A regional water committee formed 14 months ago to find more water for northern Gila County is looking to the Colorado River, Blue Ridge Reservoir and the deep limestone beds beneath Pine and Strawberry.
The Northern Gila County Water Planning Partnership is interested in negotiating for Colorado River water rights from a Cibola Valley land owner that a handful of town officials had an opportunity to pursue a year ago.
Town staff members and former Vice Mayor Val Lubken said they passed on the opportunity because the deal was fraught with legal and bureaucratic hurdles. But Tuesday the Town Council directed staff to research the possibilities for purchasing the Cibola Valley water rights.
The town is a member of the regional partnership that is investigating the Cibola Valley water rights, but it has been a reluctant participant in the group, which is made up of 23 local, state and federal agencies led by Gila County.
The Town Council tabled a decision Tuesday on whether to sign a memorandum of understanding creating a formal alliance with the group. Town Manager Rich Underkofler suggested a number of revisions to the memorandum and resubmitted it to committee officials.
Town officials skeptical
Town officials, who have willingly shared information with the partnership, are skeptical about the benefits the town stands to gain from a formal alliance with the group.
"Payson has already done the planning and technical legwork needed to take the next step," Payson Public Works Director Buzz Walker said last week. "We've done our planning. They're just starting.
"They can do what they want, but when you're talking about the kind of water supplies the town needs, we're looking in different directions." The town is searching for an additional 6,000 acre feet of water a year, Walker said.
According to a water plan developed by the partnership last year, all the other communities in northern Gila County will need as much as an additional 1,700 acre feet of water a year by 2050.
Gila County Supervisor Ron Christensen, who heads up the partnership, said an alliance between his group and the town will benefit everyone in the long run.
"The town isn't isolated in this," he said. "You have to cross a lot of jurisdictions for these projects, and all of these agencies have to be involved. It's in the town's best interest to make sure nearby communities have water because it may want to incorporate them later.
"I think it's to the town's advantage and everyone's advantage for it to be a player in this. If we want to be a thriving community and be what we want to be here, we have to find water. Hopefully the town government will resolve its internal problems and join us whole-heartedly."
Water exploration grants
But committee members haven't been waiting around for a nod from the town to get down to work.
The committee has secured $70,000 in state and federal grants to explore for ground water deep beneath Pine and Strawberry and $170,000 from the state for other water exploration projects.
The U.S. Geological Survey, working on behalf of the committee, plans to drill test wells up to 2,000 feet deep into the limestone beds beneath the two communities north of Payson.
"Hydrologists believe there is some deep water there," Christensen said. "The average well in the area right now is 200 to 300 feet deep. We'll be drilling 1,500 to 2,000 feet deep. That's never been done before."
Hydrologists believe the gushing headwaters of Fossil Creek near the base of the Mogollon Rim are a good indication that the deep limestone beds below Pine and Strawberry are saturated with water. A drilling time line has not yet been set.
The committee also hopes to team up with the town to negotiate for water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona.
And in Pine, the county has secured the rights to 2.5 million gallons of water a year, which county officials plan to capture in a retaining pond near Dan's Highway for the fire department.
"Finding more water is very important," Christensen said. "Right now it's right at the top of my priority list. The county is growing at the same rate as the incorporated areas and at some point you hit a wall. It's important that we get as far out in front of this as we can."