Want A Lovelier Landscape? Master Your Irrigation Controller

By Warren Tenney

More than half the drinking water used in the Phoenix Metro area is used outdoors, mostly to irrigate landscapes. Desert dwellers irrigate a variety of plants, trees and grass all year long as the weather swings from extremely hot to freezing. Establishing a lovely landscape can mean a steep and expensive learning curve. It doesn’t have to. There are two important and easy lessons to maintaining a pretty and water-efficient yard in the desert. First, understand how much water your plants, trees and grass need to thrive. Second, learn to set your automated irrigation controller so it waters for maximum health, beauty and efficiency. AMWUA cities offer homeowners free classes, publications and videos to help.

The efficiency of an automated irrigation controller is directly related to the competence and knowledge of the person setting the controls. To keep any established desert-adapted landscape thriving the controller needs to be set to water infrequently but deeply. People who are not used to daily sunshine eagerly water their trees, cactus and shrubs a little every day. It’s a common practice that wastes water and threatens the life of any landscape. For example, you can program your controller to water your grass 15 minutes every day and your grass will stay green. The problem: you could be using two and half times the amount of water your grass needs to thrive. You can water your tree 15 minutes every day but frequent, shallow watering means your tree will never grow roots deep enough to stand up to monsoon winds. Here are general watering rules that help. AMWUA has links to more complete watering guides.

  • Water once a month in the winter, once every two weeks when temperatures begin to rise in the spring, and once a week in the hottest and driest part of the year, usually late May until the monsoon brings rain and higher humidity in early July.
  • When you do water, water to a depth of 3 feet for trees, 2 feet for shrubs, 1 foot for smaller plants and a half foot for grass. (You can measure the depth of your watering with something as simple a wooden stick.)

The second step is learning to adjust an automated irrigation controller to match what you’ve learned. Typical controllers are not difficult, but they can be confusing at first. People can’t tell the difference between station A and program A and don’t want to deal with it. They set it once and forget about it or leave it up to a landscaper. Watch the manufacturer’s how-to video designed for your controller. Then you can set it yourself and save water and money. Irrigation specialists recommend re-programming a controller at least four times a year to match the seasonal needs of your landscape.

Rachio 01

This irrigation controller can be programed with a cell phone app. Photos: Jeff Lee

Newer automated irrigation devices are known as smart controllers. If programmed correctly, these controllers adjust for seasonal changes on their own based on weather data. This technology has been used to irrigate city parks, golf courses and farms for decades. Now this technology is being perfected for back yards.

Some of these controllers adjust themselves according to historical weather patterns and an onsite temperature sensor that’s part of the control box. Many of them come with rain gauges attached or ones that you can add. Other types of smart controllers use a manufacturer’s cell phone modem to attain current weather conditions. These controllers are more precise but require a monthly subscription fee.

The latest smart controllers use your home’s Wi-Fi connection. They allow you to program and adjust them from an app on your cell phone and connect to the closest weather station for daily meteorological conditions. These controllers are easier to use but need more initial input to set up. Owners are asked to answer questions such as kind of plants being watered, type of soil (clay loam in central Valley, sandy loam in higher, northern parts of the Valley), sun exposure, sprinklers or drip, and slope. The manufacturer’s videos help answer these questions.

Rainbird ESP SMTe 01

This irrigation controller comes with a sensor.

Rainbird ESP SMTe Pod 01 SENSOR

The sensor measures both temperature and rain.

You can find smart controllers that include soil sensors. These soil probes let the controller know exactly how much water is in the soil. Due to mixed landscapes – with different trees, plants and grass – and different sun exposures these can be more challenging to configure.

Some cities will offer homeowners, HOAs and businesses rebates for installing new WaterSense approved smart controllers. Residents can make an appointment with the Town of Gilbert’s irrigation specialist to come to your home and help you set a smart controller. One precaution: When buying any smart controller make sure it allows you to do more than just adjust run times. These types of smart controllers are made for other climates and will not water long enough in the winter to reach the roots of your trees and plants. Desert yards require a smart controller that adjusts both run time and frequency (or how many days between watering). This allows you to adjust the controller to meet the needs of desert-adapted landscapes by programming to water deeply all year but less often when it’s cooler.

Right now, AMWUA cities are offering free landscape classes about watering and irrigation systems. These classes can make maintaining a lovely and water-efficient yard far easier.

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.

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. 

IMG_0442 2

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.

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.

