On January 24th, the Spirit of Service Scholars hosted the first seminar of 2015:  Water and Energy Sustainability.  To help the Scholars see how the issue of sustainability connected to the real world, the seminar was held at the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center of Arizona.  Located less than two miles south of downtown Phoenix, the Rio Salado Audubon is a 600-acre riparian habitat restoration area along a five-mile stretch of the Salt River.

In the morning, the Scholars went into the habitat along the Salt River riverbed and collected trash.  In less than an hour, the Scholars collected enough trash to fill six large trash bags.  Unfortunately, this trash collection only covered a 50-yard section of the 200-mile long Salt River.  Nevertheless, it was rewarding to improve the quality of the habitat, even if just a little.  The Scholars learned during the afternoon tour that much of the trash that ends up on the streets gets washed into storm drains during heavy rains and collects in the riverbed, which is why there seems to be so much of it.

The Scholars’ willingness to roll up their sleeves and get dirty to collect trash exemplifies exactly why this group of Scholars are fit to be Arizona’s future leaders:  They are willing to do what needs to be done for the sake of a better world.  As Jessica rightly pointed out, this year’s Scholars are a “Yes, and…” group.

During the afternoon tour led by Sarah Porter, former Executive Director of the Rio Salado Audubon, the Scholars learned that when the Audubon opened in 2009, it was a barren land over a former landfill. Six hundred tons of rubber tires were removed from the area and used in new road construction around the Valley for noise reduction.  The City of Phoenix regularly sprayed down the area to control the dust—not exactly a sustainable practice—and the remaining landfill areas were compacted down.  Now, after restoring the habitat and moving dozens of trees into the area, the habitat is home to over 200 species of animals.

For anyone who wants to visit this lush habitat in the middle of a 5-million person metropolitan area, admission is always free.  The Audubon Center hosts “Birds ‘n Beer” every third Thursday, featuring a different topic every month—perhaps a good option for a Spirit of Service alumni event—and Conservation Workdays every third Saturday morning.


Water Panel


After the scholars collected trash from the preserve, they returned to the Audubon building for the first panel of the day. The panel was moderated by Richard Ruelas of the Arizona Republic, and it featured three local experts on water sustainability and water policy.

The first was Sarah Porter, recently appointed as director of the new Kyl Center for Water Policy, and the former director of the Rio Salado Audubon Center itself.

The second was Rhett Larson, an associate professor in the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and an expert on Arizona water policy.

The third was Patricia Gober,  a senior sustainability scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, former director of the Decision Center for a Desert City, and an expert on water resource management.

The panelists addressed many issues and interacted with the Scholars. They highlighted that Arizona policies define three kinds of water in Arizona: groundwater, surface water from rivers excluding the Colorado River, and Colorado River water. There are many policies, from federal to state to municipal to tribal levels, that regulate how to use that water, who gets to use, and how much.

The panelists also highlighted that in Arizona primarily four sectors have rights to water: agriculture, industry, municipalities, and the environment. 

While many policies regulate how people in Arizona use water, the panelists pointed to two as especially important: the Colorado River Compact and the Groundwater Management Act of 1980.

Furthermore, the panelists noted that while governments in Arizona have a history of planning how they use and store water, several municipalities on the outskirts of the Valley have begun to flout those traditions, and if water becomes increasingly scarce in the west, those municipalities will not be able to use water as they currently do. 

The panelists agreed that people in Arizona take water for granted, and that Arizonans should better understand how water shapes every aspect of life in the state. They noted that  in many places in the state, students in grades 8 through 12 must take several courses in Arizona history, but that few of those courses mention anything about water. They proposed that those courses be redesigned to include Arizona’s intimate ties to water.

Ruelas ended the panel, and after lunch, Sarah Porter led the Scholars on a tour of the Audubon building and of the preserve, where she described the history of the center and of the region.


Energy Panel


     Emerging technology is changing how people think about energy in their homes, businesses and communities.  While the challenges are real, solutions are possible thanks to the work of local energy leaders who joined the Scholars to talk about the future of energy sustainability in Arizona.

     Local leaders included Commissioner Bob Burns from the Arizona Corporation Commission, Jeff Guldner, senior vice president of public policy for Arizona Public Service, Amanda Ormond, managing director of the Western Grid Group, Troy Rule, faculty director for the  Program on Law and Sustainability at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, and Colin Tetreault, faculty associate and manager at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability

     The panel agreed that while Arizona has a great future in solar, wind and other emerging energy, current state and national policies cannot keep up.  The biggest challenge is how to manage this rapid change in the energy industry.  Moving forward, the panel stressed there must be a balance between regulation and innovation and a real need for leaders to commit to a long term energy plan.  Without a solid energy plan going forward, there will continue to be uncertainty for businesses and the nation when it comes to developing a sustainable energy policy. 

         Panelists stressed that creating a future with sustainable energy is about making choices considering the environment, social justice and the economy.  The community leaders challenged the Scholars to think about ways Arizona and the nation can develop a cohesive energy policy that incorporates innovation to provide sustainable energy to communities and the nation.



            The organizers wish to Thank The Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center for allowing them to use their facilities. At the Center, they especially thank Sarah Porter, Becky Gilbreath, Alex Molitor, and Emily Macklin. They also thank the panelists for their time, insights, and help. Jessica Eldridge and the Spirit of Service program provided much support, and the Spirit of Service Scholars ensured that the day was a success.