Tonto Apaches Join Local Hunt For Water

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The Tonto Apache Tribe, which stands to add 300 acres to its reservation south of Payson next spring through a federal land exchange, is low on water and searching for more.

Earlier this summer, the Tonto Apaches bought the Hillside Trailer Park on South McLane Road as an investment in property and water rights, Tribal Chairwoman Vivian Burdette said.

"We were informed that there was water in that area," she said. "Our well isn't supplying sufficient water for the reservation. We have a water contract with the town that makes up the rest."

The Tonto Apaches have a contract with the town that allows them to buy up to 810,000 gallons of water a month from the Payson Water Department.

Last year they bought as little as 230,000 gallons in December and as much as 650,900 gallons in September.

"What they can't get out of their well, they buy from us," Town Manager Rich Underkofler said, "but they use much less than their contract allows."

Nevertheless, the Tonto Apaches, who number slightly more than 100, are searching for new water sources to secure their independence as their reservation and their business holdings grow.

If the land exchange is approved by Congress next year, the tribe's first order of business will be to build new houses, Burdette said.

"Many of our young tribal members -- some with young families -- are still living with their parents because the tribe has run out of houses," she said.

There has been talk of building a hotel and other developments, she said, but the council is still hammering out a development plan.

But no matter what the final plan includes, councilmembers know that more houses and more businesses will require more water.

The well that supplies the Hillside Trailer Park, however, is probably not the answer to the tribe's water concerns. It is on the outer fringe of a ground water contamination site that the town and state are working to clean up.

If the tribe pumps the well hard, the pumping action could draw ground water that has been contaminated with dry cleaning fluid west toward Green Valley Park, Underkofler said.

It is more likely, however, that the town's clean-up efforts will reduce the productivity of the tribe's well, Town Water Specialist Karen Probert said.

The town and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality have built a water treatment plant on Aero Drive, just a few miles from the trailer park. The plant will pump contaminated ground water through a series of filters to clean it for drinking.

"When we start pumping, we will pull the water back toward the source of the contamination (near the plant)," Probert said. "That's the whole idea. Over time, we may have an impact on their well."

Although the town's new water treatment plant may make the trailer park unsuitable for water development, town officials said they are interested in helping the tribe find other sources of water.

"Anything they can do to reduce their town water consumption would be a benefit, and we would encourage those kinds of endeavors," Underkofler said. "The tribe is trying to become more independent from the town in respect to its water production, and we're trying to help them become more economically independent.

"It's a very friendly venture," he said. "We're looking for collaborative water solutions with the tribe."

The town and the tribe are both interested in exploring for water on nearby Forest Service land -- an idea that local Forest Service officials support, Forest Service Land Specialist Rod Byers said.

Town water officials, in fact, received tentative permission this month to drill for water on Forest Service land east and north of town, he said.

Water officials must pinpoint the exact drilling locations and the Forest Service must conduct environmental and archaeological surveys of the sites before the town can send drills into the ground.

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