Inside Job: Water Efficiency A Fixture In City Buildings

By Warren Tenney

Central Arizona’s desert cities offer rebates, outdoor water audits, videos, free publications and landscape classes to help customers use water more efficiently outdoors. Cities also lead by example, creating beautiful, well-kept and efficiently watered landscapes around their public buildings and in their parks.

What may be less obvious are the improvements the cities have made inside the facilities they maintain. For decades, cities have taken the lead on adopting water efficient fixtures and practices inside their public buildings. The City of Glendale, Arizona, was the first major U.S. city to adopt a code requiring water efficient fixtures.  The ordinance took effect January 1, 1988. It applied to all new construction, as well as replacement of fixtures in existing structures.  Many of the Valley cities adopted similar ordinances in the years following. The federal government adopted water efficiency standards for fixtures in 1992. At the same time, cities began converting to more efficient fixtures inside their own facilities. 

STUDENT GILBERT

A student swaps out a 2.2. gallon per minute faucet aerator for a 0.5 gallon per minute faucet aerator in the Gilbert Police headquarters. 

 

Cities continue to evaluate how they can further improve water efficiency inside their public buildings. The EPA WaterSense Program is a voluntary labeling program that promotes fixtures that are 20 percent more efficient than the federal standard. Thanks to the EPA WaterSense Program the market offers a growing number of increasingly efficient fixtures. Cities are once again upgrading.

The Town of Gilbert is retrofitting its public buildings with more water efficient toilets, urinals, showerheads and faucets. Gilbert has done work inside its courts building and two municipal office buildings, two fire stations and the fire administration building, three recreation centers and one library.

Here are the fixtures Gilbert has installed:

  • 200 – .5 gallon-per-minute faucet aerators
  • 122 – dual-flush handles on toilets
  • 39 – 1.5 gallon-per-minute showerheads
  • 38 –  .5 gallon-per-flush urinals (and two waterless urinals)
  • 2 – 1.1 gallons-per-minute rinse spray valves.

Prior to the conversion, the town’s urinals used 1 gallon-per flush, the current federal standard. The town was able to cut in half the amount of water used by the urinals without purchasing and installing new fixtures. It simply replaced the urinals’ diaphragms. 

 

Date Log

A Water Conservation Specialist downloads a “data log” to check for leaks at a Gilbert building. 

 

When Gilbert’s conservation professionals crunch the numbers from the latest indoor plumbing upgrades, they project an annual savings of more than 1.6 million gallons of water and $6,000 in reduced water and sewer bills. (Yes, cities and towns must pay water and sewer bills, too.) The work in Gilbert is really just beginning. Water efficient upgrades still need to be made to 12 additional public facilities, including eight fire stations.

In 2011 the City of Scottsdale Council voted to focus on converting toilets installed in City Hall, North Corp Yard, Scottsdale Stadium, Civic Center, Mustang Library and Scottsdale Center for the Arts. The 1.6 gallon-per-flush (the federal standard) toilets will be replaced by more efficient 1.28 gallons-per-flush toilets as money becomes available. Compare that to the old 1980s toilets that used 5 gallons-per-flush or more. That’s a 74 percent reduction in water use.

For the past three years, Scottsdale also has reused 1.9 million gallons of what is known as “blowdown water” annually from its municipal buildings’ evaporative coolers. This wastewater would normally be discarded directly to the sewers, but it now replaces potable water used for fire truck testing in the North Corp Yard.

Other cities are finding additional savings in their facilities. The City of Glendale just finished an inventory of two libraries, two community centers and a fire station documenting the types of fixtures currently installed and making note of leaking toilets and missing faucet aerators. The city will continue to inventory buildings to prioritize water-saving changes. The City of Avondale is beginning a similar inventory of appliances and fixtures this year, and the City of Phoenix recently completed an extensive facility inventory. More water-efficient plumbing will be installed as cities remodel older buildings or as old fixtures and appliances break. New city buildings will be fitted with more water-efficient plumbing, such as a new City of Tempe fire station. 

If you’re stuck inside during the summer, it’s a great time to inventory your own interior for ways to save water. Adding aerators to your faucets is an easy way to save water and money. Consider replacing older toilets, which can use as much as 6 gallons of water per flush and are prone to silent, continual leaks. See if your city offers rebates to help offset the cost of replacement, and look for the WaterSense label when you make your purchase. The label ensures fixtures are more efficient and that they meet strict performance guidelines.

For information about finding and fixing household leaks, check out Smart Home Water Guide.

