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‘How do we work as a watershed to be as efficient as possible so that when we have shortages we can address them?’

The city of Peoria has entered into an agreement with The Nature Conservancy, an international nonprofit conservation group, to protect river flows and water quality in the Salt and Verde rivers.

Through the agreement, the city of Peoria will provide a $30,000 grant to The Nature Conservancy for three years. Then, Peoria can opt into an additional two years.

The partnership is part of a program formed by The Nature Conservancy entitled the Salt and Verde Alliance, which aims to reduce risk to water supplies. Through the program, the nonprofit partners with cities like Phoenix, Glendale and Tempe, as well as businesses and others who rely on the Salt and Verde rivers.

The partnership marks the first between The Nature Conservancy and the city of Peoria. The goal is to protect water provided by the Salt and Verde rivers, which flows through Salt River Project canals to the Greenway Water Treatment Plant in Peoria.

“The quality of that water is important. The consistency of it’s important and the makeup of it staying consistent is important because that affects what we have to do to treat it, to deliver it to our customers,” said Cape Powers, Peoria’s water service director.

“If you have spikes in water quality or changes in water quality, it’s not that we can’t handle it, but there’s certainly cost impacts to it and it can have sort of unforeseen consequences. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

According to Verde River Director Kim Schonek, The Nature Conservancy seeks investments as well as encourages sacrifices in terms of water conservation from communities that rely on the water.

“There’s 10 cities in the Phoenix Metro area that rely on water from the Salt and Verde rivers. So we partner with those cities, including Phoenix and Peoria, to provide funding to invest in these watershed projects,” explained Schonek, who noted this is the second year of involvement from the city of Phoenix.

According to a recent Peoria city council agenda, “projects could include forest thinning, participation in water-offset programs to increase in-stream flows, and improving water quality by reducing the chemicals and organic matter returned to the river through irrigation runoff.”

Expanding on those potential uses, Schonek said the Salt and Verde Alliance ultimately emphasizes two components: protecting forests and working with rural communities on agricultural improvement.

The latter includes soliciting investments from communities that require water, but also encouraging them to be water-efficient and work together to solve potential water issues. Modernization of equipment is also important, Schonek said.

Protecting forests, on the other hand, includes forest thinning. High-density trees can lead to an increased risk of wildfire, which, in turn, can increase treatment costs and reduce storage capacities in reservoirs, Schonek said.

This is because wildfires can send debris into streams, according to Powers, potentially changing water chemistry and causing blockages. For this reason, Powers called this the “most exciting” possible use of funds to the city of Peoria.

“That’s what we’re really trying to avoid,” Powers said. “We don’t want streams clogged, plugged. We want the natural environment to do as much of the water treatment as we can have it do. And maintaining a healthy forest is all part of that process and part of that system.”

However, The Nature Conservancy will ultimately provide city officials an annual written technical report outlining how exactly the funds were used. The city can discontinue the partnership at any point. 

But Schonek emphasized the issues aren’t urgent.

“This is really looking forward,” Schonek said.

“It’s not serving a short-term water crisis. This isn’t that sort of challenge, which again, makes it very difficult to convey. It’s really about, ‘How do we work as a watershed to be as efficient as possible so that when we have shortages we can address them?’”