KNAU and Arizona News
7:27 pm
Tue May 1, 2012

Flagstaff mayoral candidates face questions about city's water future

Since its earliest days, questions about water have preoccupied Flagstaff’s city leaders.

Where to get it, how to pay for it, what to do if it runs out.

Those questions are still front and center for the City and the region. 

Arizona Public Radio’s Shelley Smithson talked to both candidates running for mayor to see how they would manage one of the city’s most precious resources. 

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At Flagstaff’s Lake Mary Water Treatment Plant, water from snowmelt is purified before it is delivered to homes throughout the city. 

Except this year, there wasn’t much snow to melt, so there’s not enough water in Upper Lake Mary to meet the city’s needs.  

 “Right now, it’s a little less than 37 percent full,” says Brad Hill, the city’s utility director.

He says this year the city will need to pump groundwater to compensate for the low lake levels.

As the city grows, it will need even more water.

Drought  -- and the fear that wildfire could destroy the city’s water reservoirs -- are constant worries.

But neither mayoral candidate is enthusiastic about the city’s current plan for securing water for the future. 

That plan involves pumping water from land the city owns at Red Gap Ranch near Winslow and transporting it via pipeline.

The cost?  About $200 million. 

Mayoral candidate Jerry Nabours says the idea is unrealistic.

 “To me, that’s hugely expensive. I don’t know how we’ll ever do that,” Nabours says.  

Candidate Al White isn’t sold on the Red Gap plan either, but he agrees with the city’s decision to buy the land – just in case.

 “I would love it if we never have to use Red Gap Ranch. I think it’s important to have it as a standby,” White says. “I think it’s important to start looking now at the infrastructure to make sure we could get water delivery.”

But White believes the City should take a step back and study how to better use the precipitation that falls on the region.

 “Seventy-four thousand acre feet of water falls on Flagstaff every year,” he says. “That’s an amazing figure. Ninety four percent is utilized by the forest and never gets to the aquifer.”

To give you some idea of how much water that is, a family of four uses about an acre foot a year.

White advocates aggressive forest thinning and building a retention pond off the Rio de Flag to capture more runoff for future storage.

He also cautions that the City should be actively guarding against plays by Phoenix to take the region’s water by changing laws.

Nabours takes a more regional approach to the City’s water future.

He says Western states need to pool their resources to develop an interstate water pipeline from the Midwest to the Southwest.

 “Water is going to become more crucial of an element than gas and oil,” Nabours says. 

He predicts that in the next decade, presidential candidates will be talking about building such a pipeline, in the same way oil and gas pipelines now crisscross the U.S.

 “Why don’t we connect the United States with a network of pipelines similar to the interstate so that areas with too much water – we have flooding in part of the country almost every year – can transfer water to areas that need water? I think that is the long term solution,” he says.

Both candidates believe reclaimed water should be a key part of the city’s water future.

Treated wastewater is used to irrigate city parks and schools, and will soon be sold to Snowbowl ski area.

Nabours says he’s not concerned about the safety of reclaimed water, which critics say is contaminated with medical and chemical waste.

 “I think we should sell every bit of reclaimed water that we can,” Nabours says.

White agrees, and also advocates for conserving more water.

“We are very good at it. We’re  second in the state, I think, in terms of communities lowering our per capita consumption. I think we could be first,” White says.

He says a recently passed rainwater harvesting ordinance for new housing developments and businesses will conserve even more water. 

City voters will be able to cast their ballots in the mayor’s race by mail until May 15.