Drought: Five Things You Need To Know About This Rainy Winter

By Warren Tenney

Many people are wondering what this rainy, snowy winter means for Arizona after more than two decades of drought. Here are five things we know right now.

1. It’s raining and snowing in the right places. So far, it has been raining and snowing in locations that have the potential to increase water in two major reservoirs, Roosevelt Lake and Lake Mead. These reservoirs are key to drinking water supplies for the majority of Arizona’s population.

  • Lake Mead relies on runoff from snow pack in the Upper Colorado River Basin, primarily from two main tributaries: the Green River in southwestern Wyoming and the Upper Colorado River in western Colorado. December snowpack in the Colorado River Basin has ranged from 50 percent to three times above normal.  The result of this above normal precipitation will likely boost the reservoir levels of Lake Mead.
  • Roosevelt Lake relies on rain and snow in the watershed that feeds the Salt River. This watershed reaches into the high country northeast of Phoenix. So far, the watershed has received about 45 percent more precipitation than normal. As of January 25th, 211,000 acre-feet of water had flowed into Roosevelt Lake. (One acre-foot of water is enough to serve three average Arizona households for a year.)

2. This is a good start. Weather in February and March must remain cold and wet to hold and increase the gains and potential gains in both reservoirs. Water resource managers are pleased with rain but prefer snow accompanied by extended weeks of cold temperatures. Low temperatures keep the snow on the ground longer, which stops the water in the ground from evaporating and helps to reduce the threat of summer wildfires. The slow flow from melting snow also delivers cleaner water and is easier to manage in a water delivery system. So while it has already been a good winter, we will have to wait until April to know if it has been a great season.

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This is a map of the  watershed where the springs, creeks and rivers originate that feed into Roosevelt Lake, a key drinking water reservoir for the Phoenix Metro area.

3. The drought is not over. Research shows that drought cycles and wet cycles in Arizona run 20 to 30 years. A drought cycle has fewer wet years than dry and a wet cycle has a greater number of above average rainy years. The current record-breaking drought cycle began around 1996. The last six years have been the driest on record in the Salt and Verde rivers’ watersheds. If the weather follows historical trends, the current drought could be coming to a close within the next several years, but there’s no certainty and it does not factor in climate change. It would take a few years of greater than average snow and rain to begin to heal the wounds left by the current drought. This includes helping to replenish local aquifers used to back up water available in dams and reservoirs. Plus, two or three years of well above-average precipitation on the watersheds that feed the Salt and Verde rivers would help to re-establish depleted wildlife, such as quail and deer. That much precipitation would help to restore overgrazed grasslands and begin to create a healthier forest, with trees not as susceptible to diseases and bark beetle infestation.

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4. AMWUA cities are built for drought. Sunshine is the norm in Central Arizona and rain is an event. We have never denied that we live in an arid part of the country and we plan for drought cycles. AMWUA cities save water underground for future use, keep leaks within their water distribution systems to some of the lowest rates in the country, and re-use 99 percent of their wastewater. Salt River Project (SRP) operates the system of reservoirs and canals that store water from the Salt and Verde rivers. After a rare rainy year in 2010, SRP has faced six dry years on the rivers’ watersheds. Despite record low precipitation, Roosevelt Lake has remained half full and SRP has been able to fill water orders for farmers, industries and cities. SRP was forced to limit water orders by 33 percent in 2002, the driest year in the Southwest in 1,200 years. That year, the SRP system was only 25 percent full and Roosevelt Lake alone was down to 10 percent full. It was the first reduction since the 1950s.

Central Arizona Project (CAP) operates the canal that brings Colorado River water released from Lake Mead to Arizona. CAP has not yet had to reduce water supplies due to a Colorado River shortage. The state’s cities, farmers and industries currently are working together to maintain and increase the level of water stored in Lake Mead and prevent a water shortage declaration next year. The recent increase in winter precipitation and snowpack in the Colorado River Basin decreases the chances that a shortage would be declared in 2018. So, while we regularly face metrological droughts, our water supply droughts are rare.

