The Whys Behind Changes In Your Water Bill

By Warren Tenney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Regional Partnerships Keep Water Affordable

By Warren Tenney

It is not easy for cities to build, staff and operate water and wastewater treatment plants and still maintain water and wastewater rates all residents can afford. That’s why Central Arizona cities traditionally work together to build regional treatment plants that can deliver more water for less money.

Valley cities treat two kinds of water for drinking: most of it is surface water, which is Colorado, Salt and Verde river water delivered by canals, and some groundwater pumped by wells. Cities also treat and recycle wastewater. The treated wastewater is stored underground for future use and also used to irrigate large expanses of turf, such as at schools, parks and golf courses. One of the Phoenix Metropolitan area’s oldest joint water projects is the 91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant built in 1968. It is operated by Phoenix but owned and used by AMWUA’s five original member cities: Glendale, Mesa, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe. Most of the treated wastewater this plant produces is shipped through a pipe to cool the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station 36 miles west of the plant.

 

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Pyramid Peak Water Treatment Plant is jointly owned by the cities of Peoria and Glendale.  Photo: Black & Veatch

 

For the next 50 years, joint water and wastewater plants were built all over the Valley to expand capacity, reduce costs and add redundancy. Water professionals are never satisfied with “enough” water. Cities build redundancy into their water supplies and systems to ensure water flows to their residents and businesses despite shortages, infrastructure failures or large fires. For example, the City of Peoria’s goal is to have a six-year supply of water stored underground and the city is about two thirds of the way to meeting that goal.

Right now, the cities of Peoria and Glendale are working on an upgrade and expansion of a water treatment plant they jointly own just north of Happy Valley Road near N. 63rd Avenue. Pyramid Peak Water Treatment Plant was originally built by Glendale in 1986 to provide drinking water to homes and businesses on the city’s growing north end.

 

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Inside the Pyramid Peak Water Treatment Plant   Photo: City of Glendale

 

In 1996, the City of Peoria needed to bring its allocation of Colorado River water through the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal to the homes and businesses growing on its north end. Peoria already had the Greenway Water Treatment Plant where it treated its supply of Salt and Verde river water (delivered by Salt River Project) and had numerous wells located throughout the city.

Peoria faced the expense of building, staffing and operating its own plant, including the extended process needed to create a separate turnout into the CAP canal. Seeking a better solution, Peoria approached neighboring Glendale with a plan. Peoria would pay Glendale to expand the existing Pyramid Peak Water Treatment plant to increase production from 30 million gallons per day (mgd) to 39 mgd.  Peoria paid for and received the capacity to produce drinking water at the rate of 9 mgd and meet Peoria’s current and future needs. Glendale would continue to operate the plant but the two cities would be co-owners and share operating costs proportionally. The agreement was signed May 15, 1996 and the expansion completed by July 21, 1998.

Last year the cities signed an agreement to once again expand Pyramid Peak Water Treatment Plant. The new expansion will produce an additional 15 million gallons per day (mgd) to serve Peoria’s growing northwest neighborhoods. This expansion will increase the plant production from 39 mgd to 54 mgd.  The entire project includes the expansion and upgrades to the existing facility and will cost about $72 million. Glendale and Peoria will proportionally share the $22 million cost to replace and upgrade the older equipment in the plant, such as pumps and tanks. Peoria will pay $50 million for the expansion and fund this part of the project through the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority (WIFA). WIFA is a small federal agency that provides revolving loans to utilities to improve, build or expand water infrastructure.

Glendale held its first open house in April to gain input from the plant’s neighbors. The cities expect construction to start in the summer of 2019 and the plant to be operating by the summer of 2021. This partnership is just one more example of how water professionals consistently collaborate to solve large and small water challenges.

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

City Water Departments Answer Five Common Questions

By Warren Tenney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.