On The Job: Water Treatment Supervisor Uses Brains, Heart And A Little Muscle

By Warren Tenney

Luiza Yordanova appreciates the Valley’s winter weather as much as we all do but winter makes her job as supervisor of a City of Tempe drinking water treatment plant a bit more complicated. She sat down on a beautiful day earlier this winter to explain why.

In the winter, the Johnny G. Martinez Treatment Plant gets raw water from the Verde River instead of its summer mix of water from the Salt and Verde rivers. The cooler temperatures and the switch to predominantly Verde River water means Luiza and her team need to readjust chemicals and treatment processes to maintain drinking water standards.

Luiza’s plant also was the sole provider of water to businesses and residents because Tempe’s second drinking water plant was shut down for its routine annual maintenance. Luiza’s plant shuts down for annual maintenance in January  and devising a schedule to squeeze in all the work she wanted to accomplish was keeping her up at night.

Luiza also was waiting for a new piece of plant equipment to be delivered and a crew of workers were installing solar panels on the roof of the plant’s water reservoir to provide alternative power. She also had just finished writing a presentation about “enhanced coagulation” that she submitted to this year’s AZ Water Association conference. If accepted, it would be her third presentation at the conference. Luiza called her work as a Plant Supervisor “a beautiful job with beautiful people.”

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Luiza supervises 10 people – plant operators, electricians, mechanics and technicians. Every morning begins the same way: checking on the quality of water being distributed by the plant via the technology available on her computer. Then, at 6:55 a.m. she’s opening the door of the control room where she visits with the midnight operator and the over night crew and welcomes the arriving day-shift crew. They talk together about the quality of the water the plant is producing and maintenance needed on the plant’s equipment. “Communications with technicians, all the trade groups, with the operator, it’s my key,” Luiza said.

On this particular day, “finish water pump” number five had a maintenance problem withluiza-jgm its couplings and seals. It also looked as if pump six would need maintenance at least on its couplings. The plant has eight pumps. This redundancy allows for continual repair and maintenance while drinking water is always being pumped for distribution 24 hours a day every day. Maintenance of the equipment is one of Luiza and her crew’s top responsibilities.

“Equipment runs the plant but operators monitor the equipment, so this is my major job,” Luiza said. She also is responsible for managing people, keeping inventory, ordering chemicals, and ensuring the process used to treat the water is producing safe, reliable drinking water for Tempe homes and businesses. To get it right, Luiza depends on her team members. She spends 80 percent of her time on the floor talking with her crew and sometimes helps them with their jobs.

“It’s not because I have to, it’s because I choose to,” Luiza said. “I choose to because, for me, talking to people and learning the problems from them and thinking about their solutions gives me more opinions. They work around the equipment more than I do, so they can be useful.”

Luiza also uses the time to monitor her staff members and make sure they are concentrating on work and not problems at home, such as a sick child. Luiza can’t afford distracted employees in a water treatment plant and sends her employees home until they can come back ready to concentrate on the job at hand. “This is part of my understanding of leadership,” she said.

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Luiza, 54, explained all this while gently rolling her Rs. She and her accent are from Bulgaria where she managed the country’s largest cement manufacturing plant in Devnya for 19 years. The plant also ran the water and wastewater treatment plant for the city. Luiza is a chemical engineer and is studying to become a certified professional engineer in the United States. It’s simply a matter of learning new technical terms, she said.

Moving to the United States from a country and a job she loved happened quickly for Luiza. It began in January 2005 while exchanging information with a retired Oregon engineer on LinkedIn about industrial materials used in the production of cement. She invited him to visit her cement factory in May 2005 and he accepted. That’s when Luiza said their conversation “veered away from cement.” After several more trips and by January 2006 the divorced mother of a grown daughter was in the United States, married to her engineer from Oregon and looking for a job. She spent time as a quality control manager at a Midwest cement manufacturing plant that closed down and the City of Tempe hired her in 2010 as a water treatment plant operator.

