Scottsdale saved 38 million gallons of water in 2022. What's next won't be popular

Sam Kmack
Arizona Republic

Scottsdale announced this week that it slashed municipal water usage by 38 million gallons in 2022, a significant cutback that surpassed the city's goal by more than 6 million gallons.

Officials have been pushing for that reduction since last January when Scottsdale entered stage one of its drought management plan. The move came in response to the feds declaring a tier-one shortage on the Colorado River ― the source of about three-quarters of the city's water ― which required Arizona to reduce its statewide water use by nearly 170 billion gallons.

Scottsdale's conservation milestone brought the local government's water consumption down to about 595 million gallons, or a 6% overall decrease from the 633 million that the city typically uses each year. Staffers credit a range of new projects and policies for this year's conservation victory, including:

  • The city "more aggressively" seeking irrigation leaks and removing 62,000 square feet of grass in its parks. The latter is expected to save 3 million gallons of water each year.
  • The installation of "cooling tower controllers" at seven different city facilities. The water systems detect leaks in a building's pipes and saved about 900,000 gallons in 2022.
  • Using a new water recapture method when cleaning nine miles of city pipes. Typically, the pipes would be power-washed, and the water would be lost in the process, but the recapture and purification of that water this time around saved 5 million gallons.

Scottsdale hopes to repeat that success in 2023 and officials may have already done most of the heavy lifting. A spike in sign-ups for existing residential conservation programs is expected to save more than 10 million extra gallons this year, for instance.

"I think by us showing that we can make those (conservation) changes internally within the city, we hope that that motivates customers and residents to do the same thing," Scottsdale Water Department spokesperson Valerie Schneider said about the uptick in program participation.

But perhaps this year's biggest water-saving prospect for Scottsdale is the controversial cutting-off of Rio Verde Foothills from the municipal water supply.

About 500 homes in that unincorporated community — or roughly 1,000 people — have relied on water hauled in from Scottsdale for years, but city officials ended that partnership earlier this month, given that it didn't jibe with their conservation goals.

James Reim, 8, holds a sign as he, his family and other residents of the Rio Verde Foothills protest after Scottsdale cut off their access to water at the start of 2023, at the Scottsdale Civic Center on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

The number of gallons saved by the cut-off could be in the tens of millions, although officials have not given a specific figure.

Regardless, it's expected to be a boon for Scottsdale's water-saving record but a disaster for its unincorporated neighbors to the north, who are now without water infrastructure after unsuccessfully fighting to regain access to Scottsdale's system in court.

"We don't take kindly to anyone trying to muscle into our waterworks. Especially when we abide meticulously to the law triggered by the drought," Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega said.

Controversial cut-off could save 53 million gallons in Scottsdale water

Schneider declined to say exactly how many gallons of water Scottsdale is liable to save now that it has terminated the water-sharing agreement with Rio Verde Foothills, but it's likely significant.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources estimates that each Arizonan uses roughly 146 gallons each day. About 1,000 Rio Verde Foothills residents relied on Scottsdale water to fill their at-home tanks, which suggests the city is slated to conserve an extra 53 million gallons as a result of the cut-off.

Scottsdale's grass removal rebate pays residents two dollars for every square foot of grass they remove. It's intended to incentivize more desert-friendly landscaping that uses less water.

That's equivalent to 180% of the 30 million gallons Scottsdale needs to save in order to hit its 5% water cutback target this year, making that one policy decision more impactful on city conservation efforts than every other initiative enacted in 2022 combined.

Scottsdale has faced immense pressure from some Rio Verde Foothills residents and state lawmakers to reverse the decision, but the city won a big victory in court when a judge ruled that Scottsdale didn't have to share its water infrastructure ― even if it was just to clean non-city water for the unincorporated community.

The city isn't likely to walk back its policy in light of the court ruling, the benefits of the cut-off for Scottsdale's water-saving efforts and the steadfast opposition to the water-sharing agreement among city officials.

Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega has repeatedly called himself a "hard no" on helping Rio Verde residents, for example, and said that water isn't "a compassion game."

Scottsdale mayor David Ortega addresses the city council during a meeting at the Scottsdale Civic Center on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

City residents' water usage also expected to drop in 2023

The vast majority of Scottsdale's water use reduction last year was driven by city departments, according to staffers who said the city didn't experience a marked drop in residential or business water use in 2022.

But that's expected to change after a recent spike in residents signing up for the city's water conservation incentive programs.

For example, Scottsdale saw a 300% uptick in the number of properties that accepted grass removal rebates. The program pays residents two dollars for every square foot of grass they dig up and replace with water-efficient desert landscaping.

The uptick in participation last year lead to nearly 220,000 square feet of grass being cleared, which is expected to reduce residential water usage by about 11 million gallons each year moving forward.

Sign-ups also doubled for Scottsdale's Outdoor Water Efficiency Check program. The initiative has allowed more than 300 homeowners to get their water systems inspected by a city-paid irrigation specialist who can identify wasteful flaws such as leaks.

The water-saving impacts of both programs don't happen immediately given that sign-ups occur throughout the year, although staffers expect to reap the benefits of the residential water conservation measure in 2023.

"Once you take out the grass, it's going to take a while to really see those water savings," Schneider said. "If people just took out their grass in the fall, they probably won't see huge water savings until they get into summer next year."

Arizona Republic reporter Sasha Hupka contributed to this report.