| Preparation, conservation prove critical as western U.S. water levels drop
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Preparation, conservation prove critical as western U.S. water levels drop

Southeast Houghton Area Recharge ProjectAs ongoing drought conditions exacerbate water shortages along the Colorado River Basin, one water utility in the impacted seven-state region is demonstrating the benefits of planning, preparation and conservation.

Tucson Water has invested more than $2 billion in infrastructure, water supplies, underground storage and conservation programs over the past four decades. Last November the utility opened its newest reclaimed water storage facility on the far east side of Tucson. (Pictured above, the new Southeast Houghton Area Recharge Project)  

In addition, Tucson Water is currently engaged with community partners and the public to prepare a new comprehensive plan for managing water resources for the next 80 years to address a changing climate and its growing population and economy. The utility serves about 732,000 customers.

John Kmiec“We’re positioned as one of the best water resource managed utilities in the West,” said John Kmiec, Tucson Water’s interim director. “Tucson is very unique even in Arizona for being adaptive, not using a lot of turf, and embracing its outdoor desert environment. Our per capita water use is similar to what it was in the late 1980s, even though the population has grown by more than 200,000 since then.”

As one of North America’s oldest, continually-lived communities, Tucson’s unique culture is tied to the ebbs and flows of the Santa Cruz River running through the heart of the city, and the large aquifer it is built upon. 

“Our customers’ efforts to reduce water use have really helped us manage our resources over time and our geology has also benefitted us tremendously in allowing aquifer recharge projects,” Kmiec said. “Our schools provide a lot of education around understanding the urban water cycle and we see that translate from generation to generation.”

Learning from past mistakes

While well-positioned today, Tucson Water suffered its own painful water crisis in the 1990s when it took steps to reduce its dependency on pumping groundwater from the aquifer. The utility acquired water from the Colorado River as a participant in the Central Arizona Project (CAP) and changed to this water source for municipal drinking water for a short time -- until the community began experiencing a wave of unexpected and expensive infrastructure issues, customer pipe corrosion and a public relations nightmare. 

The experience is detailed in Tucson Water Turnaround: Crisis to Success, written by Michael McGuire and Marie Pearthree and published by the American Water Works Association. 

To remedy the situation, Tucson Water retooled and constructed several facilities to recharge most of its CAP allocation by recharging it into the Tucson/Avra Valley Aquifer to be filtered and blended with native groundwater. A small portion of CAP water goes directly to irrigation as an exchange with farmers for groundwater rights.

Resilience through reclaimed water

Sweetwater WetlandsTo further diversify from groundwater, Tucson Water was one of the country’s first utilities to develop a system to recharge and store treated wastewater, then deliver it as reclaimed water for non-potable use. The system includes 160 miles of pipe and 15 million gallons of surface storage in enclosed reservoirs. The Sweetwater Wetlands facility (pictured right) opened in the early 1980s. The Southeast Houghton Area Recharge Project (SHARP) opened in November 2020. 

The recharge sites also offer public parks, wildlife preserves and education about water resources, conservation and environmental stewardship, including demonstrations for rainwater harvesting and green infrastructure.

Tucson Water’s reclaimed water system delivers treated wastewater for irrigating golf courses, schools, parks and transportation corridors. A portion also is used for dust control, firefighting, industrial uses and creating/supporting wildlife habitat (pictured below). During the summer, deliveries of reclaimed water can be more than 30 million gallons per day Bird in wetlands preserve(MGD).

“We’re using the right water for the right use and storing it when it’s plentiful,” Kmiec said. “Based on current total annual demand, we’re able to bank more than 30 percent of our excess CAP water  in an expansive, unconfined aquifer and  we will continue to do that for years to come.”