Payson's Water Woes Easing, Officials Say

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For the past five years in Payson, political careers have risen and fallen, real estate developments have thrived and died, and prospective businesses and property owners have come and gone all over a single issue.

Water.

The big debate How much water do we have and how long will we have it? began at a time when the town's pumping systems could not catch up with water demand, and Payson's growth seemed on the verge of careening out of control.

Today, the arguments rage on. But everything else has changed for the better.

"In general, (current water supplies) are fine," Town Hydrologist Mike Ploughe said. "We haven't had any problems meeting demands so far this year ... The tanks are filling up every night, the wells are still shutting off, even through high-demand weekends. We're in good shape."

The Town's Public Works director, Buzz Walker, agrees.

"We have a lot of pumping capacity, so we're meeting the daily demand," he said. "And we do have some reserve capacity left; in case one of the big pumps breaks down, we would have another well to take its place."

For the numbers crunchers, here's where the town is now at in terms of system capacity versus demand:

As of the end of last month, the maximum production capability of the town's 35 wells 11 of which are off line was 4.63 million gallons per day.

While the estimated figure for peak-day water usage was 3.42 million gallons a day which would have resulted in a 1.21 million-gallon-a-day surplus the average peak-day usage came in much lower at 2.39 million gallons a day.

The result? A 2.24 million-gallon-a-day surplus average, or almost half of Payson's available water.

Population crunch: hype or myth?

In a 1998 town report that's still quoted, it was projected that Payson's water supply could support a population of 18,200, and that the town would hit that ceiling by the year 2004.

Those estimates have changed, too.

Today, Payson's population is estimated at 13,500, and it's growing at the rate of about 450 new residents per year, Payson Community Development Director Bob Gould said.

"In 1998, the town was growing at about 4.5 to 5 percent a year," he said. "Now we're growing at about 3 percent."

"If we continue at this rate, it would be 10 years out before we hit that 18,200 population."

The wages of fear

Real reasons exist, many contend, for residents to worry about the local water supply. Much of the concern springs from information that has been misstated, misunderstood, poorly disseminated, or any combination of the above.

During a KMOG Radio interview Tuesday, for example, Town Manager Richard Underkofler referred to the discovery "within the last couple of months" of two new wells one near Julia Randall Elementary School, the other near Frontier Elementary School.

Afterwards, a listener phoned the Roundup to ask why the news hadn't been given front-page, banner-headline treatment.

The town's public works director knew the answer to that question.

"The Council had an agreement with the developers of the Rim Overlook condominium project that the water department would assist them in finding a new water supply exclusively for their condominiums. The only way we could think to do it was to go down alongside an existing well, and if we found an amount of water greater than what the existing well was pumping, you could theoretically call that new water. So that's what we did."

That "new water," Walker added, was found not a couple of months ago, but last year, when the water department chose to drill alongside the existing Julia Randall and Frontier Elementary wells rather than redrilling and trying to deepen an old well.

Population crunch

The numbers that reflect Payson's actual water supply fly across the pages of a dozen charts and graphs and statistical compilations spread out on the desk of the town's hydrologist the man whose job it is to figure out how to get enough water out of the ground to supply the community.

The bottom line of Ploughe's analysis, he said, is that the season's "lack of rain has not affected current water supplies in any way, other than lowering demands when it does rain."

Furthermore, Ploughe doesn't expect any problems for a while at least not until Payson's population hits the aforementioned 18,200 population mark.

But there are caveats attached.

As Walker points out, "There have always been conditions on that (population projection) since it was reported in 1998."

The figure, he said, assumes average rainfall every year, and a 10- to 20-percent reduction in per capita water use.

"That's why, when we accepted the report," he said, "we immediately employed water-use restrictions to get the per capita use down."

The per capita use, however, has not lessened.

"This stuff used to be a function of price," Walker said, "but I think it just doesn't make any difference to many of the people who are moving here. If they want something, by God, they've got the money to pay for it.

