Scottsdale banking huge quantities of water

Scottsdale Water Director Brian Biesemeyer told City Council the city has been “banking” water for decades–recent figures show the city puts into its reserves some 10,000 acre feet of water per year. Meanwhile, the city shut down the 130 acre feet per year of Scottsdale water Rio Valley Foothills has been using. (Tom Scanlon/Progress Staff)

In her book “The Soul of Money,” Lynne Twist writes, “Money is like water.”

If that works both ways and water is like money, Scottsdale’s savings account would be bursting while neighboring Rio Verde Foothills is “broke.”

Despite the city’s repeated warnings about the drought’s impact on drinking water supplies, Scottsdale “banks” massive amounts of water every year – and is building more ways to store what some are calling “liquid gold.”

 Documents obtained by the Progress show that from 2019 through 2021, Scottsdale used far less water than it received from the Central Arizona Project and Salt River Project.

A Scottsdale Water representative declined to provide 2022 figures “as those are not finalized yet.”

However, near the end of 2022, Scottsdale Water Director Brian Biesemeyer informed council the city recharges around 10,000 acre feet of CAP water per year.

At the end of 2022, Scottsdale was finalizing plans to cut off water it provided for decades to Rio Valley Foothills. Mayor David Ortega implemented the shutdown Jan. 1, using the city’s drought plan as justification.

Seven weeks later, after intense scrutiny both locally and nationally, Scottsdale designed a temporary plan to provide water to residents in the county island just outside the city’s northeast borders for three years.

Based on recent usage, the plan would provide 126 acre feet of water for up to three years–but Maricopa County rejected the plan, which hinged on Scottsdale “finding” 600 acre feet of water.

The per year total of 126 acre feet is approximately 0.01% of what Scottsdale typically banks per year – or about as much water as the city puts aside every five days.

In other words, Rio Verde wants Scottsdale to fill a bucket of water from its lake of reserves.

The Progress asked for the current or most recent volume of the city’s aquifers, but the city did not provide the information. In addition to physical storage, the city receives credits for unused water it pumps into common aquifers, according to a city attorney.

According to Biesemeyer, Scottsdale has been adding to its water reserves “for decades.”

Records show Scottsdale pumps billions of gallons annually into underground tanks and other storage sites.

One acre foot of water, so named as it is enough to cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot, is about 325,851 gallons. So the 10,000 acre feet of water Scottsdale has been saving represents more than 3 billion gallons per year.

When the Progress asked to interview the water director by March 8 for this story, Valerie Schneider, a Scottsdale Water spokesperson, said, “Mr. Biesemeyer is out of the office through your deadline.”

However, Biesemeyer was at the March 7 Scottsdale City Council meeting – giving a presentation on proposed water rate increases.

At that meeting, in answering a question from Councilmember Barry Graham on pumping cost increases, Biesemeyer said, “We anticipate large cuts in our Central Arizona Project water, our Colorado River water. To make up for that we anticipate pulling from groundwater reserves we’ve been putting in the ground for decades.”
Graham asked a followup question, using the water-is-money metaphor. 
“Our allocations from SRP and CAP have been larger than our usage–so we’ve kind of been adding water to our bank deposit,” Graham noted. “Are we now drawing on our savings?” 
“Perhaps,” Biesemeyer said. “I have yet to know what those exact (CAP) cuts are, so I can’t really answer that. They could get to the point where we could get to the point where we’d be drawing on that savings for a period of time.”
While potential cuts from CAP water loom, Scottsdale Water is confident enough about continuing to bank water that it has a massive aquifer expansion project underway – essentially building more ways to vault for its liquid gold. 

So, as headlines and TV stories around the country sound alarms over a “megadrought,” Scottsdale continues to put aside the equivalent of small lakes.

Over the last few years, voluntary cutbacks by residents, tightening measures by city departments and a flourishing “water reclamation” (treating sewage water to make it suitable for irrigation and even drinking) system have reduced Scottsdale’s water consumption even as its population grows.

That means more for the bank.

As the city’s list of construction projects explains:

“Scottsdale is constructing four Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) Wells at strategic locations throughout the city as part of its commitment to maximizing renewable surface water supplies and minimizing the use of groundwater.

“This will ensure long-term water supply sustainability by recharging high quality, potable water directly into the aquifer when water demand is low (late fall and winter months) and retain the capability to withdraw groundwater during high demand or emergencies.”

Schneider said one well will be ready early next year, with the other three scheduled to be up and running in early 2025.

Guarding the bank

The way City Council sees it, Scottsdale’s widely-bashed shut-off of water to Rio Verde Foothills while literally sitting on a massive water supply is simply guarding the city’s treasure.

