East Valley Tribune 

The latest appropriations bill passed by Congress contains $1.7 million in earmarks – now officially known as Community Funding Projects – for two Mesa water infrastructure initiatives viewed by the city as insurance against future shortages.

U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton announced two weeks ago that all 12 of the Community Funding Projects he requested for his district, totaling almost $12 million, made it into the bill.

The government will send $959,000 to Mesa for the Water Main Improvements project and $800,000 for its $82 million Smart Meter Upgrade.

Both projects are underway and would happen with or without the funding, but Water Services Director Chris Hassert said the grants will help stretch the city’s water infrastructure dollars.

“Any kind of grant for funds to offset money in the (Capital Improvement Plan) allows us to stretch the dollars we have in our CIP. Those dollars will go further,” he said.

The city has been investing heavily in water-saving projects as well as infrastructure that fortifies the water system against mandatory cuts and droughts.

“We’re excited about it,” Hassert said of the grants. “We always look for opportunities” for grants.

“We appreciate Representative Stanton’s support for funding of these important projects to help Mesa manage water demand,” Mayor John Giles said in a statement.

In 2011, Congress began a moratorium on “earmarks,” a term for a provision in a spending bill that sends money to a specific recipient without going through a competitive funds allocation process.

The ban on earmarks, also dismissed as “pork,” followed years of criticism of the practice.

In 2021, Congress decided to bring back earmarks with a new process and requirements “to help ensure transparency and accountability,” a U.S. Government Accountability Office blog states.

“Under the new system, Members (of Congress) must provide information, such as the purpose and recipient of the funding to ensure no conflicts of interest. Another requirement is that GAO get involved in tracking the funds,” the department continued.

Phoenix, Chandler, Tempe and Valley Metro are also receiving funds from Stanton’s Community Funding Projects.

The Valley metro grants include $1,382,000 for the agency to purchase “accessible micro transit vehicles” to serve areas not served or underserved by traditional transit options, and $500,000 to purchase five electric buses and the associated infrastructure to help transition to a zero-emission bus fleet.

Hassert said Mesa has many large-diameter water mains – the “highways” of the city’s water system – that are 40 to 50 years old.

He said that not only are some of the mains aging, but they weren’t built with many access points for inspection. He suspects the idea was the city would just replace them after 50 years.

But Hassert said there is “a lot of value” in finding defects early on and then fixing them instead of replacing the pipes, adding decades to the life of the infrastructure.

So the city is moving methodically through its system and adding access points to the water mains, inspecting them and remediating any issues they find. With the access points installed, workers can come back years later and check the pipe again.

Extending the life of the pipes could save the city money, but there’s also a water-conservation component to the water main improvements.

“One of the more common defects we find is small cracks,” Hassert said. “Those are leaks that we can correct.” He estimated that fixing the leaks might sav

Mesa is currently working on a multiyear project to replace all 200,000-plus water, electric and gas meters with upgraded “smart meters” that can be read remotely.

The city is about 10% through the $86 million project.

Like the water main improvement project, the smart meter upgrades are expected to both conserve water and save money. The city also touts the greater functionality of the advanced metering infrastructure.

Hassert said the city’s water department currently employs 26 meter readers who must drive throughout the city to read the older analog meters.

“All the meter readers drive a tremendous distance every day. That consumes a lot of fuel,” Hassert said.

Smart meters can gather usage data remotely and in real time, so most of the employees won’t be needed for that task anymore. Hassert said the plan is to re-train these employees to fill other roles that are in high-demand in the water department.

Hassert said another significant benefit of the meters is being able to detect water leaks quickly. With the conventional meters, it usually takes a billing cycle or two to detect and fix a leak in a customer’s irrigation.

With the smart water meters installed so far, the water department has found it is able to contact customers about anomalies quickly, before they receive huge water bills.

Customers can then hire a plumber to search for leaks.

Hassert projects potentially huge water savings from leak detection – as much as 2.5 million gallons a day. That’s the average daily water use of five golf courses.

It’s a win-win for water customers and the city’s water portfolio.

“I’d say (water conservation) is one of the most significant benefits (of smart meters),” Hassert said. “It’s like finding new water.”