for the plant through the end of 2019, the plant’s owners should have time to explore ideas to lessen the negative impact to that region.

The decision of the utility owners to close NGS – and the challenges it creates – reemphasizes the critical nexus between water and energy.

Warren Tenney was elected twice to serve as a member of the Central Arizona Project (also called the Central Arizona Water Conservation District or CAWCD) Board from Pima County. He served as Vice-President of the Board and as Chairman of the Board’s Finance, Audit & Power Committee. He resigned his board position in January 2016 to become Arizona Municipal Water User Association’s executive director.

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