5. You can make the rain count. Homeowners, apartment managers and businesses make a contribution to our reservoirs when they turn off their irrigation systems and auto-fills on their pools each time it rains. More homeowners and communities also are harvesting the rain by contouring their landscapes to hold storm runoff. Swales built around trees and plants help rainwater stay in place longer so the water soaks deep into the landscape and stays available to plants and trees longer. All of this reduces the need to irrigate and the demand on city water supplies, which in turn saves more drinking water for drinking.

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 http://www.amwua.org. 

 

Lawmakers Get Answer To Arizona’s Biggest Water Question

By Warren Tenney

When I meet people and they find out I work in water, they always ask me this question: When are we going to run out of water? Arizona legislators – particularly those who were just elected – have the same concerns and questions about the state’s water supplies. Many of these lawmakers from both urban and rural communities attended AMWUA’s legislative forum on December 7th to get answers. AMWUA assembled leaders from the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Central Arizona Project, Salt River Project and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry to make sure legislators have the latest and best information. Here’s some of what the legislators learned.

gathering-forum

The crowd begins to gather at the Desert Botanical Garden for the AMWUA legislative forum.

Arizona is one of the most successful states in the country at managing its water resources. We have never shied away from the fact that we live in an arid place.  Since our water supply is limited, out of necessity we have managed it very well by wringing out every drop. Despite a 17-year drought, Arizona is not in a water crisis and the state has planned for extended drought. Much of the credit goes to Arizona’s forward-thinking leaders who passed the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act. Among other things, this law regulates wells in the state’s most populous areas, requires a 100-year assured water supply before development, and helps to save water in the state’s aquifers for the future. The Act also motivated AMWUA to create a regional water conservation program.  As a result of this regional effort and municipal water conservation programs, water demand in the Valley is the same today as the late 1980s despite a rapid increase in population. AMWUA member cities want to ensure the strong foundation built by the Groundwater Management Act is always strengthened by new legislation and never—intentionally or unintentionally—weakened.

thelda-forum

I talk with City of Phoenix Councilwoman Thelda Williams, president of AMWUA’s Board, who called the forum to order.

Despite our successes, there are challenges ahead for us to overcome. Valley cities are supplied mainly with water from the Colorado, Salt and Verde rivers. These rivers are experiencing drought that is affecting state water supplies. For example, flows in the Salt and Verde rivers are down by 35 percent. The rivers are suffering from over-pumping in rural areas not regulated by the Groundwater Management Act and from catastrophic wildfires in overgrown forests where the rivers’ originate.  Furthermore, the AMWUA cities also receive almost 40 percent of their water from Lake Mead, a reservoir behind Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The water level in Lake Mead determines if and when the U.S. Secretary of the Interior will declare an official Colorado River water shortage. Without continued conservation efforts, there is a 50 percent chance of a shortage declaration in 2018, which would reduce Arizona’s available supply.

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Arizona Chamber’s Glenn Hamer said water is a top issue for the Chamber.

At the forum, the Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Thomas Buschatzke, assured legislators the state is working with cities, farmers, industries and Native American communities to reach an agreement to keep more water in Lake Mead and prevent a shortage declaration. If a comprehensive agreement can be reached in time, Director Buschatzke said he would present the plan to state lawmakers for their approval during the 2017 legislative session. A successful Arizona plan is key to Nevada and California agreeing to plans that would protect Lake Mead on a larger scale.

Arizona Chamber CEO Glenn Hamer told lawmakers that he supports Director Buschatzke’s efforts. He also called for the same kind of arduous negotiations and political will that created the 1980 Groundwater Management Act—this time to create a plan that protects our current water supplies in all three rivers.

“We may be at the point where we’re going to have to come together in a bipartisan fashion to protect the state,” Mr. Hamer told the forum. He named water as one of the Chamber’s top three issues. “Water security means economic security,” Mr. Hamer said.

The AMWUA cities have worked hard to help Arizona remain a leader in water management. As a result, the Valley has grown from a dusty outpost into a major economic growth center. But wise water management isn’t just for the AMWUA cities.  Water is a statewide concern.  Rivers and aquifers do not recognize political boundaries. What happens in one part of the state can have a ripple effect in other parts. We are in this together, whether we reside in urban or rural Arizona and whatever our political affiliations.

