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. 

 

AMWUA: Preparing For 2017 By Looking At 2016 Successes

By Warren Tenney

Like you, AMWUA and its member cities already are working toward 2017 goals. At the same time, we’re reviewing what went right in 2016. A look back provides a boost of confidence for us and we hope it will encourage you to get involved and help find ways to solve new and lingering water challenges. Here are a few examples of AMWUA’s work in 2016.

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Phoenix Councilwoman Thelda Williams,  AMWUA Board President, called the forum to order.

Legislature: AMWUA helped raise awareness about two state Senate bills that threatened to weaken Arizona’s requirement that new developments have a 100-year adequate water supply before building. Governor Doug Ducey ultimately decided to veto the bills. We also helped to stop or modify other bills that would have threatened the ability of our cities to deliver safe, reliable water. Just last month, AMWUA hosted a forum to inform lawmakers about current water issues and to explain the critical link between sound water policy and Arizona’s economic future.

Financing: In September, AMWUA partnered with the national Alliance for Water Efficiency to host a workshop that provided technical resources to help cities and private utilities develop and implement reasonable water rates. Reasonable water rates are fair to the customer, cover the cost of operating water and sewer systems, and promote conservation. In addition, AMWUA encouraged and participated in discussions to analyze financial issues impacting the Central Arizona Project (CAP) . CAP operates the 360-mile canal that delivers Colorado River water to Arizona cities. Understanding CAP’s finances helps the AMWUA cities prepare for future challenges that could affect the cost of Colorado River water they deliver to their citizens and businesses.

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Tonopah Desert Recharge Project Photo: CAP by Philip A. Fortnam

Research and Analysis: In 2016, AMWUA provided cities and their partners with practical and useful research outlining immediate water issues, such as recovering and distributing the water that Arizona has banked in underground aquifers. AMWUA also acted as the eyes and ears for our cities and kept them informed about current and pending water issues. You’ll find AMWUA staff at every major water meeting, such as CAP Board and Committee meetings, Salt River Project (SRP) Board meetings and the Groundwater Users Advisory Committee. I also serve on Governor Ducey’s Water Augmentation Council. We’re working to make sure the state has the water it needs to serve its cities, small towns, agriculture and industries well into the future.

Drought: The biggest ongoing topic among our city members – and all Arizona water professionals – for 2016, for 2017 and beyond is how Arizona can best respond to ongoing drought. The drought is affecting flows in the Colorado, Verde and Salt rivers, which supply the majority of Arizona’s residents with drinking water. Collaboration is the key to keeping our rivers healthy and our supplies reliable. In 2016, AMWUA regularly brought the cities’ water resource managers and water conservation professionals together with Arizona Department of Water Resources, CAP and SRP staff members to share information, challenges and ideas for solutions.

Conservation: In 2016, AMWUA’s assistant director joined the Board of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, which advocates for the efficient and sustainable use of water throughout North America. AMWUA’s Board of Directors also adopted a resolution to support exempting conservation rebates from federal income tax, just as energy rebates are exempt. AMWUA sought help from Arizona’s congressional delegation, encouraged Arizona communities to join the effort, and coordinated with the national coalition working to address the issue. AMWUA also updated its Xeriscape: Landscaping with Style Guide and provided copies to its members to distribute within their communities. 

Partnerships: If anyone knows the benefits of collaborating to solve problems, it’s a 47-year-old organization that helps 10 cities work together to assure a safe and reliable water supply. That’s why AMWUA spent 2016 continuing to build strong relationships with the Legislature, the Governor’s Office, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, The Nature Conservancy, the AgriBusiness and Water Council, the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense Program and many others.

img_8063You may know us best through this AMWUA Blog. Our readership is growing every year. We have spent much of 2016 working on a new website that will premier in 2017. Throughout 2016 we continued to keep you informed about regional, state and city water news through our Facebook and Twitter pages. In September, we also started having fun on Instagram, where we share water facts and useful tips with pretty – and not so pretty – pictures. Come take a look at amwua.arizona, #conservationculture.

So, 2017 is going to be an interesting year for water. We’re hoping you’ll join us and use your voice to ensure safe, reliable water supplies remain at the forefront of policy decisions. We want our children and grandchildren to raise their families in a thriving state.

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Try Living A Day Without Water

By Warren Tenney

Here’s a dare: Spend a day without water. The truth is you can’t. Even if you are willing to give up showering, brushing, flushing, washing your hands, doing laundry, using your dishwasher, watering your yard, jumping into your pool, cleaning your house and car, it’s not enough. That tee shirt you just pulled on, the gas in your car, the hops for your beer take many gallons of water to produce.

