While we wait for the new bladders to be installed at Tempe Town Lake, there’s another issue-at-hand: where will we get the water to fill up the lake when the dam is rebuilt? The city has found a way to save $333,000, but people have some problems with the plan!
(Courtesy of Dianna M. Náñez – Arizona Republic)
Money that Tempe invested years ago in increasing water storage at Roosevelt Lake could save the cash-strapped city hundreds of thousands of dollars to refill Town Lake.
But the bargain isn’t swaying conservationists, who say water is too valuable of a natural resource for Arizonans enduring a record drought to expend on rebuilding a massive artificial lake in the desert.
Tempe is estimating it will pay $50,000 to refill Town Lake with Roosevelt Lake water, compared with the $383,000 the city would have paid if it had to purchase water from the Central Arizona Project, which draws water from the Colorado River. Tempe used CAP water at a cost of about $250,000 to fill Town Lake when it was built 10 years ago.
The savings result from Tempe’s decision to join a coalition of Valley cities that funded an expansion of Roosevelt Dam in 1996. In exchange for the investment, Tempe has rights to Salt River surface water, which feeds Roosevelt Lake, when the reservoir fills beyond the storage capacity that was available before the expansion.
Winter rains in recent years have boosted Roosevelt Lake’s levels, securing Tempe a share of about 13,500 acre-feet of water as of June. Tempe officials estimate the volume of water required to refill Town Lake is 2,500 to 3,000 acre-feet, or as much as 977.6 million gallons. Fees that Tempe pays to transport the water from Roosevelt Lake would be the only charges for the water.
Still, critics warn that water levels at Roosevelt Lake and other Salt River Project reservoirs are vulnerable to the desert’s dry seasons. It took nearly 10 years before the water in Roosevelt surpassed the original storage capacity. As recently as 2002, a dry winter produced the sparsest spring runoff from mountain streams and rivers in more than 120 years, resulting in rationing from reservoirs such as Roosevelt that supply drinking water for the Valley.
Tempe has a plan to ensure sufficient water for municipal users in the event of a prolonged drought, said Eric Kamienski, Tempe’s water-resource manager. He also noted that the amount of water proposed for the Town Lake refill amounts to about 1 percent of the water currently stored in the expanded Roosevelt storage capacity.
If Tempe chose not to refill Town Lake, the city could continue to store water for future use in Roosevelt Lake or in the East Salt River Valley aquifer through several groundwater recharge projects. The water also could be delivered to Tempe’s two water-treatment plants as it has been for drinking water or other municipal uses.
Conservationists say Tempe has a responsibility to all Arizonans to hold hearings on whether such a large amount of water should be used to rebuild a recreational lake.
Town Lake is being rebuilt after a dam burst July 20, thrusting nearly a billion gallons of water into the dry Salt River bed. Tempe expects to begin refilling the lake in mid-October and fill it completely by Nov. 1 in time for the Ford Ironman Arizona triathlon.
City leaders say the value of rebuilding Town Lake is evident to the millions of annual visitors who make the lake one of the state’s most popular attractions. Last year, Town Lake was the second most visited destination in Arizona. Tourism officials say the lake’s steady stream of out-of-town visitors spur the state’s economy, bringing much-needed tax revenue.
Although Tempe has the rights to the stored Roosevelt water, some conservationists and Valley residents say the dam’s failure provides an opportunity for Arizonans to reflect on how to best use such a scarce natural resource. Nearly a billion gallons of water were lost when the dam failed.
When construction on Town Lake began in 1997, Arizona’s longstanding drought was in its infancy. Although water at Lake Roosevelt is flush now, it took more than 10 years to build that storage capacity and it can fall swiftly, said Yvonne Reinink, a senior engineer with SRP water-resource operations. SRP monitors reservoirs’ capacity and implements rationing when water falls below certain levels.
“If we don’t have enough water in the reservoir, then we have to encourage conservation,” she said. “The drought started in 1996, but one of the driest years on record in recent years was 2002, when reservoirs got very low and we had to reduce our allocation to keep enough water in storage.”
That dry season resulted in mandatory rationing for cities and agriculture in 2003 and 2004.
Given the region’s reliance on water, Tempe officials have a responsibility to schedule public hearings on whether Town Lake should be refilled, said Michelle Harrington, executive director of Arizona Rivers, which advocates for the free flow and protection of the Salt and other Arizona rivers’ natural ecosystems.
“I can certainly see that it being a fixture of theirs for the past decade that they would want to refill the lake. But we really need to talk about what the best use of our water supply is,” she said. Conservationists have long been opposed to Town Lake and other Arizona man-made lakes.
“We always thought it would have made more sense for Tempe to do something like Phoenix along the Salt River and make it more of a riparian area, which it would have been naturally, instead of this big lake where you get a lot more evaporation . . . and problems with mosquitoes,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Arizona Sierra Club chapter.
Bahr’s biggest criticism of Town Lake is that it sets a bad example for other water users. “I think it’s important to mention the kind of message a big lake like that sends. It gives the impression of abundance. If you’re in a desert, the city, the community leaders should be sending the opposite message – that water is important and we need to be conserving it.”
This week, Tempe City Manager Charlie Meyer told The Arizona Republic that the city is backing the rebuilding of Town Lake because it is has become an invaluable state destination and defining Valley attraction.
Town Lake is a “value not to just Tempe…it’s an amenity for the whole state,” he said.