The Pine-Strawberry exploratory borehole project has struck water. And while the precise quality and quantity of the liquid gold remains unknown, project coordinator Robert Mawson rates the find an eight on a scale of one to 10.
"It would be a 10 if we had hit a geyser or an artesian well," said Mawson, an RJM Associates consultant working with the Northern Gila County Water Plan Alliance. "But we did get a lot of good data and information, and we did find what may turn out to be a source of water, so I'd say it's pretty good news."
Test results revealing the quality of the water will not likely be released until the end of the year, and final determinations as to its quantity will take even longer.
However, Mawson said, the water was initially found at about 1,400 feet, and it continued "pretty much all the way down to the point where we had to quit, near 1,900 feet. So there is probably several hundred feet of water in that hole."
Using previous geological studies and other data from the Department of Water Resources and other agencies, Mawson said, "There's a good correlation to show that we have tapped into some sort of a regional water table."
But proof will have to wait. For the moment, for a number of reasons, all testing is on hold, Mawson said. First, the found water must "flush itself out" from the drilling process.
"We put quite a bit of material down there while we were drilling, and we don't want to do any quality testing until it's not an issue of what we put down the hole versus what's really there," he said.
There is, too, the matter of money.
"We're continuing to gather funding ... We had $142,500 for this project, and we spent roughly $132,150. So we're a little over $10,000 under budget ... but we're going to need quite a bit more. This water is deep. It's going to take some work to get to it. And we may not be able to determine the information we need from one hole."
Details on what will be required from this point on, as well as on what is currently known about the water supply, will be made available in mid- or late August upon the release of a three-way report from the Department of Water Resources, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Geological Survey.
That report also will contain recommendations on how Mawson and his team should proceed with the Pine-Strawberry borehole.
Until then, he said, "We will continue to monitor the water level, to see if it's regionally sensitive" meaning whether or not the water table is drought-resistant. "Some water tables fluctuate as it rains, but others aren't really affected by local conditions when their water comes either from a much larger collection base or from an underground stream or fracture," Mawson explained.
Should the water score high in quality and quantity, a provider such as Brooke Utilities would have to step forward and invest in securing the water in a production-type environment.
The bottom line of Mawson's endeavors, he said, is to "establish whether or not (the water's quality and quantity are) worth that type of investment to redrill the hole, provide a pump system capable of pulling the water out, and perform any sort of water treatment that might be necessary" to remove impurities such as excess salt or minerals.
The Northern Gila County Water Plan Alliance was formed two-and-a-half years ago, and the borehole project which is part of a five-year study now being conducted by the United States Geological Survey for his organization is "just one of the aspects of our search for a firm water supply in the Pine-Strawberry area," Mawson said.
Originally put out for bids last fall, the project was awarded to the Stewart Brothers Drilling Company based in Grant, N.M., which started drilling in mid-May. The borehole site is located in Strawberry on the county right-of-way on West Tonto Rim Drive.
In recent years, the Pine-Strawberry area has been nearly as short on options as it has been short on water.
Between Memorial Day and mid-October of 1997, Pine customers arrived at what is called "stage four water conservation," which enacts guidelines as strict as 40-percent reductions in indoor water use. Brooke Utilities, which owns and operates water companies in Pine and Strawberry, trucked 4.5 million gallons of water from Strawberry to Pine.
Stage four returned on Memorial Day 1998, but residents were able to recover by the end of July, and no additional water needed to be trucked in.
For 19 days in the summer of 1999, conservation measures reached stage five, requiring mandatory conservation and monitoring by the Arizona Corporation Commission. Brooke Utilities hauled another 530,000 gallons of water to the town.
Just last week, in the face of yet another drought, local water provider Brooke Utilities was cited by the Diamond Star Fire District for drawing too much water out of The Knolls' water storage tank dipping into the fire-suppression supply and hauling it to the parched residents of Pine.
Mawson isn't about to suggest that Pine-Strawberry is at the end of its struggles. But he is cautiously optimistic.
"At one point during the drill, we were running into so many difficulties that we actually stopped at one point, deciding not to drill any more. But then we decided to give it one more shot ... and there it was.
"What's down there? It's too early to say. But at the very least, it gives us hope in terms of solving the water problem in the Pine-Strawberry area."