By Amanda Baillie

As California seeks new ways to combat its prolonged drought, a non-profit entity in neighboring Arizona hopes to provide some answers and inspiration to communities struggling with chronic water shortages.

The Grand Canyon state has its fair share of water problems, but much is being done to overcome them, particularly in Cochise County.

Since its founding less than three years ago, The Cochise Water Project (TCWP) in Sierra Vista has achieved much success in not only spreading its water conservation message, but in helping local residents, businesses and organizations to take positive action – resulting in water savings of around 175 acre feet so far.

“Our goal is to get people thinking about saving water the same way they do about recycling or turning off the lights,” explained Executive Director Patrick Call. “Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.”

Located within its southeastern region of focus is the San Pedro River, the last major, free-flowing undammed river in the American Southwest and part of a federally designated national conservation area.

The ecological importance of the San Pedro River, coupled with the presence of wildlife protected by the Endangered Species Act, means saving water in the river’s sub watershed is critical to the future of the surrounding communities as well as the river itself.

Call, familiar with local water issues thanks to his long time role as a member of the County’s Board of Supervisors, decided to take conservation efforts a step further in January 2012 by forming TCWP. Primarily financed through a private philanthropic organization, TCWP has also received significant federal monies, as well as funds from local government and businesses. Its sole purpose is to reduce the amount of water being drawn from the local aquifer.

Overseen by a board made up of prominent community leaders, the non-political organization has introduced a wide range of programs and initiatives since its inception.

In particular, a major push has been made through rebates and grants to encourage more people to install rainwater harvesting tanks to capitalize on the mountainous region’s annual monsoon season which can result in an additional 12 inches of rainfall.
TCWP has been particularly pleased to see a number of businesses step up to do their part in this area, with one highly successful project receiving an American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association Rain Catcher Award in 2013.

Carried out in conjunction with Oasis Rainwater Harvesting, the venture involved installing a 30,000-gallon tank to take advantage of the run off of water from two tennis courts and the golf cart house at the Pueblo Del Sol Country Club in Sierra Vista.

“Not only is this award winning system saving approximately 250,000 gallons in landscape water use around the clubhouse, as part of the grant process the golf course management agreed to reduce turf irrigation to the entire course by approximately five percent, resulting in an estimated 20 acre feet per year water savings,” said Call.

Additionally, the water conservation message is being brought directly to the County’s youngest residents, thanks to rainwater harvesting installations at local schools, as well as the Boys and Girls Club of Sierra Vista – believed to be the first club in the nation to undertake such a measure.

“Around 3,700 gallons of water would come off the roof at the Boys and Girls Club after just one inch of rain and it would go straight into the playground and flood it,” said Administrative Director Tim Cervantes. “Now that water runs into the 6,800 gallon tank we installed. The rain water collected also flushes new .8gph toilets, which were the first such installation in the County.”

A low flush toilet rebate program has also proved to be a runaway success. An initiative previously handled by the City of Sierra Vista, whose limited funding allowed less than 100 toilets to be installed annually, the program was handed off to TCWP. Combining the two programs has seen more than 1,500 toilets installed over a two-year period, saving at least 20-acre feet of water per year.

Realizing that education and community involvement is key to maintaining conservation efforts, TCWP began looking to industry specific groups to jump on board its water wagon.
First to take up the mantra were local plumbers, thanks to a partnership with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials.

TCWP funded a 32-hour training program that saw 13 Sierra Vista tradesmen certified as Green Plumbers – there are just 22 Green Plumbers across the state of Arizona.

Next up were the area’s Realtors, who welcomed funds provided by TCWP to allow some of them to be awarded the National Association of Realtors Green Designation. Part of this certification included a presentation by TCWP.

“Since our community is home to Fort Huachuca, a large military installation, we have a transient community and Realtors are usually one of the first people to connect with new residents,” said Cervantes. “We felt the Realtors were a key part of delivering the conservation message.”

Both Call and Cervantes acknowledge saving water might not be the sexiest of subjects to talk about, particularly for young people, and so they organized a fun way of introducing the topic to families by staging an annual Movies in the Park event.

Sponsored in part by local businesses and non-profits, around 2,000 residents gather in Sierra Vista’s Veterans’ Memorial Park to watch a free hit movie on four Saturday evenings every summer.
In the build up to the movie, the audience is shown videos produced by TCWP and high school students, which deliver the conservation message in an entertaining way.

Partnerships have also been formed with local DIY stores, including Lowe’s Home Improvement, The Home Depot, Sierra Vista ACE Hardware and C-A-L Ranch, to stage regular rainwater harvesting classes. Such is their popularity; it is not unusual for these Saturday morning sessions to be standing room only.
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Pueblo Del Sol 30,000 gallon rainwater harvesting project

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Rainwater toilet flushing, Boys and Girls Club, Sierra Vista, Arizona

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Classes on water conservation, Home Depot, Lowes, ACE and C-A-L Ranch

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Toilet Replacement Program, Sierra Vista, Arizona

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Movies in the Park Outreach on Water Conservation

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The Water Wagon, interactive demonstration unit

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Palominas School, flushing toilets with rainwater