We invited award-winning Edmonton journalist, Curtis Gillespie, to interview leaders and members of Team EPCOR to provide a unique perspective on our role and commitment to ESG. For this article, Curtis spoke with EPCOR environmental and water experts in Arizona about the effects of climate change and efforts to ensure a consistent and reliable water supply for our customers.
If you say the word desert, you might picture an explorer trying to extract one last drop of water out of an upturned bottle. That is a scenario millions in Phoenix and the US southwest are working to avoid through innovation, education and collaboration. EPCOR has branched out significantly in the last decade and is now servicing parts of greater Phoenix and communities in New Mexico and Texas. But the Colorado River is declining. Climate change is accelerating. The challenges are growing. Yet for the US southwest, those challenges might not be quite what you think.
John Calkins worked with Arizona's Department of Environmental Quality before joining EPCOR as Senior Manager of Environmental Compliance. When it comes to solving the puzzle of water supply and climate change, he says, it's about recognizing how many puzzle pieces there are. “Temperature, precipitation, population. Changes in the flora and the nature of forest fires, the way snow melts, how that impacts surface flow." It's a complex eco-system and part of the complexity is where the water comes from. About 40% of central Arizona's supply comes from the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal system, which runs from the Colorado River through the desert into Phoenix and then down to Tucson. The Salt and Agua Fria rivers also supply water, as do the major aquifers underneath the Phoenix basin. There's water available, but it's all about making the pieces fit.
Doug Dunham is a Phoenix native and EPCOR's Manager of Water Resources. The problem back in the 1970s, he says, was water overuse due to things like unmanaged flood irrigation techniques. The Groundwater Code has since advanced legislation such as the 1980 Assured Water Supply Program, stipulating that new development has to demonstrate a 100-year renewable water supply. “We live in the desert," says Dunham. “We understand drought. Despite some of the outward appearances of the state in terms of growth, there is an underlying current of conservation here." Evidence of that is the fact that Arizona now uses less water by total volume than it did 50 years ago. “It's all part of accepting reality," says Dunham.
“You can't just retreat into a corner," he says. “My planning horizon is 100 years out. We're constantly thinking that far into the future because we understand we live in a water-stressed area."
Not retreating means having everyone pulling in the same direction. EPCOR has agreements, for instance, with the Salt River Project, the Ak Chin tribe, and others, not to mention programs such as selling treated wastewater to golf courses. And there is the Maricopa Water District agreement, which allows for efficient transition from agricultural water rights to municipal uses; this saves water, as houses use significantly less water than farming. Also important is the state-run water bank which stores excess water when available for use in times of shortage, and a system for water providers like EPCOR, for instance, can put water it's not using back into the aquifer. If it needs that water in the future it has a state “credit," that it can recover.
There are other external factors that require a team approach, such as the PFAs (polyfluruoralkyl substances) often found in things like firefighting foams, stain guards and even Teflon pans. Calkins calls them the “forever chemicals" because they don't break down readily and can leach into aquifers. EPCOR is responding to public concern by proactively sampling its water sources to ensure that PFAs levels are well below the EPA guidance. This is just one area of public education in which EPCOR is at the forefront.
Rick Obenshain worked with Arizona's Department of Water Resources before transitioning to EPCOR as Water Resource Analyst and managing EPCOR's conservation programs. These programs include the H2O Magic program for children, a groundwater education program and courses he runs or teaches on desert adaptive plants, water regulation, drought contingency, and a program called Hydrate, on how to use rainfall and runoff. Last but hardly least, he oversees the gorgeous xeriscape gardens at the EPCOR offices. His work is about teaching the public how water works and how they can use it, reuse it and not lose it.
All of which are essential to the Southwest's water supply. EPCOR reuses close to 93% of treated wastewater or effluent, and its wastewater is treated to A+ effluent standards, which is significant because in 2020 EPCOR recharged 2.3 million gallons a day (MGD) into aquifers. That number is expected to reach 8 MGD in the years to come. Having such high effluent standards helps takes the pressure off the earth in returning water to a potable state.
If we're smart about it, there is enough water to supply the Southwest, which means we shouldn't have to go around holding our water bottle upside down over a dry tongue. “There is a lot of water here," says Calkins. “But it needs to be used wisely. Because it doesn't matter where you are, everything is interconnected."