Hydrating Phoenix: Quenching a city in the desert
How Phoenix and its 3.5 million people defied the odds, running on all cylinders without running dry.
Wed, Aug 05, 2009 at 09:33 AM
Photo courtesy Arizona Department of Water Resources
Mayor Phil Gordon grew up playing in swampy back yards. During summers in central Phoenix, Ariz., he and his friends looked forward to the days when their parents would flood the grass, which meant a day or two of inch-deep splash puddles or soggy baseball games. Today, though the residents use the irrigation canals less frequently, nearby back yards are still separated by trenches, punctuated with pipes and valves that let homeowners flood their lawns about once a month rather than use water for daily sprinkler systems.
The network of canals sends untreated water from the Salt River Dam, where turbines generate electricity for the state of Arizona's use, on its way to water treatment facilities. Using nothing more than gravity, city controllers can open up smaller networks of canals on a regularly scheduled basis for landscaping use, currently about two-thirds of the water used in the city, according to the city of Phoenix Water Resource Plan.
Gordon reminisces about his aquatic youth, telling me that central Phoenix was once a hotbed for citrus growers because the water was so plentiful. But that was decades ago, before the population exploded to more than 3.5 million residents, all thirsty, all washing laundry, and all wanting things like pools and golf courses and vegetables. Folks like Washington Post columnist Neal Peirce talk of imminent disaster: Arizona might run out of water and dry up like the desert surrounding its capital city.
Gordon shakes his head. "Phoenix is using less water today than we were a decade ago and less per capita than we were two decades ago," he says. He recognizes that the huge growth in his city did strain the infrastructure, however — pushing out agriculture, causing low water pressure, and forcing city officials to retrofit homes and buildings with conservation mechanisms.
So how could it be possible that a million additional people use less water than their late-'90s predecessors? Can the "mellow yellow" flushing mantra, requests to only do laundry at night and demands for "xeriscaping" really make that much of a difference? Evidently, yes.
According to the city's Water Resource Plan, individual and business conservation efforts made for a 20 percent reduction in water use since 1980. Everything from leveling agricultural fields with lasers — on an angle to collect runoff — to developing an EnergyStar-like rating for consumer appliances that conserve water has made for a conscious community respecting its water supply. Gordon says "other cities are just now piloting such programs. Phoenix has been utilizing 'green and sustainable' practices for decades."
Despite the doomsayers' predictions, Phoenix and the state as a whole have a 100-year plan to meet the water needs agriculturally, residentially and commercially — a plan that's updated and revisited every five years. Phoenix currently gets its water from several sources: the Colorado River (36 percent), the Salt River (54 percent), groundwater (3 percent) and reclaimed water (7 percent).
Arizona is one of seven states sticking straws into the Colorado, which is predicted to experience a dry spell over the next decade. The canal system routing its waters through the arid West, called the Central Arizona Project, may not be as plentiful over the coming years. But that's OK, says Jack Lavelle of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. "We've got several million acre feet in the ground," Lavelle says. "We're ahead of the game, and that's something that's unique to Arizona. No other state has done it."
He's referring to aquifers — alluvial basins that hold great lakes' worth of water — banked over the years when Arizona had excess. The Department of Water Resources focuses on reuse and conservation while the minerals scrub the stored water clean, storing more than a years' supply for future emergency use. In the meantime, Lavelle focuses on public education.
His programs range from educating homeowners about rain barrels and down spouts to implementing restaurant kitchens with high-pressure, low-flow hoses to cut their water use in half. In March, Phoenix kicked off the nationwide "Fix a Leak" campaign, where EPA WaterSense folks visit people's homes and help them curb the trillion gallons of water we collectively waste each year. "We have to reset our mental expectations and understand that [we] can get by on far less water than we think," Lavelle says.
Phoenix is leading the charge in conservation as the city plans for its future. Gordon's son Jake will grow up with different rules about water use than his father, and is unlikely to play around in canals, but he can rest just as easily that his desert city home will stay quenched for a long time.