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Arizona cities respond to the worst drought in over a thousand years with a new plan

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Colorado River supplies water to about 40 million people across the southwest, but it is facing catastrophically dry conditions. The last two decades have been the driest in 1,200 years. At least six cities in Arizona, including Phoenix, have now declared water shortages. But as Katherine Davis-Young at member station KJZZ reports, one of the first to start cutting back was Scottsdale.

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: In front of the Granite Reef Senior Center in Scottsdale, there's a parking lot on one side and a bus stop on the other.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE DRIVING OFF)

DAVIS-YOUNG: In between is a patch of gravel and drought-tolerant plants.

All these trees, all these little bushes that are here, they just weren't there before? That was all just grass?

NICK MOLINARI: That was all grass. So this whole area here was grass.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Scottsdale Parks and Recreation director Nick Molinari says, six months ago, the little xeriscape garden we're standing in was about 3,000 square feet of turf - not a sports field or a picnic area, just a decorative space dividing the parking lot. So Molinari's department realized they could take the grass and its sprinklers out, and no one would miss it.

MOLINARI: Which ultimately will result in approximately 330,000 gallons of water savings every year.

DAVIS-YOUNG: These kinds of water-saving opportunities across Scottsdale have helped the city's government cut water use 8% so far this year. The city announced water reduction goals about a year ago, shortly after the federal government declared shortages on the Colorado River had gotten so bad southwest states would start facing cuts. The cuts don't affect Scottsdale's residential water supply yet. But Brian Biesemeyer, with Scottsdale's water department, says the city wanted to act early.

BRIAN BIESEMEYER: The condition on the Colorado is getting worse, and it appears that it will get worse before it gets better. So we thought it was the right thing to do.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Biesemeyer's department has asked individual users and homeowners associations to cut their use by 5%. So far, residential users are about halfway to that goal. But Biesemeyer wants the city to lead by example. They're upgrading faucets in city buildings and turning off some fountains around town. And Scottsdale is also looking at new options, like how the city manages its water mains. Sometimes water sits too long underground, and it needs to be flushed out to ensure what comes out of taps is clean.

BIESEMEYER: They'll typically go to a hydrant, and they'll flush thousands of gallons out of that main to keep the water fresh. And it just dumps on the ground.

DAVIS-YOUNG: The city hired a New Mexico company to bring in a new technology that can filter that water and put it back. So far, Biesemeyer says, that's saved the city about 3 million gallons of water. That's a tiny drop in the bucket, compared to the shortages in the Colorado River's reservoirs. Still, Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, says Scottsdale's 2.5% citywide reductions over the past several months are noteworthy.

SARAH PORTER: That's nothing to sneer at.

DAVIS-YOUNG: But Porter points out, only about 20% of Arizona's water goes to cities.

PORTER: We ought to be conserving, but we also need to keep in mind that the Colorado River issues go beyond turning the water off while we're brushing our teeth.

DAVIS-YOUNG: She says cities are going to have to adapt in the years ahead. So while adjusting sprinklers or taking shorter showers won't end the drought, those actions can help local water managers.

PORTER: We're helping our city to stretch the water supplies the city has to cover more users.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Biesemeyer says that was the idea behind activating Scottsdale's drought plan earlier than was absolutely necessary.

BIESEMEYER: We're hoping that by voluntary cutbacks now that alleviates the need for mandatory cutbacks in the future.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Because for a city that relies on Colorado River water, the future looks a lot drier.

For NPR News, I'm Katherine Davis-Young in Scottsdale. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katherine Davis-Young