Existing Water Supplies Less Than Expected

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Maintaining an adequate public water supply for the Town of Payson takes a combination of two things, according to Public Works Director Buzz Walker "the ability to bring more water to the table and the ability to reduce demand."

Unfortunately, according to the town's first annual groundwater management status report in today's Roundup, supply is barely holding its own, while demand is up. What that means, Walker says, is that the town needs to continue to search for new sources of water while simultaneously developing a strategy that will "get the water use down to a reasonable level."

The new study, which was presented to the Town Council at a recent meeting, was prepared by Mike Ploughe, the water department's in-house hydrogeologist. It is designed to be an annual update that allows the town to fine-tune the long-term groundwater management plan prepared for the town by Southwest Groundwater Consultants in 1998.

Walker told the council the Southwest report, which was built on 50 years of data, was only the starting point, and that annual updates will assure that town water policy is based on information that is "both timely" ... "and accurate in today's circumstances." The study delineates how last year's precipitation and usage patterns have affected groundwater levels, and what the town has done to reach its corporate strategic goal of maintaining a 20-percent surplus pumping capacity.

In his portion of the presentation, Ploughe said his study revealed two disturbing trends regarding supply and demand. "In the past seven years," he said, "there have been only two significant recharge years, where water level has recovered over and above what was pumped."

Last year, which "appeared to be a wet year," was lackluster for recharge, with only 7.8 inches of precipitation in the key recharge months of November through March. Ten to 11 inches of precipitation are needed during the winter months for significant recharge, and that has not happened since the winter of 1997-98.

A graph in the report, which delineates the town's annual precipitation dating back to 1949, suggests the area is currently in the midst of a drought cycle that began in 1994. Since then, Payson has only experienced one year with above average rainfall.

Complicating the issue is the fact that the town's conservation program a combination of education programs, water-use audits and water-saving devices seems to be having little impact on climbing rates of consumption. According to the report, gallons per capita per day began increasing rapidly in 1998. From a steady 95 gallons per capita per day from 1988 through 1998, consumption is expected to balloon to 102 gallons this year.

Town officials hoped its conservation program would reduce per capita usage to 89 gallons, the level necessary to delay the time the town reaches "safe yield" a term that means as much water is being pumped out of the ground as is being recharged or replenished. At projected rates of consumption, safe yield is now expected to be reached next year, two years sooner than predicted in the Southwest report.

The report revealed two consumption trends that are especially worrisome higher usage rates in the winter and among commercial water customers. While Ploughe said the water department was still looking for the reasons why winter consumption has steadily increased over the past seven years, he suspects the fact that Payson has more year-round residents is a likely explanation.

Much of the winter increase is accounted for by commercial customers, who are taking an ever bigger share of the town's water. "Going back 20 years, commercial use used to be about 10 percent of total water use, and now it is approaching 30 percent," Walker said.

On the production side, Ploughe pointed out that the town seems to be holding its own.

"Even with the lackluster recharge, production capabilities are holding up rather well," he said. "The tanks will continue to be full in the summer of 2001."

Especially encouraging is a program to rehabilitate existing wells to improve production, with two such wells registering a combined increase of 500 gallons per minute.

But the report also indicates that existing supplies will not stretch as far as previously projected. Town Manager Rich Underkofler said that while the town is currently providing water for a population of 13,620, higher consumption has lowered the number of people who can be served with existing supplies from 18,300 to 15,470.

To reflect and adapt to this new reality, the report recommends updating the water resource management section of the town's corporate strategic plan, the document that annually prioritizes council initiatives and spending.

Walker told the council that compiling and interpreting the groundwater management status report is the easy part. Now, it's up to the council to figure out what to do about it.

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