On The Job: Phoenix Team Protects Miles Of Water Lines

By Warren Tenney

The City of Phoenix has 6,922 miles of water lines and 4,865 miles of sewer lines buried about four feet under our feet. It wouldn’t be hard for a contractor digging a pool in someone’s backyard or a crew widening a street to hit and damage one of those lines. It’s Tammie Burkett’s job to make sure they don’t.

Tammie is one of two Utility Foremen who work with 15 employees who protect water and sewer lines throughout Phoenix’s 540 square miles. Each week, Tammie and her team respond to about 3,000 requests to mark the location of water and sewer lines before someone digs. These lines are marked by those colorful doodles that appear from time to time on your street and sidewalk. Tammie said some people mistake these markings for graffiti and will even paint over them. Please don’t. The blue markings indicate there is a water line within 2 feet on either side and green markings indicate sewer lines. The lines show where workers must hand dig and gently expose the pipes. These underground water and sewer lines share space with gas lines indicated by yellow markings, electric by red and communication lines by orange.

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The requests for Tammie’s team to mark water and sewer lines come through Arizona 811, a statewide agency that takes online reports or calls at 8-1-1 from anyone who is going to dig into the ground. Most contacts are from contractors who need to dig into city streets or sidewalks. Arizona 811 prevents accidents by requesting each utility to mark the ground showing the location of its underground lines before the digging begins.

 

Some calls come from homeowners putting in a pole for a driveway basketball hoop or from nurseries planting trees in yards.  The city will locate and mark any city-owned water or sewer lines under a yard, but will not mark the water line that runs from a water meter into a home. These lines are owned by the homeowner and are not the city’s responsibility.

Once alerted by Arizona 811, Tammie and her crew must respond and mark the area within two working days. In an emergency, such as an automobile accident that damages a power pole and shuts down electricity to a neighborhood, Tammie’s crew must respond within two hours. A team member always is on call for after-hour emergencies, which happen an average of 15 times a week. The on-call team member is particularly busy during monsoon season. 

If anyone damages one of Phoenix’s water or sewer lines without calling Arizona 811 or damages a correctly marked line, that person may be responsible for paying for the repairs or possibly fined. It’s Tammie’s job to investigate what is known in her business as “contractor hits.” Sometimes the city makes a mistake when marking a line, but more often the person digging failed to contact Arizona 811 or was careless. Sometimes contractors dispute the findings and the case ends up in court. 

 

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On the June day we visited, Tammie was working with a contractor who was putting in a swimming pool for a homeowner and sheared the top off a sewer line. The contractor had called the Arizona 811 number and knew where the sewer line was located.  “He just miscalculated while he was digging with his backhoe,” Tammie said. No sewage escaped, but it was a smelly mistake until a Phoenix crew repaired the hole the next day.

It’s rare that homeowners damage water and sewer lines, but it does happen. In some Phoenix neighborhoods 6-inch water lines are set back about 3  feet from the edge of the sidewalk and run under the front yards of homes along the street. On this same June day, Tammie was investigating a homeowner who had removed a large tree from his front yard. He had called Arizona 811 and received a “ticket” to show he had made the call but he removed the tree before the markings were placed. When he ripped up the tree, a 6-inch water line came with it.

Tammie cleaned trails and fought wild fires in Arizona and California before she began working for Phoenix 22 years ago. She started as a Parks and Recreation Department landscaper. Then Tammie decided she wanted to drive bigger trucks, so she earned her Commercial Driver’s License, transferred to the Phoenix Water Services Department and joined a team that cleaned and repaired wastewater lines.

For nine years, she vacuumed sewer lines and climbed into trenches to repair the lines, handling jackhammers, shovels and saws. “It’s not for everyone,” Tammie said. “It can be stinky – and dirty.” Tammie liked what she did then and likes what she does now, because she enjoys the people she works with. Tammie is from a military family that settled in Southern Arizona, where she graduated from Douglas High School.  She is ready to retire in a few years and return to that part of the state with her husband of 25 years.

For 48 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

Desert Adapting: Five Common Summer Landscape Mistakes

By Warren Tenney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For 48 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org

The Whys Behind Changes In Your Water Bill

By Warren Tenney

You may have noticed from time to time changes to your city’s water bill. A city makes adjustments to water and sewer rates to ensure the rates charged to homes and businesses cover the city’s expenses. Such adjustments only happen after being approved by your city council. Here are a few of the rising expenses that impact the cost of a city’s water and sewer services.

Water. Cities are paying more for this precious commodity. For example, the cost of Colorado River water delivered by the Central Arizona Project (CAP) has increased an average of 6.8 percent annually for the last 15 years. The cost for Salt River water delivered by the Salt River Project (SRP) also has increased even if at a lower rate.  Both will continue to rise. For Valley cities, the cost of raw water can be between 10 to 25 percent of their water budget.

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Salt River Project canals deliver water to city treatment plants.   Photo: Michael McNamara 

Energy. Water and wastewater plants and distribution systems use enormous amounts of energy. Energy costs have risen. The extent of this impact is different for all AMWUA cities because each city has a different treatment processes, different elevation changes, and different energy programs. Two AMWUA cities report their energy costs rose about 30 percent over the last 10 years. Cost increases for energy are expected to continue.

Infrastructure. Water runs to homes and businesses 24/7 365 days a year with little interruption. That’s because the pipes, pumps, valves, tanks and meters it takes to make that happen are regularly maintained, repaired and, when needed, replaced. Other infrastructure costs, like expanding or building new treatment plants, occur less frequently but are very expensive.

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City of Peoria utility crew repairs a leak in water infrastructure.

Chemicals. The cost of chemicals needed to treat water and wastewater also are  increasing. Again, the extent of this impact is different for all AMWUA cities. One city reported a 33 percent increase in the cost of chemicals over the last 10 years.

Quality. Standards for safe drinking water evolve as scientific knowledge increases. For example, in 2006 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) changed the level of arsenic permitted in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. That required new equipment in the treatment plants and new pipelines to be built.  EPA is continually assessing non-regulated contaminants to determine if they should be added to safe drinking water standards, which result in higher costs for water providers.

Security. Government regulations to keep water systems safe are increasing as new threats are identified. It costs to secure infrastructure and to train staff to respond effectively in case of emergencies, such as vandalism or a terror attack.

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City of Scottsdale utility crew participates in a drill to keep water flowing during an emergency.

Debt Service. Building and upgrading infrastructure is very expensive and often funded by bonds. These bonds smooth out rate increases by allowing water departments to pay back the debt over long periods of time. Cities work hard to keep their financial houses in order to receive high bond ratings. High bond ratings result in lower interest costs on these debts.

There are costs involved in running a water department that most city residents don’t think about. For example, consider the vehicles necessary to transport water professionals to read meters, take water quality samples, make planned and emergency repairs, and everything else involved to ensure you have water.  One AMWUA city reports that it costs $600,000 a year to maintain its fleet of vehicles.

City water departments want residential and commercial customers involved in helping to maintain water systems that provide reliable services. Some cities have citizen water advisory boards, citizen water information seminars and citizen tours. Learn more about your cities’ water systems and help your neighbors understand that a well maintained water and sewer system that is staffed by knowledgeable professionals is vital to maintaining your city’s economy.

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.

City Water Departments Answer Five Common Questions

By Warren Tenney

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

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

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

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

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

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

For 48 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

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

By Warren Tenney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For 48 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org

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.

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.