Why Are We Still Using Flood Irrigation In The Desert?

By Warren Tenney

Flood irrigation can be a surprising sight in a desert Valley. Water comes pouring out of ditches, covering large parks, ball fields or yards in what looks like deep storm runoff. While the rest of us are using drip lines and sprinklers, this sort of watering is difficult to understand. Here are the facts about flood irrigation in the Valley.

A Little History: Flood irrigation is a vestige of the Valley’s agricultural roots. Phoenix area farmers and ranchers had been brought to near ruin by the devastating cycles of flood and drought. At the turn of the century, these farmers and ranchers pledged their land – totaling 200,000 acres – as collateral to obtain a loan from the federal government to build Roosevelt Dam.  The dam allowed the fledgling community to manage cycles of drought and flood.  Each acre of land that was pledged as collateral represents one share in the Salt River Valley Water Users Association (today part of Salt River Project), the public corporation formed to secure funding for the dam. Those shares are tied to each acre, or portion of an acre, and the shares transfer with the land.  Shareholders are entitled to vote in the SRP elections of governing representatives.

Irrigation brochure

PHOTO: Salt River Project

In Arizona, the rights to surface (river) water are tied to the land by law.  Those lands where the water was put to use first have superior rights, and court determinations affect the distribution of surface water supplies.  In 1910, a court decision called the Kent Decree determined which lands were entitled to receive water stored behind Roosevelt Dam in Roosevelt Lake.  These lands, totaling 240,000 acres, are the SRP service area. It spans portions of Maricopa, Gila and Pinal counties, including from the City of Mesa and west to the City of Avondale. SRP is responsible for accounting and delivering that water.  These lands are entitled to a predetermined allotment of water.

 

A Big Change: Over the decades, the SRP service area became increasingly urbanized. Farms were subdivided into residential neighborhoods.  The shares in the Salt River Valley Water Users Association transferred with the land to homeowners and businesses. The rights to water from SRP, also tied to the land, transferred to the new landowners.

The new landowners frequently decided not to take their water via flood irrigation.  Their allotment of raw water was instead delivered to growing cities and towns to treat and deliver to the residents and businesses within the SRP lands.  Over the decades, that trend continued. Today, the majority of the water delivered by SRP (about 85 percent) goes directly to municipal water providers.

lake in a park

PHOTO: Salt River Project

The water still provided by SRP for flood irrigation is untreated and delivered largely by gravity through open canals.  The cost of this raw SRP water is low because the investment in construction of the system was made long ago and the cost of water is subsidized by SRP’s energy sales. However, municipal drinking water is significantly more expensive. There is considerable cost to treat raw water to meet drinking water standards, to maintain the treatment plants and the massive miles of mains and pipes and meters, and to employ professionals to maintain and operate that system.

The Pros and Cons: Flood irrigation isn’t necessarily as bad an idea as it appears, at least not for turf and large trees. Many old and beautiful trees, including fruit and nut trees, wouldn’t survive without flood irrigation. The main benefit is it quickly irrigates at infrequent intervals. The water soaks deeper, limiting build up of salinity in the soil (which can damage turf and plants) and encouraging deeper roots.

Cities run on tight budgets and water is a huge expense.  Where they can, cities use recycled wastewater for irrigation, but that, too, requires costly treatment and a separate distribution system.  (Virtually 100 percent of Phoenix and Tucson area recycled water is put to beneficial use.)  If a city has the right to use cheap, untreated flood irrigation for ball fields and parks instead of installing an irrigation system that uses more costly drinking water, it is understandable they would take the opportunity to save taxpayers money.

