By Jonathan Rothschild
Tucsonans have a right to be proud of how we manage water. Our per capita water use is at historic lows—in fact, it’s among the lowest in the U.S.
Frankly, this isn’t that surprising. Tucsonans have a strong conservation ethic. We love our Sonoran desert. We want to protect it. And it doesn’t hurt that Tucson Water has been running water conservation education programs for nearly 40 years.
If you’re a long-time Tucsonan, you probably remember hearing about “beat the peak”—using water at off-peak times—from Pete the Beak, a suspiciously human-sized duck who served as Tucson Water’s mascot. Pete’s still around, but today he offers a variety of water-saving tips.
Conserving water has moved from something we do at peak times, to something we do at all times.
In addition to education, Tucson Water offers incentives for installing high-efficiency fixtures, gray water systems and rainwater harvesting—as well as free home—water audits and online water—use calculators. Programs like these help Tucsonans take charge of their water use, but they’re not the only reason our city is a leader in water conservation.
Decades ago, we took action to prepare for the future.
Tucson gets its water from two main sources: Colorado River water pumped through the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal system and groundwater wells in and around the city. The City of Tucson is entitled to a certain amount of CAP water every year—our allocation.
Over the last 15 years, Tucson Water has invested more than $241 million to develop its Clearwater Facilities—one of the nation’s leading systems for storing surface water in natural aquifers. This system of wells and recharge sites is designed to store or “bank” Tucson’s full allocation of CAP water each year.
Banking water means that Tucson’s water table is actually rising. It also means that, in years when the Colorado’s flow is reduced, we can use that banked water to meet our needs—even under prolonged drought conditions.
Here again, Tucson is ahead of the curve. Ensuring a safe, secure water supply in conditions of water scarcity is becoming an issue of national, as well as global, concern.
Today, other cities facing drought are finding that they need to manage water differently. In California, which is experiencing extreme drought, images of empty or near-empty reservoirs are not uncommon. Clearly, the expertise we’ve developed here in Tucson around water service delivery in our arid climate will prove more and more useful in years to come.
In fact, my office is working with the University of Arizona, Tucson Water and other university, government and industry partners to create a Southwest Water Technology Cluster (SWTC) based in Tucson. A few other water clusters have emerged to deal with regional water issues, but none is focused on technologies dealing with water scarcity, such as recharge and reclamation.
SWTC is intended to catalyze innovation and conservation. It’s an economic development initiative as well as an environmental one. A water industry cluster has the potential to inject millions into our economy, bring hundreds of jobs to the region, and create facilities such as a water campus that would allow for research and testing at fully-operational water and wastewater treatment facilities. This would allow companies and researchers to test their ideas and development-phase products under real-world conditions—a critical step in attracting funding from investors.
Elsewhere, I’ve talked about the Five T’s of Tucson’s modern economy—technology, trade, transportation, tourism and teaching. This water industry cluster falls under the technology “T.”
Finally, the City of Tucson itself continues to work on energy- and water-saving initiatives. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a cross-departmental meeting to address another item in my Two-Year Plan—reducing energy and water use at city facilities. My office is working with the City Manager’s Office and the City’s General Services Department to develop and implement a system that can monitor water use in near real time across city facilities. This will help staff identify problems quickly, providing them with needed information to reach water conservation goals. With the participation of all city departments, we will further reduce our environmental impact, saving taxpayer funds in the process. We are not resting on our laurels.
Water is something we’ll always need to be mindful of, but continuing to take a systemic approach to water management through conservation, research and continual improvement will give our city sufficient water into the foreseeable future.
For more information on Tucson Water conservation incentives, visit tucsonaz.gov/water/residential-conservation.