by Jim Keyworth
roundup staff reporter
Some 400 attendees listened for the most part, politely as U.S. Forest Service and Town of Payson officials provided background information Wednesday night on the town's controversial proposal to drill 21 exploratory wells in the Mayfield Canyon area of the Tonto National Forest.
Town hydrogeologist Mike Ploughe produced the evening's biggest surprise when he announced to the audience in the Payson High School auditorium that the town has decided to voluntarily drop the three well sites closest to Diamond Point Shadows.
"All of these wells on the southern edge were intended from the very beginning to be observation wells to assess impact to the environment and private land," Ploughe said. "They were not meant to be production wells. However, due to your concerns, we have elected to voluntarily drop the three closest well sites ... that are within a half mile of private lands."
"That caught us off guard, and it even caught the forest people off guard," Chuck Heron, chairman of the Diamond Star Citizens' Action Coalition, said. Heron's group opposes the town's proposal on the grounds that it will affect the wells of nearby residents.
In his presentation, Ploughe explained the scope of the project.
"We're looking to go out and put some holes in the ground and find out what is or isn't there and also confirm or disprove the geology in the area," he said. "We spent three years trying to find a place that would minimize the impact to our neighbors and forest service resources.
Town Public Works Director and Water Superintendent Buzz Walker told Star Valley and Diamond Point Shadows residents they had a bigger threat to their water supply to worry about.
"East of Star Valley and west of Diamond Point there is a great big closed up sanitary landfill," he said. "The thing you folks have to worry about is leachation of that landfill. That's what's going to put you at peril.
"You also have septic tanks in Star Valley and Diamond Point, and that's all you have for the wastewater disposal from your houses, and you're discharging that right over a shallow level aquifer where you get your water. We don't want that. We don't do that in Payson. We can't responsibly build a city on a water supply like that. So not only do we not want to harm anybody because we got to live with you, we got to recreate with you, we got to work with you, we don't want (that water). It is a peril."
District Ranger Ed Armenta recognized the water problem in the area, but assured attendees the Forest Service would act responsibly.
"I've been a district ranger for a little over a year and some of the first words out of the mouth of town representatives were that we're looking for the Forest Service as our salvation to provide new water," he said. "I recognize the need for water, but I've stated that we will not allow a proposal to drill on Forest Service land if it causes irreparable harm or impacts the natural resources. We will not allow a proposal that will harm private property."
But Armenta also indicated there was merit in proceeding.
"I think if nothing else, this proposal to conduct exploratory drilling and subsequent testing will prove or disprove some of the science we're talking about, some of the hydrology and some of the geology," he said.
Forest Supervisor Karl Siderits told the audience that the evaluation process will not only be exhaustive, but also time consuming.
"We have decided to move ahead with the environmental assessment process...," he said. "What it means is there's a whole process of public involvement for the next series of months. The first part of the process is really tonight. The public must be involved because this is a significant issue involving public lands. You have until Sept. 15, this 45-day period, to provide us with your written comments.
"Please take the time to write down your issues, because that's how the federal law works," Siderits said.
During the last half of the two-hour meeting, coalition members were allowed to express their concerns about the project.
After, Heron said he was proud of the conduct of coalition members.
"There was a little bit of noise from the audience," he said, "but I talked to some of the Forest Service officials at the meeting and they said it was nowhere near what they expected."