Building citizens into water leaders

Arizona has some of the most advanced municipal water and wastewater systems in the country.

To showcase the technology and educate the public about critical water issues such as contamination and drought, two Southern Arizona water utilities and the University of Arizona started the Tucson Citizen Water Academy.

The goal is to give citizens an inside look at what it takes to protect, treat and conserve water in the region – and possibly encourage water leadership roles along the way, said Caroline Vargas, community relations manager for the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department (RWRD).

“In this day and age, we felt this would be a good way to collaborate with our ratepayers and see what they are concerned about, and also so they can understand our business,” Vargas said. 

Pima County Wastewater partnered with the city of Tucson water department, and the University of Arizona’s (UA) Water and Energy Sustainable Technology (WEST) research center to host the academy.  

The Academy is modeled after other programs nationwide that encourage water sustainability. Scottsdale and Avondale have similar programs. 

Program an instant success

It was an instant success, said Vargas, who was surprised at the reaction the program received when she sent the first feeler out into the community.

“We put it on Nextdoor and we basically sold out in 10 minutes, 10 minutes!” she said.

About 70 people responded. The academy was able to accomodate 30 people for the first four-session course. Others went on a waiting list. 

Not just for citizens

Citizens, community leaders and businesses are welcome to participate, Vargas said. 

The Academy is held twice a year, in spring and fall. 

Participants attend lectures and activities and tour wastewater and other water facilities, learn about water research, and visit sites like the Santa Cruz River that is being revived with treated wastewater. 

During the first water academy that wraps up this month, participants:

  • Toured the Sweetwater Wetlands, urban wetlands that use reclaimed water exclusively. Tucson Water officials talked about local water supply, including potable and reclaimed distribution systems, water quality monitoring and more.
  • Toured the Tres Rios Water Reclamation Facility, one of the largest water treatment plants in Southern Arizona. Pima County Wastewater Reclamation officials laid out the steps in treatment, regulatory compliance, and wastewater’s important role in the water cycle, especially in arid Arizona. 
  • Learned about water purification challenges and ongoing research and innovations developed at the UA WEST Center. Speakers talked about the risks from water-borne pathogens, methods for addressing emerging contaminants, and opportunities at the water-energy nexus. 

Dispelling fears about water supply

While introducing students to the complexities of water management, the Academy also confronts some of the fears about water for the future, Vargas said. 

Southern Arizona is well prepared, she said. Ongoing research in the state is at the forefront of cutting edge solutions including turning wastewater into drinking water.

Last year, the Pima County RWRD, Tucson Water, UA and other partners sponsored a Pure Brew Challenge across the state. Brewers took highly treated effluent and turned it into beer and water. 

“They went all over the state to say, ‘We need to conserve water in the event we do run out.’ This is something we could potentially be looking at as a solution in the next 20 to 30 years.”

To register for the program, go to: Tucson Citizen Water Academy.

Victoria Harker

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