So here’s the answer to that pervasive question from all water users, whether or not they have the power to make laws. When will Arizona run out of water? We will run out of water when we stop planning, managing, and investing in it.

For 47 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

Defying Mother Nature: Creative Solutions To Avoid Shortages

By Warren Tenney

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

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

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

CAP canal brings water to central Arizona. Photo: CAP

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

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

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

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

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

For 47 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org  

Peak Demand Dictates How Cities Build Water Infrastructure

By Warren Tenney

It’s no surprise that demand for water in the Phoenix Metro area reaches its peak during the summer months. What may be surprising is that demand nearly doubles from the winter months to the summer months. In February 2015, City of Peoria customers – businesses, apartment buildings and homes – used 2,940 acre-feet of water. In July, Peoria’s peak rose to 6,516 acre-feet of water. (One acre-foot of water is enough to cover an acre to the depth of one foot or enough to serve an average of three Arizona households for a year.) In December 2015, City of Mesa water customers used 5,899 acre-feet of water. In July 2015, Mesa water customers used 10,503 acre-feet.

The annual pattern of peak demand can look slightly different from year to year, depending on fluctuations in heat and when monsoon storms arrive. The chart below shows Mesa’s annual water production for the past 5 years. Peaking in Mesa happens most often in July, but a hot June and a good July monsoon can mean that the peak month could be June.Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 8.10.27 AM

Watching water-use trends and peak demand is critical to planning and building water infrastructure. Here’s why:

  •  Annual Peak Demand: Cities build infrastructure to meet annual peak demand. It would be cheaper to order just enough water and build just enough pipes, pumps and small reservoirs within a water system to meet average water use but that would make water delivery to your faucets unreliable during peak demand times. More is invested in water treatment and distribution systems to ensure they are built to provide water for the hottest days when landscape irrigation systems, pools and cooling towers are working at maximum capacity.
  • Daily Peak Demand: Each day, demand for water peaks in the morning and, again, in the evening hours. That means water managers are diligently filling a water system’s reservoirs overnight to make sure enough water is ready to be pumped to homes when hundreds of thousands of residents step into their showers between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. Then water managers dial back around 9 a.m. when demand lessens and to prepare for the after work demand.

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    Small reservoirs keep water available for peak demand. Photo: City of Mesa

  • Safety Peak Demand: Being ready for daily and seasonal water demands isn’t enough. Water managers must maintain water supplies and build water systems for the what-ifs. What if it’s 6 a.m. on a July morning and firefighters call for more water to fight two house fires and a brush fire? What if the system is just dialing back to accommodate a low demand time when a water main breaks spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons of water meant for customers into the street instead? A water distribution system must have supplies, pipes, reservoirs and pumps in reserve to keep water running to customer faucets while employees fix the break or provide water for fire suppression.

Most cities, including Mesa and Peoria, use a computer program called Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition or SCADA to track water demand throughout their systems. The program allows city employees to keep their eyes on each part of the water distribution system remotely and in real time. Operators use this innovative computer program to review water distribution continually throughout their service area and to track peaks in demands. For example, a sudden change in pressure could mean firefighters need high volume and increased pressure to put out a fire, a construction site is filling a large water tank, a reservoir is overflowing or there is a break in the system and the city is losing water.  Utility workers can quickly respond to investigate and correct the problem to significantly reduce any disruption to your water service. 

Mesa Canal Connection

Photo: City of Mesa

During the last two decades, while Mesa and Peoria have grown by hundreds of thousands of people, the water used by city customers, even during peak demand months, has remained nearly flat. Cities helped to fuel this accomplishment by promoting a conservation culture, which includes encouraging drought-tolerant landscapes and the use of water-efficient appliances and fixtures, and helping residents find and fix leaks. Want to help lower your city’s peak demand? Start outside where as much as 70 percent of a home’s water is used. AMWUA’s Smart Home Water Guide can help you find and fix leaks. AMWUA’s landscape pages can help you select drought-tolerant plants and trees, design a lovely yard, and efficiently water your landscape for maximum beauty.

