As drought worsens, city, Intel partner for new reclaimed water facility

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As the Colorado River reaches new lows causing concern about the Southwest’s long-term water resources, Chandler officials say the city is well-positioned to handle drought and has plans to expand the city’s reclaimed water system.

Central to that confidence is the knowledge that the city gets its water from multiple sources and uses reclaimed water and some 32 water wells when it can, officials said. A new reclaimed water facility will be underway this fall that will further enhance Chandler’s water supply, said John Knudson, director of public works and utilities for Chandler.

The city entered into an agreement with Chandler’s largest employer—Intel, which employs more than 12,000 people—earlier this summer for the construction of a reclaimed water interconnect facility that will treat 10 million gallons daily. From that facility, water will be funneled beneath the city’s foundation into a recharge aquifer, which stores the water until the city needs to pump it out and access it.

“It’s a great way to bring more water home and bring it up to A+ standards and supplement the aquifer for Chandler for drought, so that we have plenty of water in Chandler when and if we have a drought condition,” Knudson said.

The interconnect facility is estimated to cost $26 million, according to city officials, with a 50/50 split between the city of Chandler and Intel. Construction is expected to begin in late fall of this year and be completed in July 2023.


Not only will the facility add to Chandler’s water resources, but it will also feed directly into Intel’s expansion. The company announced earlier this year that it would add two new fabrication plants at its Ocotillo campus—a $20 billion investment.

For Intel, the use of water is paramount to its operation. Water is used in the manufacturing process and throughout the campus in the form of cooling towers. The city and Intel have partnered on projects in the past to create more water supply for both Chandler and its largest employer—including the Ocotillo Brine Reduction Facility, a water treatment operation that processes more than 1 million gallons a day of water the microchip maker has already used in its manufacturing process.

“It benefits the city for them to be able to bank water for the future as part of their drought contingency plan and part of the city’s 100-year water supply requirement,” said Aaron Blawn, corporate services site manager at Intel. “It allows us to get—on primarily peak days [in the summer]—water in the cooling towers. It gives us that extra source of non-drinking water quality water that we can go use for our site. So really that became the bigger water source we needed for the two new factories.”

Drought conditions

The federal government declared a water shortage Aug. 16 for the Colorado River after levels at Lake Mead—the country’s largest reservoir—reached its lowest-ever point this summer. The declaration comes with mandatory cutbacks next year that will affect farmers and reduce the water allotments of some western states.

As of Aug. 8, Lake Mead, the reservoir near Las Vegas that holds water for Arizona, stood at 35% full, according to data from the Lower Colorado River Water Support weekly report.

State Climatologist Erinanne Saffell said Arizona has been in a drought condition for two decades, but this last year marked the “most extreme” of any of the years preceding it.

“It’s important to understand that when we look at water supply we are looking at more than one thing,” Saffell said. “There is more than one contributor to our water supply. We have reservoirs, groundwater and rivers that contribute to the water supply.”

She said heavy rain and snowfall over several years could ease the problem causing the Colorado River to dry, but it is difficult to predict how wet a year the region will see.

“We’ve been in a drought so long it would take significant amounts of rain and snow to ease the current condition,” Saffell said.

A water shortage declaration could mean water restrictions loom for agricultural lands and, potentially, for cities down the line. Gregg Capps, water resource manager for the city of Chandler, said the Colorado River accounts for roughly 35% of the city’s overall water.

Capps said in July there are stages to a drought, and restrictions in Chandler are not imminent under current conditions. The first stage begins when a shortage is looming and could mean reduction of surface water supplies, but Capps said that does not mean the city would not have enough water to meet its demand.

The second stage involves mandatory water reduction at parks and city facilities, Capps said. The third stage asks residents to cut back water use, and the fourth stage requires City Council action to authorize mandatory water restrictions. The city has not yet in history reached any of the stages.

“At that point the water wells would be pumping groundwater if we reached that drastic level. If we had zero surface water, even then the sky wouldn’t be falling,” Capps said.

Managing Chandler’s water supply

Chandler’s “diverse supply of water” began back in the 1980s, Capps said, and the city continues to look at its water supply as the city further develops and nears build-out.

Chandler gets its surface water from the Salt, Verde and Colorado rivers, Capps said. The city’s groundwater supply is made up of 32 wells used to pump groundwater in the event of any future surface water shortages. The city also has a reclaimed water supply used for irrigation and industrial cooling tower needs. Chandler also sits atop a natural aquifer, Capps said.

“In 2022, our water supplies are not going to be reduced; there is likely going to be a shortage to some of the farm lands but not to the cities,” Capps said. “If we continue to see surface water reductions and drought conditions, then yeah, we could be having some pretty serious surface water shortages down the road. When we do have those more severe shortages, we have drought plans in place to address that.”

The interconnect facility project with Intel allows the city to “add to its flexibility while addressing the need for more water at Intel,” Capps said.

“It increases our ability to move our supply around,” Capps said. “Now we have another point where we could take Salt and Verde and Colorado river water and supplement recharge.”

Knudson said the project will help Chandler with drought protections.

"The city has planned very well when it comes to water resources,” Knudson said. “There were people here 20 and 30 years ago that saw the potential for a future drought and began to plan for water resources.”

The city purchased more water around the time Intel began its last expansion—the Fab 42 expansion that was completed in 2020, Knudson said. That purchase of additional water is being used now, he said.

“The city has always planned for this eventuality, the purchases we have made with water resources, having that extra volume of water take us beyond build-out and allows us to set aside for growth opportunities,” Knudson said. “At the time the water was purchased, we didn’t know what would happen, and it turns out it made this deal possible.”

Capps said that the city is “good for now” and has enough surface water supply for the next year. But predictions for future drought conditions hinge on the amount of winter rain and snow the western region sees this year.

"We are not going to run out of water in 2022,” Capps said. “We are always planning and working with our partners and making sure we are in the loop and know what’s coming.”


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