[Editor’s note: Every Western customer is unique, but they also share many circumstances and characteristics. Profile stories highlight the strengths, challenges, programs and operational and planning strategies our customers use to “keep the lights on.” We encourage utilities to recognize the issues they have in common and to swap ideas and ask each other questions. If you would like to see your utility featured, contact the Energy Services Bulletin editor.]
Small but complex, Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District (WMIDD) is vitally important to its southwestern Arizona service territory as both a water and power provider.
The Arizona State Legislature created the combination reclamation project/electric utility in 1951 to repay the construction costs of the irrigation and power systems, and to operate and maintain its facilities. The Desert Southwest region customer is governed by a nine-person board of directors elected by landowners living within its boundaries.
Maintaining low rates
WMIDD serves about 3,500 customers, of which 81 percent are residential, 17 percent commercial and 2 percent agricultural. Agriculture is the region’s leading industry, with the district providing irrigation for more than 62,000 acres of cropland. That leaves little private land in WMIDD’s territory for expanding the local economy to offset losses caused by changes in the agriculture business. This scenario led to several years of a shrinking customer base and declining school enrollment, a common occurrence in many rural communities. The area has become a popular destination for retirees and “snow birds” fleeing cold winters, but the proportion of low-income customers remains high.
It is no wonder, then, that the district’s highest priority is keeping its water and electricity rates affordable. “One of our customers’ greatest concerns is just being able to pay their utility bills,” confirmed Susan Lozier, WMIDD power procurement and marketing specialist.
Purchasing hydropower from Western helps WMIDD keep customers’ rates low. Most of the district’s generation comes from three hydroelectric dams on the Colorado River. Western also provides ancillary service support to WMIDD, coordinating supplemental power purchases, scheduling, regulating load and balancing energy delivery. “Western is instrumental in all our power dealings,” Lozier observed. “Our hydropower generation is the district’s most important power asset.”
Load management is not a high priority for WMIDD, and resources for developing customer programs are limited. Nevertheless, the district has found ways to encourage customers to control their energy consumption.
Air conditioning represents a big opportunity for energy savings to the summer-peaking utility. WMIDD, through its Wellton-Mohawk Co-op, stocks air conditioners with a 13 or higher seasonal energy efficiency ratio, or SEER, rating for resale to customers at cost, plus a small handling charge. Customers are responsible for installing the units, although some local technicians do installations. “The local contractor pool is pretty small,” Lozier explained. “There are more contractors in Yuma, but the city is 30 miles away with a mountain range in between. They aren’t going to travel that far to do one installation, unless they sell the unit also.”
Other measures WMIDD takes to save energy include replacing mercury vapor dusk-to-dawn lighting in public spaces with high-pressure sodium lamps and doing annual infrared inspections of its distribution system. The practice of leveling crop fields using laser technology reduces the need for pumping, saving both water and energy.
Simply reminding customers of tried-and-true energy-saving tips can be an effective load-management strategy and here, again, Western can help small utilities like WMIDD. Lozier has used the Energy Services Easy Ways to Save Energy bookmark as a bill stuffer. Our graphics department set up artwork with the district’s logo that could be printed and cut right in the office. This year, at Lozier’s request, we turned our cooling maintenance tip sheet into a bill stuffer to help WMIDD customers make sure their air conditioners are ready for the hot weather.
Water in a dry land
Electricity is only half of WMIDD’s story, of course—the district has approximately 378 miles of main canals, lateral canals and return-flow channels to irrigate prime and unique farmland. The system includes three major pumping plants and four minor pump stations, 10 side delivery pumps dispersed along main and lateral canals, 90 drainage wells and about 300 observation wells. WMIDD also provides water to several small communities through public, private, municipal and domestic distribution systems.
The area’s principal crops include alfalfa, grains, cotton, fruits and vegetables and specialty seeds. Wellton-Mohawk customers grow most of the world’s supply of registered Bermuda grass seed. The widely used grass is highly salt tolerant, and was a mainstay for local farmers from 1940 to 1952 when well water grew increasingly saline.
Water salinity is an ongoing issue WMIDD has dealt with since its inception. The district shares the waters of the Colorado River with many jurisdictions, as well as Mexico. The farther a river flows from its heading, the more saline it becomes naturally, and diverting water for other uses increases the salinity even more. The district has been a party to many international agreements and construction projects throughout the decades aimed at improving or maintaining the water quality of Mexico’s share. Working with growers and the Bureau of Reclamation to adopt best land-use and irrigation practices also helps to reduce the salinity of Wellton-Mohawk’s return flow.
Add in vegetation management and flood protection activities, and it is clear that the work of a desert-region water reclamation project located along an international boundary is never done. Western salutes this small, but hard-working, multi-tasking agency. Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District plays a critical role, not only in its community, but also in the vitality of the entire region, and knowing we support such customers gives meaning to our work.