For 47 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

Water Bank: Arizona’s Emergency Savings Account

By Warren Tenney

In the early 1990s, Arizona was not using all the water it was legally due from the Colorado River. Instead, much of Arizona’s unused water flowed down the Colorado River to California. Here’s why: Under the law that governs the Colorado River, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior can give water not used by one state to other states. As a result, each year California was the beneficiary of at least some of Arizona’s unused water. At the time, there were also concerns that Nevada would soon eye Arizona’s unused allotment.

Arizona’s Colorado River water is used in multiple ways. One major use is to irrigate agricultural lands along the Colorado River, most prominently in the Yuma region. In addition to on-River farming, more than half of Arizona’s allotment goes to municipal, tribal and agricultural users in Central Arizona. These users receive the water through a 336-mile canal that transports water across the state called the Central Arizona Project (CAP).  Since most municipal, tribal and agricultural users did not use their full allotments of water in the 1990s, their unused Colorado River water went to California. This was an unsettling predicament for a desert state that expected a surge in population.  Arizona’s mantra became “leave no water on the River.”

To address concerns that Arizona’s water was going to California, water managers AWBA Logodeveloped a concept to deliver unused water through the Central Arizona Project to store underground. This stored water would act as a buffer for times of drought. With support from the Arizona Department of Water Resources, AMWUA, and others in the water community, the Arizona Legislature in 1996 established the Arizona Water Banking Authority, more commonly called the Water Bank. Today, the Water Bank has stored 3.4 million acre-feet of water for Arizona. (One acre-foot of water serves an average of three Arizona households for a year.)

Here are the two ways the Water Bank stores water:

1. Underground Storage Facilities: With help from CAP, the Water Bank delivers Colorado River water to one of many underground storage facilities in central and southern Arizona. CAP, cities and other water agencies operate these storage facilities. These water storage sites consist of large constructed ponds called recharge basins. These basins are designed to allow the water to easily percolate into the ground. The water enters the natural aquifer where it is available to be pumped up through wells and delivered to customers affected by a shortage of Colorado River water.

Southern Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project. Courtesy of Tucson Water.

Southern Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project. Photo: Tucson Water

2. Groundwater Savings Facilities: These facilities work as a water exchange. In this case, Colorado River water is delivered to participating agricultural lands and used to irrigate crops. Participating farms or irrigation districts that receive river water agree not to pump an equal amount of water from the aquifer, thereby “saving” water underground. In the event of a Colorado River shortage, the water that was saved in the aquifer would be pumped or “recovered” and delivered to customers, such as cities, to help make up for shortages.

In recent years, CAP has had less unused or “excess” water. This is because municipal, tribal and agricultural users have been using more and more of their CAP water allocations.  As a result the Water Bank has less unused water to store from the “excess pool.”  When there was more excess water, the Water Bank stored an average of 250,000 acre-feet of water a year. In the last two years, that number has dropped to an average of 65,000 acre-feet.

There is currently a 56 percent chance the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior will declare a shortage of Colorado River water as early as 2018. Under the law that governs the Colorado River, the Secretary declares shortages based on the water levels in Lake Mead, the giant reservoir that sits behind Hoover Dam on the Colorado River at the Arizona-Nevada border. A 16-year drought has driven Lake Mead to its lowest level since the dam was completed in 1936. A possible 2018 shortage declaration would not affect the water supplies for cities, but would impact agricultural users and the Colorado River “excess pool” from which the Water Bank draws its water.  

The Water Bank has allowed Arizona to take all of its water off of the River and store it for a “dry” day.  The 3.4 million acre-feet of water stored by the Water Bank is a key component of Arizona’s preparations for eventual shortage.  As part of these efforts, it is important that the Water Bank, CAP, and water users develop a comprehensive plan for how the stored water can be recovered to help cities if a shortage declaration impacts their water supplies. 

The creation and operation of the Arizona Water Banking Authority is just one more example of how Arizona has led the way in water investment and innovation. This legacy continues to drive the water community as we tackle the challenge of looming shortages on the Colorado River.