2003 Annual Report

PHOTO: Salt River Project

The homeowners on SRP lands also have rights to flood irrigation, but most have opted to no longer take it. Only about 22,000 homeowners receive flood irrigation, about 5 percent of SRP lands. Using flood irrigation can be inconvenient.  Homeowners must get up in the middle of the night to open and shut the irrigation gate on their property. The ditches are the private property of homeowners. Some neighborhoods have abandoned flood irrigation because of the cost of maintaining and repairing aging delivery ditches. Other neighbors have come together to save flood irrigation and agreed to tax themselves to cover the cost of professional repair and maintenance of the ditches. (Arizona law permits special taxing districts. These particular taxing districts are called Irrigation Water Delivery Districts.)

For more than 35 years, AMWUA members and its partners have worked toward more water-efficient, environmentally friendly landscapes. We have made considerable progress.  Back in the 1980s, 70 percent to 90 percent of residential properties in the city of Phoenix had turf landscapes.  Only 15 percent do now.  Flood irrigation is becoming a thing of the past.

The downside of eliminating flood irrigation is that it is more expensive and energy-intensive to treat raw water to drinking standards and then use it to irrigate turf and plants. Even if plants are drought tolerant, they will likely require some irrigation in an arid, urban and increasingly hot environment. Trees, plants, and turf provide shade, reduce energy demands (and the water needed to produce energy), filter pollutants from storm water, improve air quality, and provide places to rest and recreate. Learn more about flood irrigation from Salt River Project. 

For now, flood irrigation is part of our history that saves money and energy.

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 amwua.org.

Dirty Secrets: Backyard Composting Among Cities’ Free Landscape Classes

By Warren Tenney

AMWUA cities offer more than 70 free landscape classes throughout the year to help you grow a more beautiful yard with less water. Local experts introduce you to a wide variety of desert plants and how to use them to design shady and colorful spaces that attract birds and butterflies. Topics also include how to select, plant and nurture trees, how much and when to water, how to grow vegetables and herbs in the desert, and how to operate your irrigation controller. This fall the City of Glendale is offering five classes, including one called “Backyard Composting.” 

There are several reasons why desert dwellers put time and energy into becoming backyard composters. Some talk about the magic of science that turns their kitchen scraps and yard trimmings into something that looks like rich, dark soil. For others, it’s about growing the best tomatoes on the block or creating a booster for container gardens. People who take the time to compost will tell you they want to decrease the amount of garbage they pack into large plastic bags and send to landfills. When compost – officially called a “soil amendment” – is used on trees, plants and vegetables the water is more readily absorbed. That can make deep, infrequent irrigation more effective and help you use water more wisely.

Here are just a few tips about basic backyard composting that you’ll learn at the Glendale class offered 6 p.m. Nov. 8 at the city’s Main Library. 

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Composting containers can be bought at any gardening store.

Container: Compost containers must be at least one cubic yard (3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet) to get the kind of microbial activity you need to create compost. You can buy a container specially made for composting through a gardening outlet. You also can check with your city’s solid waste department. Some cities recycle old trash and recycling cans into inexpensive compost bins. They remove the bottoms, drill holes in the sides to facilitate aeration, and keep the lid on to help prevent evaporation.

Composting material: Anything that once grew roots and leaves – or is made from something that once grew roots and leaves – is a suitable composting material. You need nitrogen (often green) and carbon (often brown) to create compost. Nitrogen is most likely supplied by your kitchen waste, such as the woody stems on asparagus and broccoli, a celery stump or the lettuce you forgot about in the back of the refrigerator. Dried landscape materials supply carbon, such as wood chips from a trimmed tree limb, dried leaves or a pile of lawn clippings left in the sun for a week. (Fresh, green lawn clippings are a source of nitrogen). The smaller the size of the composting material the quicker it changes into compost. Never use bones, grease or meaty leftovers in a compost pile. These food items need different microbes to decompose. Never use cat or dog droppings, or droppings from any animal that consumes meat. These droppings harbor unhealthy bacteria that composting does not destroy. It’s fine to add manure from cows, horses, goats, rabbits or llamas. 

