Payson officials are worried that a highway construction project east of town will sink their efforts to find and develop new sources of groundwater on federal land.
The U.S. Forest Service is forcing the Arizona Department of Transportation to fully recharge a well that it drilled on federal land to provide water for a highway realignment project east of Star Valley.
The recharge provision of the agreement has added to the cost of providing water for the project, bringing the price tag to $7 million. And that has town officials worried that the Forest Service is establishing a model for future requests that will require the town to recharge any wells it drills on Forest Service land.
"If the Forest Service has a requirement that we follow ADOT's construction, we'll just pull the rigs out and discontinue water exploration in the forest," Payson Public Works Director Buzz Walker said.
ADOT has drilled four wells near Lion Springs east of Star Valley that are expected to produce nearly 200 gallons of water per minute for a $26-million reconstruction project that will widen and realign Highway 260 near Preacher Canyon. The water will be used for earth compaction and dust control.
The project, which is the first phase of a 21-mile, $150-million to $160-million highway realignment project from milepost 256 in Star Valley to milepost 277 five miles east of Christopher Creek, will begin in late June.
ADOT will recharge the Lion Springs well from Tonto Creek, and that may allow ADOT to continue using the well for other phases of the Highway 260 realignment, ADOT engineer Myron Robison said.
But Walker thinks recharging the well may be unnecessary. ADOT and the Forest Service decided to recharge the well based on an incomplete and unqualified report, Walker said. The town has been compiling data on this type of aquifer for years and the Forest Service never bothered to consult the town.
Payson Town Manager Rich Underkofler said, based on the ADOT model, the town would have to spend $8 million to develop a 500-gallon-per-minute well on Forest Service land.
"(The ADOT project) is much more expensive than it needs to be," he said.
But Rob Ingram of the Forest Service said the cost of recharging the wells is only a small portion of the total water development cost for the project. ADOT must install pipelines, improve roads to the wells, provide two lined reservoirs with fencing, install pumps and pay a contractor to set everything up, Ingram said. Those expenses are responsible for the bulk of the water development costs, he said.
Walker said Forest Service officials have promised that the ADOT project will not be used as a model for other projects, and each water permit request will be evaluated on its own merits.
"We'll take the Forest Service at their word," he said, "but we had to go on record with our concerns on the Highway 260 construction assessment. We just needed to get it on the record that we disagreed with their hydrogeologic methods and we didn't agree with their conclusions."