The Value of Water Coalition’s “Imagine a Day Without Water” is one of the more thoughtful national water awareness campaigns. The campaign’s goal is to help people understand where their water comes from and how important it is to maintain the infrastructure that delivers clean water to businesses and homes – and takes away wastewater. The official day to imagine your life without water is Thursday, September 15, but AMWUA embraces the campaign’s goals every day.idww2016highdef2

Where does our water come from? Most of the water delivered to Valley homes and businesses is river water. Colorado River water is transported through a 360-mile canal operated by Central Arizona Project and water from the Salt and Verde rivers is stored in reservoirs and transported through canals operated by Salt River Project. The cities pump some groundwater from the aquifer. They also use highly treated wastewater – called recycled or reclaimed water – to irrigate turf and supply Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Cities’ water portfolios also include water they have stored underground for future use. These multiple sources mean you will not have to live a day without water as long as we remain vigilant in managing these sources and the infrastructure that moves the water.

How does water get to our homes and businesses? The infrastructure that transfers water from the canals to treatment plants and into homes or businesses is underground or behind walls. So is the system that removes and treats wastewater. Unlike other infrastructures, such as roads and sidewalks, residents can’t monitor the aging of treatment plants, water pipes and pumps. However, just like roads and bridges, these water and wastewater systems fall into disrepair and cost money to maintain and replace. If this infrastructure breaks down it can mean hours or longer without water delivered to homes and businesses. That’s when a day without water becomes reality and no one is left untouched, homes, schools, hospitals, power plants, aquariums, or manufacturers.

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A recent article in Scientific American reported the nation suffers 240,000 water main breaks a year caused mainly by age. Estimates for upgrading the nation’s water infrastructure range from $682 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency to more than $1 trillion from the American Water Works Association.

The Phoenix Metro area is more fortunate than many older metropolitan areas. Many of our cities are younger with newer infrastructure or they are big enough and prosperous enough to fund well-functioning water departments. Water departments in most AMWUA cities are expected to pay for themselves, charging residents enough to pay for water resources plus operating and building expenses. The money you pay every month is used for two main purposes:

1. To cover increasing energy costs to transport and treat water and wastewater.

2. To build, maintain, repair and replace infrastructure to keep clean water flowing into homes and businesses and wastewater flowing out.

Without strong voices to advocate for investment in our water infrastructure, our water systems will remain out of sight and out of mind. There are places in the country, such as  Flint, Michigan, where people don’t have to imagine days without water. They have suffered through the ugly reality. The good news is city and private water utilities that invest in continual maintenance save money in the long run, protect the health of their customers, prevent disruptions in daily living, and sustain economic growth.

Community leaders, elected officials, business owners, residents and you need to advocate for continual support for our water systems. We need to plan and invest in our  water and wastewater systems today, so we may imagine a day without water, but never live through such a day.

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.

Fourth of July: Celebrating Our Water History

By Warren Tenney

Independence Day. However you celebrate – whether by the pool or watching fireworks with your favorite drink in hand – it is an excellent opportunity to contemplate what we often take for granted, such as affordable, safe water. Today we have safe drinking water at a reasonable cost delivered right inside our homes and businesses.

During the first century of our history, getting water often involved hauling it short or long distances in all types of weather. By the mid-1800s many cities had built centralized water systems, though most Americans did not enjoy indoor plumbing. During this period, pipes for water systems were made out of wood.  Even though iron pipes began to be used in the early 1800s, wood continued to be the more prevalent piping material. In the early 1900s, 30 miles of redwood pipeline brought water to the Phoenix area from the Verde River. It was not until after 1927 that the redwood pipelines began to be replaced with concrete pipes.

4th of July graphic 

In addition to the challenges of distributing water, people who operated early American water systems knew little about contaminated water. This created health issues for people.  In the 1800s, American cities were frequently hit with outbreaks of disease, such as cholera and typhoid.  In the 1850s, a link was made between contaminated water and disease.  Water treatment plants were built that used slow sand filtration and public health improved.  In the early 1900s, treatment plants began using chlorination, which led to an even more dramatic drop in water-borne diseases.  Today, the AMWUA cities deliver high quality drinking water because they invest in state-of-the-art treatment plants and dedicated professional operators.  This remains quite the achievement when you consider that clean water is still a luxury in many parts of the world.  Today, Water for People reports that 1.8 billion people around the world lack access to safe water and 2.4 billion do not have adequate sanitation.  More than 840,000 people die each year from water-related diseases. 

Historically, even in the United States, the conveniences of safe water and indoor plumbing have been the exception rather than the rule. In the 1830s, citizens were amazed when hotels in Boston and New York began offering indoor communal bathrooms to guests. In 1871, Tucson could boast a population of 3,000, a newspaper, a brewery, two doctors, a number of saloons, and one bathtub.  Indoor plumbing did not become an expected feature in all American homes until well into the 20th century. 

The availability of water was key to the settling of the West.  In Arizona, the Salt River Project was able to move water from miles away to guarantee the settlements in the Phoenix area thrived.  With water from the Salt and Verde River system and the Colorado River, the AMWUA cities have put together strong water portfolios to make water available to the millions of us who live here.  It takes thousands of miles of pipe running underground to deliver water to our homes. Each AMWUA municipality – Avondale, Chandler, Gilbert, Glendale, Goodyear, Mesa, Peoria, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe – has hundreds of dedicated water professionals who operate and maintain its water systems to ensure we have water whenever we need it.

