Payson water officials expect to start drilling exploratory water wells in the national forest northeast of town sometime in October.
The U.S. Forest Service has given the town the go-ahead to drill 12 exploratory wells 2 1/2 miles northeast of the town limits.
"We're pretty much ready to go," Ploughe said. "I submitted permits for drilling today (Wednesday) with the Arizona State Department of Water Resources. They have two weeks to process those permits. We hope to be drilling starting in October and will be working well into the winter on the project, depending on the weather. We won't be able to drive those roads if it gets real wet."
The town applied March 25 to drill in the area, the first such request in two years.
Ploughe said Wednesday that he had expected to get the permit a little earlier. He had taken part in field studies in the area and said he did not find anything that would cause the Forest Service to deny the town's application. But town officials identified an access road that needed an additional study.
Officials with the Payson Ranger District say they found that no significant impact will occur on private and public lands included in the town's application for the exploratory wells.
Based on Ploughe's studies of the area's fractured bedrock and the ability of the rock to store and transmit water, the wells will have to be in excess of 500 feet and may, in some cases, be as deep as 1,000 feet.
He said the town picked the site between the Goat Camp Canyon fault along the Rumsey North fault to the Lockwood Gulch fault because there were no major archaeological sites in the area.
If the town finds a sufficient amount of water at the sites, it will be required to conduct additional studies before it can further develop and produce water from the wells. If and when water is found, the town will apply for a 10-year permit. Forest Service officials in Phoenix will make the final decision on whether to allow the town to use the water.
Rod Byers, district land staff officer with the Payson Ranger District, 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."
The town's most recent request was one of four the Payson Ranger District received in the past two years. Others came from the Arizona Department of Transportation for its reconstruction project on East Highway 260 and from the Tonto Apache Tribe. None of the requests were turned down, but some specific well sites, part of a bigger application, were denied.
Payson District Ranger Stephen Gunzel expressed in a Sept. 9 decision memo to the town a number of concerns that accompany all well exploration projects. These include potential effects on private wells and on surface flows previously appropriated by other water users; and on riparian areas. The impact of a discovery of a large water supply on the continued growth of the community was also an issue.
"Community growth may be a connected action that is greatly affected by water availability as well as many other social, resource and land availability issues that may need to be addressed if water is actually found," Gunzel wrote.
Two years ago, the town submitted a request to explore eight sites on national forest land near Snowstorm Mountain west of town. After drilling six of the wells and finding little water, the town abandoned its efforts there.
Going back to the drawing board, town officials worked to map the area's fault system.
"It's finally here," said Mayor Vern Stiffler. "This has been a long process and we're finally starting to see results. I'm hopeful that we find the water we need."
Ploughe said there are no guarantees that the town will find water, but the search along the north border of the town is "where we needed to go."
The Payson Town Council could authorize Stiffler to validate the year's permit that begins Oct. 1 at its meeting next Thursday.