Town Water Resources Geologist Mike Ploughe is a big picture guy.
The Valley native, who has held his current position with the town for almost eight years, believes the solution to the Rim country's water problems will be multi-faceted, and he thinks the Bureau of Reclamation regional water study currently under way will ultimately address the issue.
"I'm really excited about that," he said. "I think it's going to get us somewhere. Some folks might say, ‘Oh, it's just another study,' but going through it this way is going to get us through the door for some things in the future and it's certainly worth the time and the effort to be involved in it."
Ploughe, who began his career with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, explained the approach the study participants are taking.
"The great thing about it is we're putting everything on the table," he said. "If you can think of an idea, it's probably there -- (including) some crazy things. But we'll go through all that and probably filter it down to the top five or three, and because of the complexity of all of the issues surrounding water up here it may very well be two or three solutions that have to be worked together."
Ploughe said he believes that both groundwater and surface water will be components of the eventual solution. The town is currently pursuing groundwater options on several fronts, including the long-proposed exploratory wells in the Mayfield Canyon area of the Tonto National Forest.
"We are in the process of conducting the geophysics work we contracted out a few months ago to refine what we know about the subsurface geology," he said.
The company performing the work is using non-invasive technology developed for minerals exploration to measure natural variations in the magnetic field in the area of the Diamond Rim fault.
"They put these ceramic cups in the ground a few inches every so many feet and take essentially electromagnetic measurements," Ploughe said.
While the field data collection is now complete, the project is still in the interpretation phase. But Ploughe is encouraged by the preliminary results.
"I'm really impressed with it so far," he said. "They're finding some very interesting things."
Pressed for specifics, Ploughe began with an explanation of the area's geology.
"Everybody knows we're looking in this area, particularly at the Diamond Rim fault," he said. "Groundwater up here is dominantly produced from broken rock, because we don't have sand and gravel aquifers up here.
"We can't say for 100-percent sure there's water down there, but the geophysics is helping us see now that the rocks and the formation is definitely broken," he said. "That's the first thing we needed to know.
"(The Diamond Rim fault) has the potential of intercepting quite a bit of groundwater flow. In other words, anything coming down from the north that is going to be flowing in a southerly direction will encounter that fault and not be able to cross it, but it can move along it. So it has a lot of potential, especially when you're only talking about a community the size of Payson."
But there are no guarantees in the water business, he said.
"There's no way they're going to take a picture of water down there," Ploughe said. "The whole idea was to use the geophysics work in conjunction with our surface geology work to basically refine what we're doing -- to make sure our exploratory wells are put in the right places, and maybe re-prioritize them in terms of which ones we should do and maybe some we should completely drop off.
"If we can take it from 36 well sites down to 12 based on that re-prioritization, there's a good chance we can get what we need to know with much fewer well sites. The next step is to put an actual hole in the ground."
Ploughe hopes to have the final report from the geophysics study by mid-January. Meanwhile, another groundwater option that is showing some potential, is a series of wells being drilled on land owned by Northern Gila County Sanitary District.
"It's just immediately west of the treatment facilities," Ploughe said. "It's the bottom of the system, so anything that leaves Payson would leave through that general area. We've drilled one test hole and we're doing a second one that looks promising."
While Ploughe is generally optimistic that a solution to the Rim country's water woes can be cobbled together using other options including Blue Ridge Reservoir atop the Mogollon Rim near Clint's Well, his big picture mentality also makes him a realist. He is not, for example, impressed that this year's rainfall total in the Payson area is approaching the normal average of 22.08 inches.
"I never even look at the numbers anymore until it's said and done," he said. "It gets to be a little frustrating because we can have a really wet two or three days but we're still in a drought and we're going to be there for awhile. In reality -- in the big scheme of things -- we need to be above normal for a few consecutive years because we've got such a deficit now."
Combining the ongoing drought with the time it will take to develop the water resources the town is working on, Ploughe emphasizes the importance of conservation as a key component.
"In the short term, conservation is the best thing we can do," he said. "Payson residents are pretty conservation-conscious."
Ploughe is encouraged by the fact that conservation apparently kept the town from reaching safe yield this year as was originally anticipated. Safe yield is reached when as much water is being pumped out of the ground as is being replenished by both natural and artificial means.
"I think we're going to come in a little bit under safe yield," he said. "With the conservation programs -- and we've done a lot of work there -- we kept the numbers down. There were a couple of months we were lower than the previous year.
Ultimately, Ploughe believes that not only Payson, but Pine and Strawberry as well, will find an adequate supply of water.
"Our experience over the years locally with what we can produce from this aquifer that's under our feet tells us the amount of water we need to sustain ourselves ought to be out there -- especially within the concept of holistic water resources management.
"Realistically that applies to all the communities around here, including Pine and Strawberry. They certainly have some options under their feet that haven't been looked into, especially in Pine."