Water Supply Holding Its Own

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The Town of Payson's water supply is holding its own, and coming off the driest winter recharge season on record, that's about all you can ask for, according to town water officials.

The latest information is contained in a brand new study conducted by the town water department. The Town of Payson Groundwater Management 2002 Status Short Report concludes that "current production capabilities are sufficient to meet demands for the 2002 summer season even amidst the worst winter drought recorded."

But just to be safe, the water department is drawing up a drought emergency plan "to aid in managing the water supply via conservation requirements in times of drought."

Town wells capturing 'outside water'

There was good news in the report, including the fact that new groundwater elevation data collected by Southwest Groundwater Consultants indicates "a significant amount of groundwater from beyond the town boundaries is currently being influenced and captured by in-town pumping.

While confirmation of the well field's ability to capture groundwater from outside the town is a positive development, the report cautions that the volume cannot be quantified.

"Groundwater elevations keep track of where the water level is, where it's coming from, and where it's going," town hydrogeologist Mike Ploughe said. "By mapping that (in a manner similar to) the contours on a topography map, we can see where the water is flowing to and in this case, it is flowing into our wells. We can see that we are drawing water in from outside of town."

That doesn't, however, mean that Payson is drawing water from its neighbors in Star Valley and other nearby communities.

"Star Valley is a totally different issue," Ploughe said. "We are not pulling water from that far away. We are looking at our ability to capture water from the north, west and south. We don't have many wells on the east side."

Per capita consumption down

Another positive development revealed in the report is that per capita consumption actually dropped in 2001 from 98 gallons per day in 2000 to 95 gallons per day in 2001.

This reverses a recent trend of increasing consumption that had water officials concerned enough to revamp the town's conservation program and to consider several rate increases over the past year.

"Water usage was down across the board last year over the previous year," Ploughe said. "We suspect that was due to our conservation programs combined with the fact that we did have a wetter than normal overall summer," he said. "But water usage was down even before that and after that in both commercial and residential uses, so it would seem that people are also conserving."

It's a message the town has been trying to drive home for years, and the fact that it finally may be taking hold just might be the best news of all, Ploughe said.

"The bottom line is people were using less water last year," he said. "That's good news. A good way to make sure there is plenty of water for everyone is to conserve."

Dry winter 'worst on record'

Conservation is especially important during drought conditions, and the new report points out that "the 2001-2002 recharge season was the worst on record with precipitation levels far below normal. While "no recharge was observed for the 2001-2002 recharge season," the study points out that "precipitation totals for the months of April through August 2001 were above normal. This benefited the aquifer in that pumping demands were lower due to less outdoor watering."

The bottom line is a 50-percent across-the-board decrease in the town's production capabilities, Ploughe said. But he anticipates an adequate supply for the summer.

"We're still able to meet projected demands for this summer," he said.

Another positive development revealed in the report is the potential for additional water production from deep, highly fractured portions of the Payson granite aquifer. This was confirmed through rehabilitation work on one town well that resulted in a production gain of 500 gallons per minute.

Water will last until 2021

The report concludes that the town can "continue to provide groundwater from storage and long-term average natural recharge until approximately the year 2021."

That doesn't mean the town will run out of water at that time. That, the report points out, is a "conservative estimate" because it does not take into consideration "artificial recharge, the likely addition of new out-of-town sources, and the existence of deeper aquifer systems ..."

Neither does it consider the possibility of long-term drought, an eventuality that "would have a significant impact on the analyses," the report says. Ploughe hopes a likely El Niill bring more precipitation in the fall or winter, but isn't optimistic about this summer.

"The last time I checked, (the experts) expected a drier than usual summer," he said. "But the possibility of an El Nis growing for this fall and winter. El Nis what makes the aquifer work up here."

Fine-tuning Southwest report

The new study is an update to a more detailed report produced last year.

"It's really an extension of what we did last year, and that's what we planned it to be," Ploughe said. "It doesn't make sense to go into that much detail every year."

The annual updates, along with more extensive reports every three to five years, are designed to "fine-tune" the "Long-term Groundwater Management Plan" prepared for the town by Southwest Groundwater Consultants in 1998.

Public Works Director Buzz Walker said the annual updates assure that town water policy is based on information that is "both timely" ... "and accurate in today's circumstances."

Ploughe believes the new report does just that. "We're pretty comfortable now with the numbers associated with the aquifer. This is, timely (information) now that we are approaching safe yield," he said. "We need to know what happens once we get over safe yield, and I think the numbers are as close to real as we're ever going to get."

Safe yield is a term used to define the amount of groundwater naturally and artificially replenished into the local aquifer. As long as no more groundwater is consumed than is replenished, Payson is within its safe yield.

The new report reveals that groundwater consumption dropped to 90 percent of safe yield in 2001 from 93 percent in 2000.

Based on this and other information in the report, Walker is hopeful.

'No reason for fear'

"The big message is there is no reason for fear," Walker said. "Water is an issue, not a crisis, and we have plenty of time to make intelligent decisions on growth."

Ploughe agrees, but he's watching the weather. "I'd have to agree with Buzz that there's no crisis," he said. "But the dry weather is an important issue. When we have dry winters like that, it doesn't do any good for our well production the following summer."

The drought emergency plan currently being drafted should help by encouraging conservation when it's needed most "during times of drought."

"With drought conditions persisting, the conservation of our water supplies becomes increasingly important," the report says.

With annual precipitation levels "dominantly below the long-term arithmetic and harmonic averages" since 1989, Walker and Ploughe believe that formulating an emergency plan is a prudent course of action.

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