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Flagstaff City Council pushes to include potable reuse in water strategy

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Council In Person

Members of the Flagstaff City Council.

Flagstaff City Council signaled Tuesday that it would like to see potable reuse options incorporated into the future water strategy.

The question of potable reuse, in which reclaimed water is treated to drinking quality, came about during discussion of a letter of interest to be submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). The letter requests technical assistance from the USBR to develop city water projects with federal funding from the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Legislation. It outlines water projects that could be eligible for funding.

The letter, as presented by city staff, focused heavily on Red Gap Ranch, a large, energy intensive and expensive project that involves piping water from city-owned acreage just south of the Navajo Nation. Comparatively absent in the letter was anything more than a cursory mention of expanding the city’s “reuse portfolio.”

This unbalanced focus caught the attention of several citizens from the Flagstaff Water Group, including Robert Vane, who commented that the city has spent millions in studying Red Gap Ranch and a “relative pittance,” on the options of direct and indirect potable reuse -- which he deemed preferable from a long-term sustainability standpoint.

“Our aquifer isn’t going to get any better,” Vane said. “We ought to reduce the net withdrawals we take out of the aquifer. Reuse does that. Pumping more out of Red Gap Ranch does not do that.”

Michele James of Friends of Flagstaff’s Future echoed concerns that funding for Red Gap Ranch was being prioritized over funding for the development of potable reuse, and requested on behalf of her organization that Council be more equitable with its pursuit of water projects so that the city “is not relying solely on the problematic and expensive water from Red Gap Ranch.”

An equitable pursuit of water projects was also advocated by Brad Hill, advisor to city water services and former water services director. In Hill’s perspective, all options for future water supplies should be studied with the same level of “due diligence,” so that the public and Council can adequately make a “head-to-head” comparison.

“Without having all the information developed, it’s not really appropriate to say one versus another,” he said.

It’s not realistic to think that reuse options could replace Red Gap Ranch, said Erin Young, water resources manager. There are several aspects to potable reuse that don’t make it a complete alternative to new water sources, such as the fact that water recycling does not return 100% of the water it intakes, meaning a complete shift to reuse would still be “drying down our aquifer,” Young explained.

“This is why we need additional groundwater in the future, to continue to feed that recycling process,” she said.

There is also a bureaucratic barrier to full-scale potable reuse systems, as the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) has not yet put together regulations and guidelines for potable reuse. Fortunately, there is a bill making its way through the Legislature that, if passed, would direct ADEQ to create such guidelines, thereby opening the door for rural communities to implement potable reuse systems in a more robust manner.

Still, even with the possible passage of the bill, it could be two years or more before ADEQ brings guidelines to an operable place.

Because of the inequality between potable reuse and new water sources, it’s important not to lose momentum on the Red Gap Ranch project, Young explained. The timing is right to receive cooperation through USBR and other regional partners that stand to benefit from a Red Gap Ranch, making it “an opportunity we wouldn’t want to miss” she added.

Delaying the project could result in a loss of cooperation and funding, resulting in a greater burden on the City of Flagstaff and its taxpayers.

“We couldn’t do something like this on our own,” Young said.

In order to take advantage of the currently available federal dollars, Council decided to approve the letter of interest under the condition that it was amended to contain verbiage that “beefed up” the city’s interest in exploring potable reuse and explicitly requested assistance in potable reuse feasibility studies.

The amendments are “certainly appropriate,” said Kevin Black, a program manager at USBR who said broadening the requests outlined in the letter was in the city’s interest.

Council voted unanimously to submit the amended letter of interest, pending review by the city’s legal team.

Sean Golightly can be reached at sgolightly@azdailysun.com

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Sean Golightly reports on the environment and the city of Flagstaff. Reach him at sgolightly@azdailysun.com, on Twitter at @sean_golightly, or on Instagram at @golightly_writes.

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