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 Landscape School: Professional Training Available For Everyone

By Warren Tenney

There are people who love desert trees and plants and want to learn more about them. Then there are those who want the knowledge and skills to confidently take charge of any desert-adapted landscape – design it, lay the irrigation, select and plant the trees, shrubs and groundcover, prune, tend and keep it thriving. These are the people who put in the money, time and effort to earn a credential from the Desert Botanical Garden. The Garden’s Desert Landscape School just became a bit easier to fit into your schedule and your budget.

The Desert Botanical Garden in the City of Phoenix has offered a professional landscaping course since 1997. More than 1,200 people have earned the Desert Landscape School credential. The Garden was eager to train landscapers in the techniques that have kept its 55-acres of plants flourishing for more than 70 years. Many Valley cities were designing desert-adapted landscaping into their buildings and parks and sent their landscaping crews to sharpen their skills. Some professional landscapers still take the course but the course has attracted a variety of people over the years. Students have included accountants, lawyers and administrators who wanted to change careers and start new landscaping businesses. Professional landscape designers and architects who move from other states have attended to learn about desert-adapted trees, shrubs and groundcover plants. Homeowners now make up the majority of students taking the extensive landscape course.  Some come seeking information about how to care for their own yards. Others come specifically to learn the skills and knowledge they will need to redesign and install their own landscaping.

FullSizeRender

In the past, the Desert Landscape School program was taught over seven months. It met for four hours every week, included six exams and cost $1,250. That was a lot of money and a tough schedule for working adults with families. Drop out rates ranged from 10 percent to 20 percent.

For the past two year, the Desert Botanical Garden piloted a new idea with help from a Flinn Foundation grant. The Garden broke down the seven-month Desert Landscape School into six certificate courses. If you successfully complete all six courses you earn a Desert Landscape School credential. So far, the dropout rate has been less than 2 percent.

These new courses are two hours every week for 10 weeks and costs range from $259 to $374 depending on the course and whether the student is a Desert Botanical Garden member. Cities can now send their landscaping crews without the expense of becoming a corporate member of the Garden.  In September 2015, a storm (later determined to be a microburst) caused $100,000 worth of damage to the Tempe Center for the Arts landscaping.  The City of Tempe turned to the Desert Botanical Garden for help with specific plantings and to minimize damage in the future. Six members of the Tempe Center for the Arts maintenance and landscape team began the Desert Landscape School courses this spring as part of that effort.

IMG_0796

Desert Landscape School  Photo: Desert Botanical Garden

The six courses in the program are offered twice a year.  One track is offered 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays, the other at 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays. The classes have up to 30 students. The more hands-on courses have fewer students because it allows instructors to spend more one-on-one time with students. All classes are designed to be primarily outside, with students working and walking in the Garden. When students visit the Garden with family or friends, they can point to trees they’ve pruned or planted or irrigation systems they’ve installed.

There is a proctored exam at the end of each course. If it is an installation course, the exam is performance-based to determine if a student gained the knowledge and skills needed to plant a desert tree correctly and install an irrigation system that works. If it is a knowledge-based course, then there is a written exam. For example, the exam that follows the Desert Plant Palette course includes identifying the scientific and common names of 50 plants set up in an exam room.

No, it’s not for the weekend gardener, but if you successfully complete all six courses you will earn a credential from the Desert Botanical Garden’s Desert Landscape School. That credential gives homeowners the confidence to take charge of their own landscape and gives landscapers the knowledge and skills to better serve their clients.

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

Five Things You Need To Know Right Now About Drought

By Warren Tenney

Ongoing headlines about drought in the southwest are confusing and often seem contradictory. Two weeks ago, a panel of experts advised the Governor’s Office that Arizona’s drought is not over and will last, at least, another year. After a rainy winter, that’s a surprise for many people who follow the state’s drought status maps. These monthly drought maps show no portion of Arizona remaining in “extreme” or “severe” drought. Then there is the conundrum created by the decline of Lake Mead, the Colorado River reservoir critical to Arizona’s water supplies. This winter’s heavy snow in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming means Lake Mead will receive enough water to avoid a shortage declaration. Yet, the Lake’s levels remain a source of great concern among water professionals. Oh, and why has California, but not Arizona, declared its drought over?

Here are five questions and the answers you need to know about drought to help you cut through the confusion.

current_az_trd

Here is where to follow Arizona’s monthly drought conditions: http://www.azwater.gov/AzDWR/StatewidePlanning/Drought/DroughtStatus2.htm

1. What is drought?

A drought is not a moment in time. Drought is a cycle. Research shows that drought cycles and wet cycles in Arizona run 20 to 30 years. That’s why you hear water experts say: One rainy winter doesn’t end a drought. One rainy winter can temporarily ease “drought conditions” in some areas of the state. The current drought cycle began around 1996. If rainfall and snowfall continue to be above average over the next several years then Arizona’s climate experts would be more likely to call this drought finished. These same experts say there is a 50 percent chance of that happening. The wild card is climate change.