"Also, we've gone two consecutive years now without any recharge, so we're running on reserves. The 1998 report predicted we could do that for about seven years," he said. "We've got almost two of those years under our belt now. So we need some wet weather."

To bring us up to normal levels, Walker said that "rain would have to occur in the fall, winter and early spring for the moisture to get past the roots ... To catch up," he said, "we'd have to have about 34 inches of rain. That's a lot of water."

Planning and preparationd

According to Ploughe, however, the existing water supply is sufficient to keep the town wells from dropping below the all-important 80-percent level.

When supplies sink below that line, Ploughe said, "certain levels of conservation or water-use restrictions kick in. That policy was set up a couple of years ago, but we haven't had any occasions (this year) to kick into that mode at all."

The secret to this turn of events, Ploughe said, is planning and preparation.

"We were able to get the system up to par to where it can meet the demand, so we really weren't expecting to have any problems this year. Most people wouldn't have expected the kind of consistency we're getting, but the town has come a long way in efficiently managing the resources as best as it possibly can."

Although the current summer season has brought a few brief but solid ground-drenchers, Ploughe concedes that such rainfall is of smaller benefit than one might hope.

"Typically, the only benefit is temporary decreases in demand which are great, because they allow the wells to rest and the water levels to recover in the vicinity of the wells, which in turn increases their production for a period of time," he said.

"But (monsoon storms) don't do much for getting water in the ground. The consumptive use the trees, the grasses, the weeds, the plants they get that water before it has a chance to seep below root level."

The search for water

Despite Ploughe's confidence, he still puts the search for new water supplies at the top of the town's list of priorities.

The most recent hunt, he said, is "pretty much concluded" on the north end of Payson, where drilling began in November.

"We had a few delays when we came into the summer, because it was so dry we didn't want to go out there and do any more testing until things started to get wet again," he said. "We're still not comfortable about going out there yet, because we have some welding and cutting to do, and there would be sparks all over the place."

That project resulted in the discovery of nine wells, which together produce about 350 gallons of water per minute. The problem, Ploughe said, is that "too many are marginal, and there's not enough really good ones to make (developing the water) really cost effective.

"We did drill one good well that maybe makes up more than half of that (production amount). We're still waiting to do a pump test on that to find out exactly what we have, whether it's new water or not, and how much is there."

Currently, the town's water experts are considering a second drilling phase north of town and perhaps others farther north, in areas Ploughe and his team have identified as potential water source sites.

"We're looking at a very large, unpopulated area that's essentially east of Beaver Valley all the way through the Preacher Canyon area, north of Diamond Point," he said. "There's never been any wells drilled out there; it's all national forest. I'm excited about it."

Upward and onward

Until meteorology becomes an exact science, there will be no crystal balls to reveal the future of Payson's water supplies.

But Payson Town Councilmember Dick Wolfe thinks the town is armed with the next best thing: a town council with "a very aggressive plan to seek water wherever it may be, wherever we can access it."

But sometimes, he said, accessing water can be more difficult than locating it.

"There's water in the Blue Ridge reservoirs and the Doll Baby Ranch area, for example, but there are a lot of obstacles to overcome. There's a lot of different parties claiming rights to that water and even if we do get the rights, then we have to look at physically bringing the water down to Payson."

That's why the town is now focusing its search on U.S. Forest Service land.

"In the short term," Wolfe said, "that's probably where we're going to find the most easily accessible water."

Wolfe said that the council has not set a spending cap on the water search because such projects are fraught with so many unknown factors such as, how much water is available from any particular source?

"If it's a large source, we'd probably be willing to spend more money to bring it here. You have to evaluate the source of water first, and then work up your cost figures," he said.

No matter how successful the town's efforts may or may not be, Wolfe added, there are facts of life in Payson that must be accepted.

"We live in a desert state, we live in the high desert," he said. "We're always going to have concerns about water, to some degree. So we always have to practice conservation; that's just good citizenship.

"But beyond that, I think we're doing very well ... We just need to get the right information out to the people so they're not so scared of the water issue. It's just not as bad as a lot of people think it is."

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