We also enjoy this plentiful high-quality water at a reasonable cost.  In the late 1800s, burros would transport water from springs to the small number of residents in Tucson.  Vendors would sell the water for about five cents a gallon.  Today, clean water delivered to your home and work costs, on average, one-third of a penny per gallon.  And no burro has to deliver the thousands of gallons of water most residents use each month.    

So as you enjoy this Fourth of July with your family and friends, imagine how different your celebration would be if affordable, safe water did not flow from your indoor and outdoor faucets.  Give a shout out for the freedoms we enjoy in the United States.  And remember to add a cheer for the water we enjoy due to the hard work and effort of many individuals at your water utility, both past and present.

Tucson information is from The Book of Tucson Firsts by Larry Cox (1998). 

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.

El Rio: Cities Work To Restore Gila River Beauty

By Kathleen Ferris

Salt cedar is a bushy, invasive tree that can change the face of a landscape in a dangerous way. Three West Valley cities and Maricopa County are pushing to eradicate as much salt cedar as possible along an 18-mile stretch of the Gila Riverbed. Once destroyed, the goal is to replace the salt cedar groves with a wetlands habitat of native plants and trees that will attract wildlife, hikers, birders and horseback riders.

Here are three reasons salt cedar, also known as tamarisk, is a hazard in this section of the Gila Riverbed:

  • It has crowded out native trees and plants. Salt cedar now accounts for about 60 percent of the flora within the 18-mile stretch.
  • It has grown so thick within the riverbed and banks that it slows and stops flood water that courses down the river during heavy storms. The water has no place to go but over the banks and onto the flat land beyond. Since 1996, salt cedar within that stretch of the Gila River has added 7 square miles of land to the designated floodplain putting 200 more houses and active farmland in danger.
  • It catches fire easily and spreads quickly. In 2005, the Buckeye Fire Department battled the 500-acre Buck Fire along the Gila Riverbed within the salt cedar groves. The fire sent clouds of black smoke into downtown Buckeye and firefighters worry about fire reaching the populated areas closer to the city center.
Concept of trail along El Rio Watercourse levee

Concept of trail along El Rio Watercourse levee

In 2006, the AMWUA member cities of Avondale and Goodyear partnered with the City of Buckeye and the Flood Control District of Maricopa County to work together to create something better within the Gila Riverbed. The project is called the El Rio Watercourse Project.

The 8,000-acre El Rio Watercourse Project would be a grand addition to a trio of projects already built along the Salt River: the City of Phoenix’s Tres Rios Wetlands and Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area and Tempe Town Lake.

Hope was high for the project in 2006, when new housing developments were leaping across the West Valley. City and county planners expected that builders would be eager to reclaim and develop the land along the Gila. Developers would reduce the possibility of flooding by helping to eradicate salt cedar and building levees needed on both banks of the river. That would make it possible for the cities and county to move forward with the El Rio Watercourse Project.

Then the economic downturn brought the Valley to a rough stop, slowing but not totally eliminating work toward the river restoration project. The Flood Control District continued with two research projects in the Gila to determine the most efficient methods to limit the growth of salt cedar and encourage the growth of native plants.

  • One research project was conducted on a 50-acre site near Miller Road in Buckeye where salt
    Before and after restoration at Miller Road in Buckeye

    Before and after restoration at Miller Road in Buckeye

    cedar had been destroyed by fire. Researchers cleared the burned salt cedar and planted seeds of native plants and trees. They returned the first few years to take out salt cedar that continued to grow. The native species survived and decreased the density of the salt cedar.

  • The other research project was conducted on a 10-acre site within the county’s Estrella Mountain Regional Park. Researchers cleared the salt cedar, treated the ground and left it fallow. They returned after a year to install irrigation and nursery stock plants and trees. The salt cedar is sparse and the native plants are thriving. Visitors can see the restored area at Bullard and Vineyard roads where there is parking and an educational kiosk.

Here’s what researchers learned: eradicating resilient salt cedar and replacing it with native species is very expensive. The method used at the first site is the least expensive method. The method used at the second site is more effective, but the cost is prohibitive.

The three cities involved in the partnership are each moving ahead with a pilot project designed to showcase the possibilities of the completed project. The cities’ plans include parking lots, trails, educational kiosks, outdoor classrooms, lakes and wetlands. Currently, the cities are drafting common design guidelines for trails and other development along the river expected to be ready in the fall for public review.

The Flood Control District is creating a salt cedar management plan for the El Rio Watercourse Project that includes testing soil conditions and water availability to determine which native species would effectively replace the invasive species and in what areas. The District is also funding additional studies to help facilitate salt cedar removal in strategic locations along the river.

The District estimates it will need $150 million to build levees and at least $300 million to eradicate and replace salt cedar in the project site. The cities and the counties are working collectively to seek federal funding with help from members of Arizona’s congressional delegation. We’ll keep you informed.

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.