The Town of Payson has applied to the U.S. Forest Service to drill up to 15 exploratory wells on federal land north of town -- its first such request in two years.
"We've proposed up to 15 sites," said Mike Ploughe, the town's hydrogeologist. "We'll probably drill less than that."
But it could take months before the first well is drilled.
Ploughe said Wednesday that the application was submitted March 25 for drilling to be done 2 1/2 miles northeast of the town's boundaries, near the site of a former seismic observatory. He said the last time the town applied for permission to drill, it took the Forest Service several months to get the process completed.
Rod Byers, district land staff officer with the Payson Ranger District, said Thursday that once his office receives the archaeological report from the town, it will be a month or more before District Ranger Steve Gunzel will make the final decision on the exploratory phase of the project. If and when water is found, the decision to allow the town to use the water would be made in Phoenix.
Ploughe said he is expecting to get archaeological reports on the proposed well sites shortly. "Field studies can take a day or two," he said, "but that information has to be studied."
Ploughe took part in the field studies with the Forest Service. "I was out in the field with them," he said. "They haven't found anything significant out there."
He said one reason the town picked the site, between the Goat Camp Canyon fault along the Rumsey North fault to Lockwood Gulch fault, is that there are no major archaeological sites in the area.
It has been two years since the town submitted a request to explore on federal lands, Byers said. The request included eight sites near Snowstorm Mountain near Doll Baby Ranch. After the town drilled six of the wells and found little water, the effort there was abandoned.
"Since that time they've done a lot of surface geology work, trying to map the fault system," Byers said. "They haven't been idle all that time. Now that they've got that information, they've applied to drill."
Byers said the Payson Ranger District has received only four requests for drilling in the last two years. Besides the town, the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Tonto Apache Tribe also filed requests. None were turned down, but some specific well sites, a part of the bigger applications, were denied.
"One was too close to a private well," Byers said.
ADOT recently submitted a request for exploratory drilling for water for its reconstruction project on East Highway 260.
The Tonto Apache Tribe is in the process of putting together a geological study, similar to the study that was recently completed by the town, for up to three exploratory drilling wells on the south side of the reservation.
"The only application that was denied was 10 years ago when Ernie Ralls with E & R Water in Pine wanted to do some exploratory drilling," Byers said. The request was not actually denied, Byers said. Ralls simply did not complete the application.
If everything is all right with the town's application and the Forest Service approves the first exploratory phase of the project, a public comment period will follow.
Ploughe said he expects little opposition to the exploratory phase, and explained that one reason for choosing the area is the existing trails that were part of an old seismic observatory complex.
Byers said the exploratory work will not significantly impact the areas. "All we're looking at is using the old existing roads. We're documenting that there are no impacts for the exploratory phase."
If water is found, the town will apply for a long-term permit. "They'll be looking at at least a 10-year permit," Byers said. "The town will first have to provide data on the impact of using the water. They'll also look at the impact of pipelines, storage tanks, electrical lines, water pipe lines -- everything."
What Ploughe and others from the town have looked for in the area is fractured bedrock. They also looked at the ability of the rock to store and transmit water.
"We believe most of the holes we drill will be in excess of 500 feet, and we may have to go as deep as 1,000 feet," Ploughe said.
The well sites are all situated in the vicinity of geologic faults, he said, but there are no guarantees in the type of aquifer system that exists in the area.
Ploughe explained that faults can either be great conduits or great barriers. What he and others who have looked at the site have seen is the surface breakup of rocks. "It breaks off in chunks," he said.
"We've recently done some work in the north part of Payson that would indicate that we might have success, but we've also seen evidence that it might go the other way," he said.
"We're going to approach it cautiously, but we're also going to approach it optimistically. We don't want to spend a lot of money if it doesn't look like there's anything there."
Ploughe said if the town drills 12 of the 15 holes to a depth of 1,000 feet, the well-drilling will come to about $180,000.
But other work -- archaeology, engineering, geology and hydrology studies -- could add another $110,000 to the project.
"That's assuming we're not going to do a full environmental assessment," Ploughe said. "These become very expensive."
Environmental assessments can also take up to three years to complete, and Ploughe said the town's timeline to find water in the area is just that length of time: three years.
Testing near Highway 260
The town is also targeting another area on East Highway 260 as a site to explore.
The Diamond Rim area has already been the site of drilling activity by ADOT. "They've already drilled several wells," Ploughe said. "They have to have a water supply to put in the highway."
In five years, ADOT will use the water for road construction that will be done between Star Valley and Christopher Creek.
Town staff has met with ADOT consultants and geologists and is sharing information.
"We hope to apply for special use permits to drill in those areas within the next six months," Ploughe said.
The focus in the Diamond Rim area is on the regional faults that formed the Mogollon Rim, including an area that extends to the east of Houston Mesa Road along the Diamond Rim to Preacher Canyon.
Drilling in the Diamond Rim area is perhaps 10 months to a year down the road. Ploughe said if the town does find water in the area, it would have to manage the valuable resource to minimize the impact. "We don't want to dry up the springs in the national forest," he said.