2. Why is Lake Mead still at worrisome low levels?

Lake Mead is a reservoir that contains Colorado River water behind Hoover Dam. The legal allotments of Lake Mead water given to states and communities outstrip the average amount of Colorado River water entering the Lake. Even without a drought, normal withdrawals of water from Lake Mead would cause it to fall an average of 12 feet every year.  The drought on the Colorado River Basin has exacerbated the situation.  Voluntary efforts by states that depend on Lake Mead have kept it from falling to a level where the federal government would declare a shortage. A shortage declaration would mean less Colorado River water would be delivered to Arizona. It would affect farmers first, but if Lake Mead levels fall farther, Colorado River water supplies to cities would eventually be cut.  So far, the Colorado River has been able to keep delivering, but living on the edge of shortage is unacceptable to water managers. The Arizona Department of Water Resources is working with the state’s cities, Native American communities, farmers and industries to voluntarily cut back on water taken from Mead. Once Arizona reaches an internal agreement it can finish negotiations with California, Nevada and Mexico to voluntarily reduce legal allotments of Colorado River water to match the reality of what the river can supply. Right now, Lake Mead is only 10 feet higher than it was this time last year.

Lake Mead NO CREDIT required

Lake Mead

3. After 20 years of drought, why are Arizona’s water supplies not critically low?

Drought is a normal occurrence in our arid environment. Central Arizona has built, planned, and managed water supplies to ensure reliability during drought cycles.  Massive reservoirs capture water during wet periods for times when precipitation is scarce. The Arizona Groundwater Act of 1980 requires cities and farmers in the most populated areas of the state to implement conservation programs, protect the groundwater from over pumping and rely on renewable surface (river) water instead. The majority of the state’s water supply comes from the Colorado River via the Central Arizona Project (CAP) and the Salt River via Salt River Project (SRP).  Virtually all wastewater is recycled and put to use, and water is stored underground for use in shortage.  A limited amount of groundwater is pumped from the aquifers for use, as well. Multiple sources of water allow cities to offset reductions in one or more supplies. For example, Arizona’s drought has reduced the amount of water in SRP reservoirs in the mountains east of Phoenix, but SRP has been able to offset possible shortages by pumping from its numerous wells. Arizona law requires Valley cities to offset every acre-foot of groundwater SRP pumps by recharging (or returning water to) the aquifers from their renewable water supplies, such as extra Colorado River water (ordered but not immediately needed) or recycled wastewater. This keeps the Valley’s aquifers in good condition and hedges against shortages.

Aerial shots of GRUSP

Granite Reef Underground Storage Project   Photo: Mark Durben

4. So, if we’re in good shape, do we still need to conserve water?

We live in a desert. Long-term, ongoing conservation efforts are something AMWUA member cities promote tirelessly, and for good reason. Drought is an uncontrollable weather phenomenon and the impact of climate change is unknown. Our groundwater supplies are finite. Once used, aquifers replenish over decades, not years, and usually not to previous capacity. Using less water on a daily basis means leaving more water in the ground and storing more water for a time when river water supplies are short. If shortages were to prevent cities from meeting normal, everyday demands for water, all AMWUA cities, by law, have shortage-preparedness plans ready to go. These plans are designed to incrementally reduce water use to bring demand in line with available supplies while protecting our quality of life and the economy. Despite that, no city wants to declare a water shortage. So for now, keep taking those short showers, keep watering those shade trees efficiently, and keep using water wisely. Your city will let you know when it needs more help.

5. Why is Arizona’s drought continuing while California has declared that its drought is over?

California has declared an end to the drought’s State of Emergency, but that doesn’t mean it is entirely out of the drought that has gripped the state since 2012. Due to the economic impacts of ongoing drought, record low reservoir levels, and snowpack at 20 percent of normal levels, California’s governor declared in January 2014 a State of Emergency. In January 2015, with no end to drought in site, cities and towns across the state were required to reduce water use by 25 percent. Recent record-breaking precipitation freed the northern part of the state from drought and refilled the majority of reservoirs, allowing the state to rescind the mandatory water use reductions and lift the emergency declaration for all but four counties. However, almost half the state remains in severe drought.

Arizona’s current drought began around 1996.  Arizona’s Drought Emergency Declaration has been in effect since June 1999 and still remains in effect. We haven’t yet seen enough wet weather across the state to lift either the drought or the declaration. 

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.