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Price working to make State of the City exciting, but also safe

MARICOPA — The 2020 State of the City address is officially proceeding despite the COVID-19 pandemic, but it may look a little different this year.

Mayor Christian Price says the address will be “a very colorful event” with the theme, “Maricopa’s looking UP” — playing with the title of the much-loved Disney movie “Up.”

The city and the Maricopa Economic Development Alliance will present the 2020 address on Oct. 21 at Copper Sky Regional Park. The event will be hosted outside to help accommodate social distancing, and masks will be required.

“It’s going to be in a different setting,” Price said. “It offers a whole different set of challenges for us in order to offer it because you’re trying to do a dynamic presentation that involves multimedia and you’re trying to do this outside and you have the risk of the weather. … But it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

There will be designated areas for those in attendance, and attendees are allowed to sit with who they arrived with. Price said the community can expect the reservations to open the first week of October, and recommends people RSVP as seating will be limited.

Helen Ford with Helen’s Kitchen and Catering will be serving food and drinks at the event, something she says has “become a tradition.”

Though she’s keeping the menu under wraps for now, she did hint at the kinds of offerings attendees will be gobbling up.

“I’m doing an assortment of food,” she continued. “A variety of delicious, gluten free, vegetarian (foods) — something that everybody will be able to enjoy and not be left out on. Great surprises and treats (too) … and themed desserts.”

In previous years, Ford has done overflowing cupcake towers and bite-sized hors d’oeuvres. Last year, attendees to the 2019 “Field of Dreams” State of the City were treated to all kinds of colorful concession food.

This year, unfortunately, Ford has had to take COVID into account. She’s gone with a “trick-or-treat” style of serving to ensure cleanliness.

“All the food is going to be pre-packed in individual packaging for everybody,” Ford said.

Ford will make her homemade foods in advance. When hungry guests arrive, they’ll be handed a bag with some packaged goodies inside. Then, they’ll proceed to a series of stations where they can pick up more hot and cold foods to be placed in their bags. They can then take the whole bag back to their table with them — just like a bag of candy at the end of Halloween night.

Ford and her crew will be masked and gloved as they man their stations, and they hope to minimize any cross contamination between food areas by not touching the bags the guests are holding.

Price said, in addition to the food and atmosphere, events like the State of the City provide community members with the opportunity to hear about the city’s accomplishments over the past year and what good things are to come.

“What I look forward to sharing with people in this type of event is that it’s not the typical boring political speech — at least I try not to make it such — I try to make it a fun event where people come (and) they walk away just with their mouths open going, ‘Oh my gosh, I did not realize we, as a city, did that much stuff.’” Price said. “It leaves people with something to really be proud of.”

Should the event be prohibited for unforeseen reasons, it will most likely move online, according to the city’s press release.

Price hopes that the message of “Maricopa is looking UP” will inspire residents to look to the future of the city after a hard year.

“At the end of the day, life is gonna go on, we’re gonna get through this and we’re gonna move forward,” Price said. “We’re not letting any grass grow under these feet.”

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Maricopa researcher works in Yuma to manage water, salts from Colorado River

MARICOPA — Southern Arizona is home to one of the largest and most important agricultural regions in the United States. In fact, it’s more than likely that the romaine in your last Postmates order, the L in your BLT sandwich and the spinach currently wilting in your fridge are all from the same agricultural hub to the west of Pinal County: Yuma.

Yuma’s food production tops $2 billion every year, and 90% of the country’s leafy greens come from the arid desert area. As the city’s agriculture grows, so do the needs of the growers. At the U.S. Arid Land Agricultural Research Center, research physical scientist Andrew French has been helping farmers with some much-needed updates to the water usage guidelines.

“The numbers that were used, or are still being used were done by the University (of Arizona) and by USDA over 20 years ago and were really solid, good research,” French said. “But the crop intensity has roughly doubled and yet the water consumption hasn’t changed, which is really a remarkable achievement by the growers. So we need to update those old numbers with new numbers because the yields have gone up dramatically.”

U.S. Arid Land Agricultural Research Center  

Eddy covariance devices measure water use in agricultural fields.

French began his work in Yuma and other Arizona communities like Ak-Chin in 2016, working with growers to measure current water needs and create better ways of managing the water. He also helps growers look at the salinity levels of the water and soil, a very important aspect of a successful growing season.

“What we’re doing is, we’re just saying, ‘This is how much water we see being used, these are the facts,’ what you do with that — we’ll have some suggestions, but we’re not aiming to tell them what they should use,” French said. “We hope to give advice on how much water the crop needs, and how much water is needed to maintain salt levels.”

Yuma is in a special position, as it receives its water almost exclusively from the Colorado River, which can be a benefit and a challenge. The river has been overburdened in the last couple of decades, and water rights have become more competitive.

“(Water resources are) a huge concern, which is probably why the Yuma district is so motivated and supportive of the project,” French said. “It’s a critical issue, because what I’ve been told by growers is they’re worried. They’re worried that somebody’s out to get their water. They’re worried that the cities will buy water rights. … They want scientific data to show that they are good stewards, because the Colorado River is being overtaxed, everybody knows this.”

