Flagstaff City Council said Tuesday that it wants to incorporate drinking water reuse options into its future water strategy.
During discussions of a letter of intent to be submitted to the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), the issue of drinking water reuse was raised, where reclaimed water is treated to drinking quality. The letter asks USBR to provide technical assistance to develop urban water projects with federal funding from recent bipartisan infrastructure legislation. It outlines water projects that may be eligible for funding.
The letter, filed by city staff, focuses on Red Gap Ranch, a large, energy-intensive and expensive project involving the delivery of water from land owned by the southern Navajo Nation city. Relatively missing from the letter is a cursory reference to expanding the city’s “reuse portfolio.”
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This uneven focus has caught the attention of several members of the Flagstaff Water Group, including Robert Wayne, who commented that the city has spent millions studying Red Gorge Ranch and is “relatively meager” options for direct and indirect drinking water reuse – which he believes is preferable from a long-term sustainability perspective.
“Our aquifers are not going to get better,” Vane said. “We should reduce the net withdrawal of water from the aquifer. Reuse does that. Pulling more oil from Red Gap Ranch is not going to do it.”
“It’s not just relying on Red Gap Ranch’s problematic and expensive water.”
Brad Hill, a city water service consultant and former water service director, also advocates for fair pursuit of water projects. In Hill’s view, all options for future water supplies should be studied with the same level of “due diligence” so that the public and the city council can adequately make “face-to-face” comparisons.
“It would be inappropriate to say one versus the other without developing all the information,” he said.
Water manager Erin Young said it was unrealistic to think that a reuse option would replace Red Gap Ranch. Several aspects of drinking water reuse are not a complete replacement for new water sources, such as the water cycle does not return 100% of the water it takes in, meaning a full switch to reuse would still be ‘dry’ along our aquifers,” Yang said. explained.
“That’s why we need additional groundwater in the future to continue to feed the recycling process,” she said.
There are also bureaucratic obstacles to a comprehensive drinking water reuse system, as the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) has not yet developed regulations and guidelines for drinking water reuse. Fortunately, there is a bill in the legislature that, if passed, will direct ADEQ to develop such guidelines, opening the door for rural communities to implement drinking water reuse systems in a more robust manner.
Still, even if the bill could pass, it could take two years or more for ADEQ to bring the guidelines into action.
Because of the inequality between drinking water reuse and new water sources, it was important not to lose momentum for the Red Gap Ranch project, Young explained. She added that now is the time to gain collaboration through USBR and other regional partners who will benefit from Red Gap Ranch, making it an “opportunity that we don’t want to miss.”
Delaying the project could result in a loss of cooperation and funding, creating a greater burden on the city of Flagstaff and its taxpayers.
“We can’t do something like this on our own,” Yang said.
In order to take advantage of currently available federal funding, the City Council decided to approve the Letter of Intent on the condition that it be amended to include language that “enhances” the City’s interest in exploring drinking water reuse and expressly requests assistance with regard to the feasibility of drinking water reuse Learn.
The amendments are “certainly appropriate,” said Kevin Black, USBR’s program manager, who said it is in the city’s interest to expand the requirements outlined in the letter.
The council voted unanimously to submit a revised letter of intent, pending review by the city’s legal team.
Sean Golightly can be contacted at email@example.com