Oxygen: The composting material changes into compost through the work of microbes. These microbes need oxygen. They get that oxygen when the compost is “turned” or churned. The more frequently the compost material is turned the more oxygen the microbes get, the harder they work and the faster the compost is finished. Some composting containers come with a handle that turns and tumbles the composting material. Other gardeners prefer to simply transfer their material from one container to another with a shovel. 

Water: Composting microbes also need water. In the desert, compost bins tend to dry out. (Turning your compost by hand lets you find dry spots.) Your compost material should be warm in the middle and as moist as a wrung sponge. If you squeeze it and water comes out, it’s too wet. Add carbon with some dry materials. If the pile is crispy, it’s too dry. Sprinkle it with water and add some nitrogen.

Patience: Finished compost equals 40 to 50 percent of the volume of composting material used. A single typical compost bin could produce one to two wheelbarrows of compost in 6 to 10 weeks. Finished compost is rich, dark, soft and earthy. If your compost still has chunks, microbes are still working. Instead of helping your plants, microbes in unfinished compost will draw nitrogen from plants and soil to stay alive.

So, you just can’t see yourself chipping, shredding, collecting and turning your way to compost? AMWUA has a list of free city landscape classes on its website. Take a look. You’re likely to find a class you need. Some cities are offering classes right now. Others will be posting soon.

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

Pure Brew: Campaign Promotes Future Source Of Drinking Water

By Warren Tenney

A couple dozen Arizona craft breweries will bring their beers to Phoenix in September to vie for a professional judge’s choice award and a people’s choice award. Here’s why this particular beer competition is big news: The competing brewers are making their beers with purified recycled wastewater for the 32nd Annual WaterReuse Symposium being held in Phoenix. The competition is the culmination of a statewide traveling campaign called the Arizona Pure Water Brew Challenge created by a Pima County Southwest Water Campus partnership. The campaign’s goal is to help people understand and trust the technology that creates purified recycled water, a renewable source of future drinking water.

Recycling wastewater is nothing new. AMWUA member cities put virtually all of their wastewater to beneficial use. Since 1973, much of the recycled water has been sent to cool the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, a power station southwest of Phoenix that provides energy for 4 million people in four states. Cities use recycled water to create fishing lakes, restore or construct riparian areas, and irrigate large turf areas, such as parks and HOA common areas. Cities also store recycled water underground for future use. The Arizona Department of Environment Quality sets the standards for recycled water and cities treat recycled wastewater to A+ quality, which means it is treated and disinfected until there are no detectable disease-causing bacteria.

Pure Brew Truck

There is now technology to clean A+ wastewater beyond drinking water standards. This water is called purified water. It is recycled water that is further treated using ultra filtration, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet disinfection with advanced oxidation, activated carbon filtration and chlorine disinfection. Professionals view purified water as an important part of solving drinking water shortages in the future, but it has one major problem standing in its way: public perception. Imagining where the water originated is a hurdle many people find difficult to overcome.

The Arizona Pure Water Brew Challenge was designed to help people get over that hurdle. The project was created by a partnership that includes Pima County Southwest Water Campus, a team of water professionals, University of Arizona scientists, local municipalities, including Tucson Water and the Town of Marana, and consulting organizations. In November 2016, the concept won the $250,000 New Arizona Prize competition and its $2,500 people’s choice award. The project received an additional $50,000 in assistance from the WaterNow Alliance and about $50,000 in donated time and equipment.

Team members who created the Arizona Pure Water Brew Challenge knew it wasn’t enough to simply tell people purified water was safe and tasted good, they had to show people. The idea of a beer contest was appealing but the Arizona team was looking for something more ambitious, something that would reach a wider audience and showcase the technology that produces purified water. The partnership decided to build the technology used to process purified water inside a semi-trailer truck. The truck has traveled around the state and used local water professionals to explain to visitors how the technology works. The truck includes looping videos explaining the basics of Arizona water, such as where drinking water comes from and how it’s treated.