French said that without the Colorado River, “there would be no enterprise” at all for agriculture. Another unusual quality about the Colorado River is its high salt levels, which are also measured by French and his team to help aid farmers.

“Salt levels have been improved on the Colorado River in recent years because of watershed management the bureau has done in Colorado,” French said. “The problem is that there is salt in the water, and when you irrigate a shallow-rooted crop, you have a lot of evaporation. The water evaporates and leaves behind that residual salt.”

The only way to remove the high salt content in the soil after growing a crop like lettuce is to flood the fields, so French hopes to provide tools for farmers to do that sustainably. Farmers and growers often have to plan when to grow crops years in advance to help even out soil salinity levels. After lettuce, they may plant wheat to balance the soil. Another way to maintain salt levels is through alternating water usage.

“In order to maintain salt levels in the river and also maintain a viable salt level in the field, there has to be a lot of planning and how much water you use from the Colorado (River) versus how much water you take from the ground,” French said.

U.S. Arid Land Agricultural Research Center 

A figure showing the salinity levels of a given field after different crops.

In this case, the water from the ground is also Colorado River water, but it has percolated underground for years.

Some of the field devices French and his team use to measure water levels include meteorological instruments such as the eddy covariance, or ECV. Each ECV station includes environmental sensors, data loggers, solar panels, batteries, buried soil measures and communication modems all piled on a couple of tripods.

“The logistics of setting up micrometeorological instruments is pretty daunting. They’re expensive, complicated instruments,” French said. “You have to be able to move them at a moment’s notice when the farm decides they’re going to irrigate or cultivate or spray.”

French regularly makes the two-hour journey from Maricopa to maneuver the expensive equipment in the agricultural fields, which he says is no easy feat.

“You have to carry it by hand from the road,” he said begrudgingly. “One of the guys is like a weightlifter, but for me to carry a car battery into a wet field is really hard.”

With eight or nine of these stations spread across southern Arizona, French said there’s always something that needs attention — even bird poop can be cause for concern.

Also in their toolkit for measuring and monitoring crop water use is their partnership with NASA. French uses satellite data to both the amount of vegetation and the land surface temperatures, which provides two-fold, valuable data.

“The satellite remote sensing is really two things. One is the vegetation, the chlorophyll content,” French said. “Then the second part is temperature. The temperature is like your swamp cooler — if plants are healthy, they’re going to stay cool. If they’re water stressed, they’re going to be hot. We can measure that from space.”

French and his team recently published a paper detailing their research findings on wheat crops, and will soon publish another paper on lettuce.

The outcome of French’s research will not only give growers valuable and current data on water use and salt management, it will also provide practical ways to monitor water using remote sensing tools and possibly even smartphone apps.

French says one of the best parts of his work with growers is the ability to get out into the communities and speak with farmers. He goes from Yuma, where nearly every field represents a different grower, to Ak-Chin, where he only needs to head to one place. He commended the Ak-Chin Indian Community for its commitment to agricultural enterprise, and called it “a really nice collaboration.”

In fact, French can say that about most of his nearly five years of work in researching water and salt levels for the growers of southern Arizona.

“The fact that scientists and growers can work together collaboratively, that’s what’s mattered,” French said. “I’m motivated by scientific research — that’s why I do what I do, trying to answer questions that are hard to answer. Working with other scientists is extremely rewarding for me. But until the last few years, I haven’t been able to work in addition to that, collaboratively with growers, and that’s what’s changed in the last few years.”

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Heritage ready to get sports underway on its own soil

MARICOPA — Many charter schools have a hard time getting a full slate of sports up and running right away. Heritage Academy-Maricopa has tried to defy those odds by offering competitive varsity programs from day one.

That turned out to be too much for a couple programs. The football team, for example, had to cancel its inaugural season after it became clear that facilities would not be ready, with the school having to hold classes in unconventional venues such as a movie theater. Volleyball, swimming and cross country were all able to play.

But now, the sites are ready for Heroes athletics to represent their school, and with a good deal of pride.

“They wanted us to have a certain head count to justify having a gym and a field, and we hit that year one,” Athletic Director Jeffrey Miller said. “We’re even supposed to have an auditorium out front, but with COVID happening, we lost some enrollment, but we should get it back up soon.”

Last year, Heritage held its practices at Copper Sky and Ak-Chin Indian Community. This caused significant issues, as there was limited availability for practices, and the school had to budget in traveling time.

Now they have their own gym and field, to use whenever they want. The field still has a ways to go to be fully functional. There aren’t any permanent stands or lights yet, but Miller said they’ll get there. The gym, though, is ready to go. It has a grandstand that could accommodate hundreds, as well as electronically-controlled nets and hoops.

Heritage has the ability to expand even further, with land adjacent to the football field that could be developed into baseball and softball fields should the school decide to go in that direction. That land is still owned by the school’s neighbor, Our Lady of Grace Church, but the school has the option to buy it.

