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Sustainable access to Scottsdale water weighs as paramount concern, criteria & policy in City Council chambers

Photo of irrigation in Scottsdale
A up-close view of a residential drip irrigation system common here in the Valley of the Sun and throughout Arizona. (Photos: Arianna Grainey/

Part 1 of an explanatory series on Scottsdale water conservation

By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press

Arizona has been experiencing an abnormal amount of low rainfall leading to a projected shortage of water or drought since William Jefferson Clinton was two years into his first term as president of the United States of America.

That was 27 years ago, but, today, the city of Scottsdale — widely regarded as an innovator in municipal operations — is taking measures to conserve water as the end of the decades-long drought is nowhere in sight, experts say.

“Scottsdale Water has a long history of being a leader in sustainable water practices,” said Scottsdale Water Department Executive Director Brian Biesemeyer in a report to City Council. “This is evident through the infrastructure investments the city has made over the last several decades, most notably in the Scottsdale Water Campus and its supporting facilities.”

Scottsdale City Council, during a June 21 public hearing, unanimously approved the Scottsdale Sustainable Water Management Principles emboldened through resolution No. 12539 at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd.

Mr. Biesemeyer explains the Colorado River Basin is experiencing the brunt of drought metrics significantly impacting water supply to Scottsdale through the Central Arizona Project. However, the city of Scottsdale draws its water from several sources. Those are:

  • Salt and Verde River surface water;
  • Colorado River surface water;
  • Groundwater supplies; and
  • Reclaimed water.

Although precautions have been taken, investments approved and infrastructure constructed, Mr. Biesemeyer explains there is no end in sight to the concerns beginning to swirl around water supply in Arizona.

“While Scottsdale has been planning for increasing drought, the length and severity of the situation remains uncertain and complicates water resource planning,” he said. “Scottsdale Water is proposing to consolidate its long-standing sustainable water management policies and practices in a single transparent document for council to review and approve.”

During Mr. Biesemeyer’s tenure, Scottsdale Water has been lauded for efforts to find solutions to complex water issues with most recent accolades including a 2022 Excellence in Action award from the WateReuse Association and the 2021 Water Utility of the Future Today award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A new focus of water conservation in Scottsdale? Water and land use.

“These tools provide some relevant means to compare the water consumption of a new development or business in relationship to the other attributes that the development or business may bring to the city of Scottsdale,” Mr. Biesemeyer said in his report to City Council.

“Given the severity and level of water cutbacks in Scottsdale’s Central Arizona Project (CAP) allocation under the Lower Basin States Drought Contingency Plan and the Arizona Drought Contingency Plan, it is imperative that the impact of growth on the city’s water supply be considered alongside other impacts. This principle was developed to help both city staff and Council with development/re-development decisions by recognizing that city’s water supply is a limited resource, while conjunctively evaluating other aspects and values of a development.”

— Brian Biesemeyer, Scottsdale Water executive director

Found within those principals are guidelines for development projects in need of more than 100,000 gallons per day and will report the following criteria:

  1. Total estimated water use per day on a sustained basis (water use)
  2. Net water use (NW) as defined as NW = Water Use x (1 – (daily sewer flows/daily total water use)
  3. Water conservation measures above those required by city code
  4. For commercial or mixed-use development, the annual economic value of the development on a per gallon of use basis.

The Scottsdale Sustainable Water Management Principles is a product of the Water Policy Committee, a collection of 10 Scottsdale officials ranging from economic development to planning and engineering.

Scottsdale Population and economic development

Scottsdale Councilwoman Tammy Caputi reports a proactive eye toward conservative development due to water shortages has been established within City Council ranks.

“Through conservation efforts we have actually reduced our water usage substantially over the last few decades as the population has grown,” she told the Scottsdale Daily Beat.

“We are growing very carefully, per our General Plan, and accounting for all factors as we move our city forward thoughtfully. We need to be careful as leaders not to repeat extremist talking points. Apartments are not draining our water supply. Our city water department’s vast body of data tells us that multifamily dwellings use one-half the water per capita of single-family homes. Statewide, 70% of water use is for agriculture; housing is a small piece of total usage.”

Scottsdale Councilwoman Tammy Caputi.

Make no mistake, Councilwoman Caputi reminds, Arizona is amid historic drought longevity.

“We are experiencing drought conditions, but the city is well-positioned to manage this issue as a result of the Arizona Groundwater Management Act, which was enacted in 1980 and the long history of actions taken by Scottsdale as a result of it,” she explained. “Every development project must show a 100-year water supply and large water users must justify their economic benefit to the city. There are many things we can do to conserve water before imposing a moratorium on economic development. We should not solve one problem by creating a bigger one — destroying our local tax base.”

While drought contingency plans are in effect — and have been for years — Councilwoman Caputi says the No. 1 thing for residents to understand is the municipality’s water portfolio is diversified.

“It is critical to understand that Scottsdale has four sources of water: reclaimed/recycled water; groundwater; Colorado River water; and water from the Verde and Salt rivers, the latter originating in the Tonto National Forest,” she pointed out. “In other words, fortunately, the Colorado River is only one source of water supply. The Colorado River Basin, which supplies the water to the Central Arizona Project, has been in a 22-plus year drought that has resulted in prolonged reduction in streamflow. A warming climate is driving a process called aridification — a trend of warmer and dryer weather.”

— Tammy Caputi, Scottsdale councilwoman

Councilwoman Caputi outlines certain impacts are outside the control of local ordinance.

“Compounding the shortage is a system with a structural deficit where, even in years of high inflow, more water is allocated to water users than nature can provide,” she said of how the water flows.

“These environmental and human factors have led the Lake Mead reservoir to drop to levels that triggered the first-ever Tier 1 shortage on the Colorado River system January 1, 2022. For Arizona, this has meant 512,000 acre-feet of Arizona’s 2.8 million AF rights, was cut in 2022. Further action by Arizona was also taken based on dire hydrologic projections called the 500 Plus Plan.”

But no matter the state of hydrologic projections the business of Scottsdale will continue as it has for the past three decades, Councilwoman Caputi says.

Scottsdale Water has developed Sustainable Water Management Principles as a guide for future decision making. The nine principles are intended to establish in writing the standing operating and planning principles Scottsdale has been using for many years, she said of the newly adopted water rules attached to development applications.

“Residents will not feel an impact from the newly adopted water management principles because they are best management practices that Scottsdale has been following for years. The crisis is not new; we live in a desert. But the conservation practices that are being used are not new either. Scottsdale has a long history of being a leader in sustainable water practices.”

The environment of Scottsdale is a part of the Sonoran Desert and city leaders have not been ignoring those critical facts, Councilwoman Caputi contends.

“Because we live in the semi-arid Southwest, Scottsdale has been planning for drought for its entire existence; the length and severity of the situation, of course, remains uncertain and complicates water resource planning,” she said. “As a result, Scottsdale is proposing to consolidate its longstanding nine sustainable water management policies and practices in a single transparent document for City Council to review and approve.”

This is part 1 of an explanatory reporting series on water conservation and the myriad impacts equitable access to Earth’s most precious resource may have in the years to come in “The West’s Most Western Town.”

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