Pure Brew Open Truck

The truck travels to festivals and events, such as the Arizona Great Outdoor Festival in Flagstaff. People who visit the truck are asked to fill out a 15-question survey about their perception of purified recycled wastewater. So far, the majority of the 1,300 surveys completed show people are open to the idea of drinking purified water – but are more enthusiastic about drinking beer made from purified water.

The Arizona Pure Water Brew Challenge project included recruiting small and large independent craft breweries to compete in a taste challenge using beers brewed with purified water processed in the truck. The team has worked closely with the Arizona Craft Brewer’s Guild and participating breweries come from across the state, including the cities of Yuma, Sedona, Flagstaff, Oak Creek, Tucson and Phoenix. In July, the truck received its permit to create purified water from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and was hooking up to a wastewater treatment plant and purifying water for participating brewers. The team also was filling a tank with purified water to take to a bottling company to have samples ready to hand out to visitors at the campaign’s next stops and at the week-long WaterReuse Symposium.

It’s not really about the beer created from this campaign. It’s about introducing Arizona residents to the technology that can help augment future water supplies. Once the craft brew challenge is completed the team will have just enough money left to take the truck to a half-dozen more festivals through December. The team is looking for funding to keep the Arizona Pure Water Brew Challenge campaign on the road in 2018.

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: 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.

Tammie behind truck

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. 

 

Tammie Demo

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.

Study: Conservation Reduces The Cost Of Your Water Services

By Warren Tenney

Water conservation has been a bedrock element of water management in Arizona for the last several decades. Water conservation is built into our communities where summer highs remain above 100 degrees and rain is a rare blessing. We conserve to stretch water supplies, assure a sound economic future for our grandkids, and keep our environment healthy.  Yet, when water rates are increased, I am often asked: “Why am I using less water but paying more?”

AWE_ACA_Infographic_EverWonderTease

 

The question Arizona residents should be asking is “How much more would I be paying without conservation?”  To help answer this question, the Alliance for Water Efficiency worked with two Arizona communities, Gilbert and Tucson, to examine how costs were reduced thanks to decades of conservation.

AWE-color-verticalThe fact is, water rates are rising in many Arizona cities and across the country. It’s costing cities more money to ensure a reliable supply of water, to maintain and operate the treatment plants, and to keep the infrastructure sound, such as repairing and replacing pipes, pumps and meters.  

Conservation actually helps keep costs as low as possible even though rates do rise.  Using less water lengthens the lifespan of critical water supplies by being able to serve more people with the same amount of water.  This avoids the costs of securing new supplies, building, operating and maintaining new infrastructure to access those supplies, and treating more water and wastewater. Here is a quick summary of  the results from the Alliance study.

  • In the Town of Gilbert, two decades of conservation has reduced per-person-per-day demand from 244 gallons to 173 gallons.  This reduction helped the town avoid the need for more than $340 million in water and wastewater treatment expenses. As a result, rates are 5.8 percent lower than they would have been – a savings of $38 annually for customers. Additionally, connection fees for new businesses and new homes are 45 percent lower today. That’s a savings of $7,733 that the builder is not passing on to customers.
  • In the City of Tucson, 30 years of conservation reduced water use from 188 gallons per person per day to 130 gallons.  Without this reduction, Tucson would have needed to invest $350 million in new infrastructure to deliver and treat more water and wastewater.  Thanks to conservation, rates are 11.7 percent lower and all customers save an average of $112 annually on their water bills.

Arizona residents understand that conservation is important to maintaining the state’s water supplies and its economy. This is why cities offer a variety of conservation services, such as offering free desert landscape classes, rebates to customers who replace grass with desert landscaping and free water-saving audits to businesses and homeowners.  The Alliance for Water Efficiency study shows that conservation also is a cost-effective and sustainable way to keep rates low and water affordable.

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.

marked drip head

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

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

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

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

By Warren Tenney

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

91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant Phoenix

91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant in City of Phoenix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practice operator tests at ADEQ

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

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

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

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

Mesa treatment

City of Mesa water treatment plant.

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

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

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

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

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