Such facilities are typically seen at Arizona Interscholastic Association schools, but for now Miller feels Heritage is at home in the charter-filled Canyon Athletic Association. He said if schools could move up to AIA sport-by-sport, he’d consider it, but it’s all or nothing and that doesn’t work for some of the programs.

One such program is boys basketball, which took the CAA by storm last year by featuring the highest scoring team in the country and making it to the state championship game in its first ever year. Now, they want to form a national team that can play school from anywhere in the United States. They wouldn’t be able to do that in the AIA, but they can now.

Miller said the basketball team’s accomplishments have been an inspiration to what other teams are capable of doing.

“We’re looking to grab on to what Coach (James) Deakyne is doing and use it as an experience to help all the kids,” Miller said. “Everybody was excited about it, and the whole school got behind them.”

With everything going on with COVID, there is still plenty of uncertainty about what sports is going to look like this year. But no matter what, the Heroes are just happy to have a place to call their own.

“We are growing and we look to improve on what we’ve done this past year,” Miller said. “Now it’s time to get some home field advantage.”

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Pinal County van helps raise census reporting numbers in Maricopa

MARICOPA — Census data collection is in full swing in Maricopa and, as part of the city’s ongoing effort to raise its reporting numbers, a Pinal County van was in town Wednesday to help residents complete their submission.

The census-mobile was in the Bashas’ parking lot from noon to 2 p.m. and equipped with Wi-Fi and laptops so those entering and exiting the grocery store could complete the census right then and there.

Dale Wiebusch, intergovernmental affairs director for the city, broke it down in numbers to illustrate how much each person’s completed census affects the city’s future. Each person’s response means, on average, an additional $3,400 for the city.

“If you get 100 people, that’s $340,000,” Wiebusch said. “That’s roughly three more police officers. That’s three to four more firefighters. That’s extra school funding. That’s road construction. I mean, it just all adds up.”

He said the city strategically lined up the van arrival with “coupon day” at Bashas', hoping to catch frugal shoppers as they entered and exited, or entice them with a coffee from the Monsoon Coffee truck, which was there.

This event is just one part of an effort by the U.S. Census Bureau and city representatives to ensure reporting numbers are as high as possible before the deadline. Though the original census deadline was April 1, the federal government postponed it until Oct. 31. However, at the beginning of August officials moved up the deadline to Sept. 30, a move that raised eyebrows across the country.

There is currently an ongoing lawsuit against the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Commerce by several tribal organizations including the Navajo Nation to dispute the expedited date.

“The Navajo Nation has worked proactively with the Census Bureau since last year to ensure that the Navajo Nation has a high response rate for the 2020 Census,” said nation President Jonathan Nez in a statement. “Unfortunately, the federal government has undermined the time, planning and resources that the Navajo Nation had dedicated to the census count by shortening the time period by an entire month.”

According to Wiebusch, Arizona is currently at 89.9% reporting and Maricopa is at 59.8%. Compared with other states like Idaho, which is at a 99.8% reporting rate, Arizona is lagging. Wiebusch noted the challenges of outreach in rural areas like reservations due to the remote nature of homes and a lack of telecommunication — something echoed by Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer.

“Completing the census is already very challenging for many households due to the lack of telecommunications infrastructure in many Navajo communities,” said Lizer in a statement. “Shortening the census timeframe only adds to the challenges and makes it a lot more difficult, especially for our elder population and those who live in remote areas.”

Wiebusch understands the tribal predicament, as he faces the same rushed timeline for Maricopa with similar reporting issues. Two months ago, Wiebusch and his team were left dumbfounded by a very low reporting rate for tract 17.12, which covers everything east of White and Parker Road and north of Bowlin Road, including the Rancho Mirage and Tortosa communities.

He figured out that nearly 50% of the communities in question were addressed, but there wasn’t even a house on some of the lots yet. In one case, a door-to-door census worker in Maricopa — also called an enumerator — phoned Wiebusch with the conundrum.

“He goes, ‘OK, so I’ve got this list of houses that I’m supposed to follow up with that didn’t respond to the census, and there’s four addresses here that I’m standing in front of right now that are vacant lots.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re corroborating my theory,” he joked.

After meeting with census officials, Wiebusch said that, while the listings cannot be removed, officials confirmed they would correct the mistakes before the final data is complete in December.

Another ongoing predicament exacerbated by COVID-19 is the enumerators themselves. Door-to-door would normally have begun June 1, but because of COVID restrictions and delays, workers began Aug. 10.

“We lost a bunch of people who had applied for jobs to be field workers because of people going back to school,” Wiebusch said. “The Tucson region had 500 people hired and when they actually went to conduct the field work, they only had 130.”

Many field workers are college students and could not continue to work after school began. The census is still taking applications, and the job pays well too.

“This is a great job, the heat notwithstanding,” he laughed. “It’s a $20-an-hour job.”

Even with the struggles of this year, Wiebusch and his team are dedicated to census reporting and will continue to push until the deadline, whenever that is decided to be.