Luiza lives in the City of Chandler. She grew up along the Black Sea and enjoys traveling to beaches on both the west and east coasts. She hikes, plays a mean game of chess and her husband got her hooked on novels about detectives who solve crimes using science. As an afterthought Luiza mentioned she speaks four languages – Bulgarian, Russian, English and German. “I started learning Italian but I’m thinking of switching to Spanish,” she said. “I like Italian pronunciation but I think Spanish is more useful here.”

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

Sen. John Kyl: Compromise Is Key To Water Leadership

By Warren Tenney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power Switch: Economics Driving New Energy for Moving Water

By Warren Tenney

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

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

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

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

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

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Inside the Navajo Generating Station  Photos: CAP

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

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

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

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

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

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Central Arizona Project canal.

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

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

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

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

Wastewater Treatment Plant Turns Gaseous By-Product Into Profit

By Warren Tenney

Arizona’s largest wastewater treatment plant already cleans and re-uses nearly all of the waste it receives from 2.5 million people in five AMWUA cities. Now, the cities that own the treatment plant have found one more way to re-use its products. As of spring 2018, the 91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant will stop burning off the mostly methane gas it creates as a by-product. Instead, the plant will transform the by-product into renewable biogas and sell it for more than $1.2 million a year.

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91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant   Photos: City of Phoenix

The 91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant’s effluent, or treated wastewater, is re-used to irrigate crops, create a wildlife wetlands project called Tres Rios, and provide cooling water for the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, 36 miles west of the plant. The wastewater plant treats and transforms solid waste – all the stuff ground up in garbage disposals and flushed down toilets – into fertilizer for non-food crops, such as hay, alfalfa and cotton. The City of Phoenix, which operates the plant, and its four AMWUA city partners have found a way to produce yet another marketable product – biogas. Here’s how it will work.

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Tres Rios Wetlands

  • The plant has 16 large digester tanks with a capacity of 1.5 million gallons to 3 million gallons. These digesters operate like an industrial stomach, digesting solid sewage waste as a step toward turning it into fertilizer. Just like our own digestive system, these industrial digesters expel gas. That gas is now vented through three flares and burned off into the atmosphere.
  • Last week, Phoenix and its partners broke ground for a new facility next to the plant that is about as big as a football field. The new facility is being built and operated by Ameresco, a vendor selected by the cities that own the treatment plant. It is expected to be completed and operating by spring 2018. When completed, the plant will be fully automated and will be operated by one person. The stacks that flare the gas will remain on-site to act as a backup if needed.
  • The new facility will scrub and pressurize the plant’s gas into clean biogas. The gas will be compressed and travel through an underground pipe to a large commercial gas pipeline three miles west of the plant.
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This is a similar Ameresco bio-gas plant in San Antonio, Texas.

The 91st Avenue plant was built in 1968 by a partnership of AMWUA’s five original member cities, Glendale, Mesa, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe. This partnership is known as the Sub-Regional Operating Group or SROG. The plant treats an average of 140 million gallons of wastewater a day but has the capacity to treat 230 million gallons. Both the plant and the biogas facility are built to accommodate what is expected to be a growing market.

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.

AMWUA Cities Help State Screen Schools To Ensure Safe Water

By Warren Tenney

In the first six months of 2017, Arizona will screen water samples from 7,000 school buildings looking for unsafe levels of lead. The program is designed to determine if drinking water is contaminated by lead that might be present in a school’s plumbing lines, water fountains and faucets. Water sits in a school’s plumbing systems unused over weekends and during holiday and summer breaks, which increases the risk of lead leaching from the building’s lines and fixtures into the water. Recently, a school in Nogales tested its drinking water on its own and found a lead problem. The school discovered the source of lead was its water heaters and replaced them.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) is conducting this program with the help of state education agencies and local utilities, including AMWUA cities. The catastrophic lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan raised awareness about the dangers of lead. Arizona and other states are moving ahead with sampling programs to protect the health of their youngest citizens. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can impair their hearing, growth and intelligence. Pregnant women also can pass lead to their unborn children.