For 46 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.

Salt River: Bringing Life To A Desert Valley

By Warren Tenney

A likely shortage of Colorado River water in Arizona is big news. It should be. Colorado River water makes up 44 percent of the state’s water supply delivered through 336-miles of canals and pumps known as the Central Arizona Project. Colorado River water is important to Arizona but it is not the state’s only source of drinking water.

Salt River Project (SRP) operates eight dams, seven reservoirs and 131 miles of canals that bring water from the Salt and Verde rivers to the Phoenix metropolitan area. SRP provides 12 percent of Arizona’s water and is the largest provider of water to the Phoenix Metropolitan area.

A Short History

The Salt River has served the Valley since the ancient Hohokam people settled here in the year 300 A.D. These Native Americans built a 500-mile canal system that brought river water into their villages and fields for the next 1,000 years. They vanished around 1450.

The Hohokam had been gone nearly 400 years when an 1860s gold rush attracted fortune seekers to the Salt River Valley. Among them was Jack Swilling, an ex-Confederate cavalryman, who saw an opportunity to use water from the Salt River via canals to grow crops. He sold those crops to miners and the U.S. Calvary stationed at Fort McDowell.

Individuals, private companies, and associations started digging dozens of ditches trying to replicate Swilling’s success. The luckiest of these ventures lasted 30 years. Then came the same natural phenomenon that historians suspect pushed the Hohokam from the Valley: drought. The Salt River could no longer provide enough water for all the canals and thousands of acres of crops withered. Like the Hohokam, hundreds of pioneers left the desert village. 

 

To thrive, Phoenix needed a dam that would collect and store river water in the mountains to the north and east. The 1902 National Reclamation Act provided Phoenix with federal loans to build two dams on the Salt River, Theodore Roosevelt and Granite Reef Diversion. The federal government also bought out the ditch companies and connected all the canals into one system.

Ranchers and farmers who had remained in the Salt River Valley organized the Salt River Water Users’ Association and pledged their lands as collateral for the federal loans. In 1917, the federal government turned over the operation of the canal system to the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association, which continues to operate the canals for the federal government as the Salt River Project.

Roosevelt Dam provides both a reservoir and hydropower. The Roosevelt Dam began supplying hydroelectric power to a copper mine in 1912. To increase its power capacity, SRP built three more dams along the Salt River before 1930. By 1946, SRP had built two dams on the Verde River. (These dams do not generate hydropower.)

After World War II the Salt River Valley was rapidly turning into an urban center that needed water for residential customers, rather than solely ranchers and farmers. In 1952, the City of Phoenix established the first contract with SRP to divert water from its canals to treat and deliver to homes. By 1984, SRP was delivering 55 percent of its water to Valley cities.

How It Works

The Salt and Verde rivers flow into Roosevelt Lake behind Roosevelt Dam. The reservoir can hold 1.6 million acre-feet or enough to meet SRP contracts for two years.

Canyon Lake

Canyon Lake

  • The water then runs through three reservoirs that are popular recreation lakes for Valley residents: Apache, Canyon and Saguaro. The Verde River water flows through Horseshoe and Bartlett lakes.
  • The water is released back into the Salt and Verde rivers, which eventually converge behind the Granite Reef Diversion Dam east of Mesa.
  • From there the river water enters into the Valley’s familiar canal system via gravity and is distributed to city water treatment plants and to farms.

SRP serves water to a 375-square-mile area and electricity to more than 1 million customers. The total SRP system today is about 55 percent full – just about the same as one year ago. In this 16th year of drought, the January-to-May snowmelt into the Salt and Verde rivers was below the median flow for the sixth consecutive year. The bright spot? The Phoenix metropolitan area has reduced its demand for water over the last 20 years.

What It Means To You

The Salt River and the Colorado River provide the AMWUA cities with a robust water supply. SRP makes up 53 percent of the water portfolio for the 10 largest cities in Maricopa County.  Having more than one source of water means a stronger economy for the Valley and a more reliable source of water for you.