Councilman Tom Durham said Biesemeyer regularly updates council on its water reserves –“recharge is what they often call it.”

Regarding the total water stored, Durham said, “I’m aware it’s a very, very large volume.”

So why wouldn’t Scottsdale provide a relatively few buckets of water to the 500 or so Rio Verde Foothills homes?

For Durham, it’s a matter of protecting the water reserves, so “they’re there when we need it…The day may be coming when we need it. It’s very important for us to preserve it.

“It’s not much different than a savings account at the bank,” Durham said. “You want it to be there for the long term. We don’t want to dip into it unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

Providing even a relatively tiny amount of water to Rio Verde, Durham stressed, “is contrary to our drought management plan. That’s the No. 1 reason. …You don’t know what the long-term future is going to be.”

And, he added, “People in Scottsdale have paid for (water) – the processing and the infrastructure.”

“We would love to be able to help out Rio Verde. We thought we made a good offer to the county,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t know why the county isn’t accepting it.”

He was referring to the Scottsdale “Temporary Water Supply Intergovernmental Agreement,” which would provide up to 126 acre feet of water to Rio Verde Foothills annually for two or three years. The plan was contingent on Scottsdale obtaining a source for 600 acre feet before processing the water to drinking quality.

The county supervisors rejected the plan, demanding to know where Scottsdale would get the 600 acre feet of water.

“If they have a question with that, sign the agreement,” Durham said. “Put us to the test: we will get the water.”

Asked why Scottsdale couldn’t dip into its own massive reserves for the water the plan requires, Durham was adamant:

“The stored water is for Scottsdale,” he said. “It would be contrary to our drought management plan. That water is there for Scottsdale.”

Graham framed Rio Verde Foothills as a potential future legal issue that could drag the city into uncharted territory.

“We don’t want to be a utility for wildcat developments in an area growing without any management of that growth,” he said. “It’s unbridled, unregulated growth…They’re going to keep wanting more and more and more water.”

The supervisors also took issue with the part of Scottsdale’s plan asking the county to regulate growth in and around Rio Verde Foothills.

Noting some 70% of Scottsdale’s water “comes from an area that is most drought-stricken,” Graham added, “we have pressures to make sure we protect our water supply.”

“The good news is they’ve reduced their water consumption,” Biesemeyer said of Scottsdale residents at the March 7 meeting. “Kudos to our customers.”

City records show Scottsdale used 76,207 acre feet of water in 2021, 4,022 acre feet less than in 2020.

Scottsdale received 86,222.68 acre feet of water in 2021, with 72,695 acre feet of that coming from CAP.

So that leaves 10,015 acre feet of water that were banked in 2021 alone. That figure climbs by another 20% when factoring in reclaimed water the city added to its reserves.

Ahead of the game

The technical term for banking water is “recharging.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Aquifer recharge (AR) and aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) are man-made processes or natural processes enhanced by humans that convey water underground. The processes replenish groundwater stored in aquifers for beneficial purposes…AR is used solely to replenish water in aquifers. ASR is used to store water, which is later recovered for use.”

Scottsdale Water likes to think of itself as innovative, and is indeed ahead of the game here.

Its website boasts, “Scottsdale Water operates one of the most extensive aquifer recharge programs in the country. Established in the late 1990s, the program promotes aquifer sustainability, ensuring our aquifer remains viable and available for use during surface water shortages and to meet peak demands.”

In 2021, “total production demand” for the city was 76,207 acre feet.

Records reviewed by the Progress show the city expects that demand to rise to over 79,000 acre feet in 2025 and 88,224 acre feet in 2030.

That increased demand mainly will be due to a growing population fueled by massive apartment and condo projects.

At the March 7 meeting, Council unanimously approved an increase in a job order limit from $2 million to $3.3 million for “TPC sewer line installation.”

According to the project description provided to council, “This will include installation of a section of a new 36- inch diameter parallel relief sewer (1, 000 linear feet) that will eventually serve many private developments in North Scottsdale that will require increased sewer capacity.

“It is the rapid pace of new development that is driving the immediate need for the sewer repairs and capacity increase.”

Perhaps due to the city’s confidence in its extraordinary water reserves, no restrictions have been placed – either in city codes or the drought water plan – limiting how much water new projects can use.

At the March 7 meeting, a new “water analysis review” fee of $500 was introduced, targeting developments projected to use 100,000 gallons of water per day.

The city projects three of those projects will be built each year.

Each of those “mega users” would use about as much water as the Rio Verde Foothills community.

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