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The federal government limits the lead content in drinking water and, in 1987, it limited the lead content of copper plumbing pipes and solders. That puts older school buildings at higher risk for lead contamination. There are about 6,500 Arizona school buildings older than 1987. Arizona’s Public School Drinking Water Lead Screening Program will test these buildings plus a random sampling of newer schools.

Two samples will be taken from each identified school building. ADEQ provides the sampling kits and instructions, prepaid shipping boxes and lab testing at no cost to the schools. ADEQ will receive all screening reports. Here’s what ADEQ will do if lead is found to be at higher levels in a school’s drinking water:

  • Alert the school and the Arizona Department of Health Services and provide the school with information to share with parents.
  • Recommend immediate actions the school can take to eliminate lead exposure.
  • Inform the Arizona School Facilities Board (SFB), the state agency that helps maintain public school buildings, which will work on long-term solutions.

This ambitious program means collecting and testing nearly 1,000 samples a week.

Cities perform more than 100 tests on drinking water in their delivery systems each day to ensure it meets all safe drinking water standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and ADEQ.  Municipal water systems end at a home or building’s water meter. The cities are stepping up to assist ADEQ to test water on the school’s side of the meter. It is not the cities’ responsibility, but cities are run by people who understand the importance of providing kids with the safest water possible. Here’s how the cities are using their resources to help ADEQ accomplish this job:

  • The City of Phoenix has worked with ADEQ to help plan the screening program. Phoenix will help assemble sampling kits, drop them off at city schools, pick up the samples and screen them in its water quality lab.
  • The City of Peoria will deliver sampling kits to its schools, pick up the samples and deliver them to ADEQ for screening.
  • The City of Scottsdale has decided to sample and test for lead in all of its public schools. Scottsdale will go beyond the state program and offer the same sampling and analysis to private and charter schools and day care programs.
  • The City of Tempe will collect samples from Tempe schools and test the samples at the city’s water quality lab.
  • The City of Glendale will prepare and deliver sampling kits to schools, pick up the samples from the schools and take them to the city’s lab for screening.
  • The City of Chandler will offer to schools analysis and guidance for lead sampling results.
  • Some AMWUA cities already tested their schools. Last school year, the Town of Gilbert contacted public elementary, junior high, and high schools from three school districts served by the Gilbert water system. In May, Gilbert tested samples from 46 public schools for lead and copper and all were found to have acceptable levels. Gilbert schools also will be screened through the ADEQ program.

Learn more about the Public School Drinking Water Lead Screening Program, including which schools are on the list.  Any city or utility willing to help with the screening program can contact Daniel Czecholinkski at 602 771-4617 or email him at Czecholinski.Daniel@azdeq.gov. Designated schools that want to coordinate and schedule the screening can send an email to LeadScreeningProgram@azdeq.gov or contact David Burchard at 602-771-4298.

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. 

 

Desert Edibles: Cities Offer Full Menu Of Landscape And Gardening Classes

By Warren Tenney

The Sonoran Desert is an incomparable place to hike, bike, run, horseback ride and bird watch. When it comes to foraging for food, it’s not so grand. Even those knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the topic admit that sifting and straining food from desert flora is labor intensive. It is, however, a labor of love for people who crave the tastes of the desert. If you think you may be one of them – or you’re just curious – the City of Glendale is presenting a free class in February called Desert Edibles. It’s the most distinct of dozens of free landscape and gardening classes offered this year by AMWUA member cities.

Those who love desert fruits hold several Sonoran Desert food festivals each year. If you’ve never heard of them it’s probably because they are held in June. It’s a hot month to attract a crowd to a desert festival but it is peak harvesting time for desert edibles.