SRP is unique to Arizona. We are all stewards of the Salt and Verde rivers. The watershed and forests that created and nurture these water sources must be managed well. We all have a responsibility to protect our watershed and forests, whether through making certain our actions do not cause a fire when camping or getting involved in forest restoration efforts. The health of our forests impacts the quality and sustainability of our water. 

Want to learn more about Salt River Project? Here’s a great place to begin.

For 46 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.

Phoenix Partners With Forest Fund To Protect Valley Water

By Kathleen Ferris

Every time a truck, an ATV, or a motorbike travels along a dirt road in Arizona’s high country it churns up the ground, creates ruts and gullies, and degrades the edges of the road. When there is a storm, these dirt roads become conduits for runoff that carry the churned earth into streams and rivers.

Prescribed burn in Coconino National Forest

Prescribed burn in Coconino National Forest

Eventually, that sediment reaches familiar lakes, such as Roosevelt, Canyon, and Bartlett. These recreational lakes also serve as reservoirs that hold the water Phoenix and other Valley cities receive, treat, and send to homes and businesses. The more sediment in the water the more difficult and expensive it is for cities to create drinking water for all of us.

Wildfires also exacerbate the problem by leaving behind thick layers of sterile soil that can’t absorb water. Storm runoff brings tons of that soil into streams, rivers and, eventually, into reservoirs. After large fires, such as the Wallow in 2011 and Rodeo-Chediski in 2002, the sediment also contains ash and carbon making it even more difficult to treat.

This is why last month the Phoenix City Council unanimously approved a three-year, $600,000 grant to the Northern Arizona Forest Fund. The fund, established in 2014, is a partnership of the U.S. Forest Service, National Forest Foundation, and Salt River Project.

The fund is dedicated to maintaining healthy forests and trails that surround the Salt and Verde rivers, the source of half of the Valley’s drinking water. So far, contributors to the Northern Arizona Forest Fund include businesses, utilities, and philanthropic organizations. The City of Phoenix is the first municipality to contribute to the fund.

The Northern Arizona Forest Fund works with its partners, local non-profits, and private contractors to identify and finance specific projects that help to keep creeks, streams, rivers and lakes clean. This year, the Northern Arizona Forest Fund is supporting two projects in the Coconino National Forest.

  • The Oak Creek Erosion Control Project is improving 20 miles of dirt roads around this popular recreational area. The $200,000 project is repairing gullies and ruts and restoring areas where vehicles have pulled off the designated road to avoid obstacles. In a few places, the trail will be rerouted. Then the trails will be stabilized with sealants, gravel and other structures to minimize erosion.
  • The Upper Beaver Creek Forest Health Project is located about 30 miles south of Flagstaff. This $300,000 project thins the forest by removing small trees and underbrush. Firefighters call this underbrush “ladder fuel” because it carries fire up to the crowns of the largest pines where the flames grow hotter, move faster and are more destructive. Most of this 48,000-acre area will be thinned manually. A prescribed burn will clear a small portion of about 1,000 acres.

With the help of Phoenix’s contribution, the Northern Arizona Forest Fund will be able to fund at least five more thinning and erosion control projects beginning in 2016. These projects are within four National Forests near important water sources.

  • Coconino: Thin about 25 acres of forest near Stoneman Lake, 30 miles south of Flagstaff. The area surrounds a habitat area for the endangered Mexican Spotted Owl. Improve 11 miles of Schnebly Hill Road to decrease sediment flow into nearby Oak Creek.
  • Kaibab: Thin 200 acres of piñon-juniper forest 10 miles south of Williams.
  • Prescott: Fill gullies and remove trees and invasive weeds in 100-acres of natural meadow 10 miles northwest of Cottonwood.
  • Apache-Sitgreaves: In partnership with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, reconstruct four and a half miles of fence 20 miles south of Greer. The fence was destroyed in the Wallow Fire. It prevents feral and domesticated horses from damaging a 2,000-acre riparian wildlife habitat area.

Phoenix has the foresight to understand that distant forests are its vital link to a clean and steady water supply. More Valley cities will likely join in this effort.

For 46 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 amwua.org.