City Water Departments Answer Five Common Questions

By Warren Tenney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Groundcover: Green Makes A Better Carpet Than Gravel

By Warren Tenney

Some professional landscapers suggest homeowners design sections of their landscape as they would design each room in their home. This image helps homeowners give their yards dimension with layers of color and texture. Imagine vines as window coverings, group trees and shrubs as if they were furniture, and use groundcover plants as carpeting -a far better carpet than just having gravel. Groundcover can make the difference between a traditional desert yard and the lush look of a professionally designed landscape, which still is low maintenance and low water use.

There are practical reasons to use groundcover plants in a desert garden. These low-growing and sprawling, creeping or clumping plants serve the same purpose as gravel, without radiating excessive heat. Some professionals use both groundcover plants and a thin layer of gravel. Groundcover plants suppress dust and slow evaporation of water from the soil. Groundcover also controls erosion on a slope. Like the flooring in your home, groundcover can bring cohesion to an eclectic design that may have been planted without much thought or by several different homeowners.

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Lantana    Photos: Carol Ward-Morris

Groundcover plants need a bit more care than cactus. The University of Arizona reports that after two to four years many groundcover plants can develop bare spots, perhaps due to weather, watering practices, or a change to older, tougher and less dense foliage. Plan on buying a few more plants every few years to keep the groundcover dense enough to serve its purpose. Before you plant large sections of your yard with groundcovers, UA’s Ground Covers for Arizona Landscapes suggests asking yourself a few more questions.

1. What will this groundcover look like in the middle of winter or at the height of summer? Some groundcover plants have an off-season and are sensitive to the cold. Select the toughest plants available, particularly ones that can stand a desert winter.

2. How far and wide will a groundcover plant spread? Don’t choose a fast spreading flourishing plant for a small or narrow space, particularly along a walkway. That’s just creating work. Don’t assume a grass trimmer will keep a vigorous groundcover in check. 

3. Will this groundcover collect debris from trees and shrubs? If you choose a groundcover with thorns or spines it could be tough to rake and keep pretty when planted under trees or with shrubs.

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Blue Euphorbia

Spring is a good time to plant groundcover. After you select your plants at the nursery, keep the soil wet in their containers until you have time to plant them and then plant them in moist soil. These plants have shallow roots so water every two to three days for the first two to four weeks. Once established, water every five to 10 days during the hottest time of the year, but only every three to six weeks in the winter and only if winter rain is sparse.

It’s always best to narrow your selection before you go to the nursery. Visit the AMWUA plant selection guide before your visit and bookmark your favorite groundcover selections on your phone. Several AMWUA cities’ conservation professionals suggested these favorite groundcover plants.

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Damianita

  • Gopher Plant or Blue Euphorbia (Euphorbia Rigida) This shrubby evergreen is native to the Mediterranean area and is gaining a following among desert gardeners. It has yellow-green flowers mid-winter to early spring. The stalks die off during the summer allowing new foliage to reemerge.
  • Lantana (Lantana hybrid) This popular and hardy favorite needs a moderate amount of water. It will bloom all year and is available in a variety of colors, including purple, white and orange. It attracts butterflies and is sensitive to frost but rebounds in the spring.
  • Trailing Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’) First, check whether the type of plant you see at the nursery grows into a shrub or is the “trailing rosemary” that is better suited for groundcover. Trailing rosemary is a hardy evergreen and has small blue flowers winter through spring. It is an edible herb that attracts bees.
  • Bush Morning Glory (Convolvulus cneorum) This fast-growing evergreen plant has silvery green leaves that create a beautiful setting for the other plants in your yard. It likes full sun and produces showy white flowers in the spring.
  • Damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana) This hardy evergreen plant has dark foliage with yellow daisy-like flowers in spring and fall. It likes full sun and is great for around pools.

 Visit the AMWUA plant selection guide to find the right groundcover for your yard. If you need help designing, selecting, planting or nurturing your desert landscape, AMWUA cities offer free landscape classes.

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.

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.