Water Worries

The search continues for Rim country's most precious resources

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Make out a list in the Rim country any list and water is likely to be at the top.

Water is our biggest problem, our greatest challenge, our most precious resource. It is, in short, the single commodity that is most likely to make or break the Rim country.

But while periods of drought may make you nervous, you can be thankful you're not Mike Ploughe, Town of Payson hydrogeologist. While Ploughe's job is to worry about water, there isn't much he can do about droughts but wax philosophical.

"The drought is not a good thing," he said. "But it's out of our hands completely."

Having said that, Ploughe ticks off a list of initiatives the town is undertaking to stay on top of the water situation. It starts with an update to the town's application to drill 21 exploratory wells in the vicinity of Mayfield Canyon about five miles northeast of Payson. That application set off a furor among residents of Star Valley and Diamond Point.

Under the leadership of Star Valley resident Chuck Heron, the two communities organized the Diamond Star Citizens' Action Coalition and launched a counter-offensive arguing that any additional competition for water in their back yard would negatively impact wells in the area.

When Ploughe and Public Works Director Buzz Walker squared off with the dissidents at a U.S. Forest Service meeting on the subject, Ploughe made a reasoned plea for understanding.

"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.

"This area exhibits the optimum hydrological conditions we need to find new groundwater resources ..." combined with "the physical controls within the ground that would prevent impacts to the perennial streams ... and to minimize any potential impacts to nearby private lands."

Now Payson is waiting for a response from the Forest Service to a request to change the scope of the project.

"We're now looking at extending the scope to make it a regional study rather than to do this in phases," Ploughe said. "We came to an agreement with the Forest Service that it just makes more sense."

What that means is that the town wants to expand the area of exploration along the base of Little Diamond Rim, adding well sites further north and west of Mayfield Canyon. Fortunately, it won't mean going back for another session with the opposition.

"In reality, the issues the public has with the project don't change," Ploughe said. "With that in mind, the input from the first public comment period is still valid."

In the meantime, Ploughe is working on another groundwater management status report due out in mid-April. It was at a special town council water meeting last April 24 that Ploughe and Walker explained the somewhat disconcerting findings of the first such report.

Most significant among changing water-use characteristics revealed in the 75-page document was a tripling in the rate of winter consumption since the release of a study by Southwest Groundwater Consultants three years ago.

The update showed commercial water users were primarily responsible for the increase in winter consumption.

"Going back 20 years, commercial use used to be about 10 percent of total water use, and now it is approaching 30 percent," Walker told the council. While he admitted such commercial increases are "a typical sign of a growing economy and a growing town," he suggested conservation efforts should be refocused from residential users to commercial users.

While Ploughe told the council the town has "come a long way in terms of production" adding 1,300 gallons per minute to the 2,120 gallons being produced in 1997 a dry precipitation cycle, increased usage and long-term projections add up to a "reality check" for the town. "While we are looking at production in excess of peak demand for the summer of 2001, precipitation has been consistently below normal with the exception of 1997-98 our last period of significant recharge," he said.

The new study Ploughe is working on won't be as detailed as the 2001 report.

"Things haven't changed that much," he said.

Another direction the town is going in its search for new sources of water is private land. And, of course, conservation programs will continue to be emphasized, although they have had minimal impact to date.

One possible source of additional water, although not a gully washer by any means, is the well the town drilled in the Tonto National Forest in the northern part of town.

"We've got the testing done on that well, and we'll be submitting it to the Forest Service shortly," Ploughe said. "It's a good well and we're making efforts to get it on line."

Perhaps most significant, it will be the first producing well the town has in the national forest an important milestone and precedent.

He's also optimistic that the town will be able to reach some understanding with Salt River Project, the Valley conglomerate that uses archaic water laws to lay claim to all the surface water in a 13,000-square-mile watershed area that includes Payson, Prescott, Flagstaff, Show Low and vast areas around and in between.

"We're always talking to SRP," Ploughe said. "We think, ultimately, we will have a pretty good relationship with them. We're both water providers and we understand each other. I'm optimistic that at some point, agreements will be reached."

Ploughe said he is also hopeful that a proposed water study undertaken with the Bureau of Reclamation will bear fruit.

"Some of the alternatives we'll be looking at include bringing water up from Roosevelt, bringing water up from Fossil Creek, bringing water down from Blue Ridge, going deeper into the forest, water conservation and water re-use," Lynn Fisher, a planner in the bureau's Phoenix office, recently told the town council.

Some other water users have asked to be included beyond those who previously indicated an interest in participating in the study. Besides the bureau and the town, Gila County and the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District are the original partners.

During the initial appraisal phase of the study, a project management team made up of one representative from each of the partnering entities will examine and rate all the alternatives, Fisher said. An environmental impact study is an important part of the second, or feasibility, phase.

"By the time we're finished, we will have carefully evaluated each of the alternatives from an economic standpoint, an engineering standpoint, an environmental standpoint and a legal standpoint," Fisher said.

"The solutions are out there," Ploughe said, "but we can't get there without some help. We need to solve the water problem within a regional context. That's the way to play the game."

While Ploughe and Walker are keeping an eye on the long-term precipitation forecasts, they realize the prognosticators are wrong at least as often as they're right.

"They're getting better, but you can't rely too heavily on climate predictions," Ploughe said. "Anybody who has lived here awhile knows they have been consistently wrong over the past few years."

While Ploughe believes the town will have enough water this summer no matter how much rain falls, he says that old saw that we can go seven years without a drop of rain before we have a problem is outdated.

"That was a preliminary estimate before the Southwest Groundwater Study was done, and we're working right now with Southwest on an update to that number," he said. "It's going to have more of a real-word twist, because we know a lot more about the aquifer than we did then."

The bottom line is that the town is doing about all it can to assure a stable water supply into the future.

"The options are few," Ploughe said. "There's only so much anyone can do and we're doing it all right now. We're leaving no stone unturned. But barring some dramatic new discovery, I don't see things changing for quite some time."

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