Study: Water Use Up

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Town of Payson residents are using more water than projected three years ago, according to a new study by the town water department.

The 200-page document, which will be presented to the Payson Town Council and the public during a special water meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday, offers a "reality check," says Mike Ploughe, town hydrologist and author of the study. "The major conclusion is that water use characteristics for the town are changing," he says.

While the town has increased its water production by 62 percent from 2,120 gallons per minute in 1997 to a current total of 3,433 gallons per minute, the report shows that consumption increased by 38 percent during that same period.

"We are currently keeping up with demand," Ploughe says, "but we need to look at the long-term."

Water officials are particularly concerned by a new trend toward greater winter water use.

"Our information indicates that winter water demand has been steadily increasing over the past seven years," Payson Public Works Director Buzz Walker says.

Over the past three years, since the release of a study by Southwest Groundwater Consultants, the town's winter water consumption rate has nearly tripled.

Walker thinks the best explanation for the increase is the growing affluence among Payson residents.

"People with more money build bigger houses, and they use more of every kind of resource, and that includes water," he says. "But it's not just rich people. I can drive through Payson through all types of neighborhoods and I see lawns that weren't there one or two years ago.

"In one area I counted seven houses in a row with lawns and these were modest homes. That can add $50 a month to a water bill, so that tells me we haven't hit a rate level that makes a difference in consumption."

With water usage up, projections contained in the Southwest study are proving to be overly optimistic. It predicted that conservation programs and adjusted water rates would result in a per capita decrease from 98 gallons per day to 89.

The new study shows that after dropping to 90 gallons per day in 1990 probably due to a wet year, Ploughe says per capita usage has steadily increased back to 98 gallons per day. The new study projects that consumption will increase to as much as 102 gallons per capita per day by the end of 2001 if no action is taken.

Part of the problem, Walker says, is that the town's water conservation program has not been as successful as town officials had hoped.

"We are rethinking our water conservation program to make it more effective," he says. "It's been a passive program, focused on children, on movie theater ads, on radio and TV ads. Maybe now it's time to focus directly on the high water users, to make a visit to their homes and offer to help them with conservation efforts."

With known supplies, the town can provide water for a population of 18,300 a number town officials expect to reach sometime in the next decade but at current rates of consumption, the report says the town's "safe yield" will be exceeded by 2002.

Safe yield, a concept the town uses to manage its water supply, describes the amount of groundwater that can be pumped from an aquifer and be replaced naturally or artificially.

The town's current population is 13,620. "Having enough water for 18,300 people is an assumption based on the Southwest projection of 89 gallons per capita per day," Ploughe says. "If we reach 102 like the new study predicts, then we can only support 16,000 people."

The report also suggests that Payson's recorded annual precipitation average of 22 inches per year is too high. "It looks to us like the average could be closer to 20 inches per year," Ploughe says.

Below normal precipitation since 1989 has exacerbated the problem. Monitoring the granite aquifer system the source of the town's water revealed that "significant recharge to the system" has only occurred during two of the past seven years.

Nevertheless, Payson's water officials caution against reading too much into the report.

"This is just a statement of fact," says Walker. "We made some assumptions based on our conservation program in 1998 that just didn't work out the way we thought they would."

Ploughe, who prepared the new report, says it does exactly what it is supposed to do show that things have changed since 1998. "We've been watching our water situation the past couple of years, and this is basically a status report," he says.

But the document does conclude with a series of recommendations, including:

Raising water rates. "We have no idea how much of an increase we would ask for or how much it would take to impact consumption at this time," Walker says. "We just need to put the obvious things on the table."

Existing in-town wells should continue to be rehabilitated and deepened, a practice that has played a major role in the town's increase in water production. In the first three months of 2001 alone, Ploughe says, rehabilitating old wells added more than 500 gallons per minute to the town's water supply.

Additional groundwater supplies should be pursued on federal land. One well, expected to produce 150 gallons per minute, has already been drilled in the Tonto National Forest off Tyler Parkway just beyond the town limit.

While cost effectiveness is relative to the distance from town, and archaeological and environmental studies drive the cost of drilling on federal lands to about $50,000 per well, Ploughe remains optimistic about this resource. "If we can do what we've done within the town limits, why can't we do the same in the forest. There's a lot of land out there," he says.

The Rumsey Effluent Recharge Project should be activated. Currently "on-hold" pending greater availability of effluent from the Northern Gila County Sanitary District, the project involves building a treatment facility through which effluent would pass before being returned to the ground. "Right now, there is effluent available only in the winter, but that will change as the area continues to grow," Ploughe says.

Of the recommendations contained in the report Ploughe says, "There just isn't much else we can do that we aren't doing. We are engaged in every arena where we can be engaged."

The bottom line, Walker says, is that the town has enough water for some growth provided the gallons per capita numbers can be reduced, but increasing consumption is not a good sign. "We're kind of a victim of our own success," he says. "We've made huge strides to make sure we have adequate production in the summer, and that works against us because the tanks are full all the time. If we had a town lake that went dry, that might help people visualize the water situation.

"Our water is underground or in tanks so people can't see it," he says.

Copies of the new water study will be available at the special water meeting, which precedes the regular 6 p.m. council meeting.

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