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The most common cactus food is called napoles in Spanish and are small, young prickly pear cactus pads picked in the early summer. Napoles is found on some Mexican restaurant menus and many grocery stores offer pickled napoles and napoles salsas. Tom McDonald, who is teaching Glendale’s Desert Edibles class, said they taste a bit like green peppers. He likes napoles in scrambled eggs and casseroles. Tom owns Smiling Dog Landscapes in Gold Canyon, where he designs and installs landscapes and offers free classes about eating native Sonoran desert foods.

Tom said the prickly pear’s bright red fruit, called tunas, are easiest for beginners to enjoy. Tom’s wife, Kathy, freezes the fruit and then blanches it – thorns, seeds, skin and all – in a stew pot with a little water. Once cooked she uses a potato masher to turn it into pulp and then strains it through sieves with decreasing pore sizes until it is pure juice, which Tom said has a wild tart taste. She uses the juice to make a rosy onion jam marinade, mixes it with coconut milk to make a sorbet and adds a bit to fruit smoothies.

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During Glendale’s class, Tom will offer ways to use 20 desert plants and trees, including milling flour from mesquite pods for pancakes that taste sweet and grainy like ones made from buckwheat and roasting jojoba beans with a little sea salt for a snack food.

A warning from Tom: Don’t attempt to harvest, cook or eat desert plants, fruits, seeds or pods without doing your research or attending classes. Just like foraging for mushrooms, the right ones at the right time of year are delightful delicacies but the wrong ones harvested incorrectly can make you sick. Remember those movie-cowboys who survived in the desert by cutting into a saguaro or barrel cactus and chewing the juice out of the pulp? In real life, they’d be goners. Most cactus pulp and juice make you sick.

Perhaps your tastes run toward more domestic fruits and vegetables. You may enjoy desert flora less for its food value and more for its beauty in low-water landscapes. If so, Glendale and most other AMWUA cities have plenty of classes to guide you to success. Here are a few examples.

Avondale: Trees for Small Arid Yards (6 p.m. April 13, Avondale City Hall, 11465 W. Civic Center Dr.) Find the tree that tolerates Arizona’s heat, is water efficient and fits that particular spot in your yard.

Chandler: Save Your Trees from Monsoon Damage (6:30 p.m. June 13, location TBA) Learn tips about growing a strong tree, including selecting, planting, staking, pruning and watering.

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Gilbert: Sprinkler Design and Installation (6:30 p.m. March 9, Southeast Regional Library – Gilbert, 775 N. Greenfield Road) Design and install a sprinkler system from start to finish like a pro.

Glendale: Cacti and Succulents for Desert Gardens (6 p.m. Feb. 22, Glendale Main Library, 5959 W. Brown St.) Get to know a wide variety of low maintenance cacti and succulents that add color, texture and interest to your desert landscape.

Mesa: Mesa’s water-efficiency professionals work with the Mesa Urban Garden and Mesa Public Library to provide landscaping and conservation classes. Watch for the release of their latest class schedules.

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Peoria: Growing Fruits in the Desert (6 p.m. March 8, Rio Vista Recreation Center, 8866 W Thunderbird Road) Learn more about desert-adapted fruit trees for a successful harvest, including planting, pollinating and creating microclimates. 

Phoenix: Rain Gardens (2 p.m. Feb. 11 Saguaro Library, 2808 N 46th St.) Design an earth-friendly yard using simple earthworks and low-water-use plants.

Scottsdale: Learn to Prune (10 a.m. March 17 Scottsdale Xeriscape Garden at Chaparral Park.) Learn basic pruning cuts from a certified arborist in a hands-on outdoor setting.

Tempe: Conversion from Lawn to a Beautiful Xeriscape (9 a.m. April 15, Eisendrath House – Tempe, 1400 N. College Ave.) Pick up information about Xeriscape conversion, its principals and design, drip irrigation and lawn care.

You will find a complete and up-to-date list of free classes on AMWUA’s website.

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.