Parched Pine May Have New Water Source

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A site in the extreme northwest corner of Strawberry is the best place to drill a test well that could tap into a new source of water for the thirsty Pine-Strawberry area.

Geologist Michael B. Kaczmarek revealed the location and explained the study that led to its identification to a group of more than 200 area residents assembled at the Pine Community Center Saturday afternoon. Kaczmarek works for Morrison Maierle, a consulting firm retained by the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District (PSWID) to conduct a hydrogeologic engineering study of the area.

The new source of water is located in a layer called Redwall limestone that is considerably deeper than current production wells within reach. The aquifer that flows through the Redwall strata is the one that feeds Fossil Springs 30 miles northwest of the Pine-Strawberry area.

"In 1952, it was discharging 18,400 gallons a minute out of the Redwall, and it has stayed at that level ever since," Kaczmarek said.

Using global positioning and other technologies Kaczmarek was able to determine that the saturated Redwall limestone layer extends into the northwest portion of Strawberry. The identified drilling site is not only within the PSWID, but is also on private land, which poses fewer legal and other complications than potential sites on adjacent U.S. Forest Service land.

During his presentation, Kaczmarek explained how the geology of the area creates the water supply problems that the two communities -- especially Pine -- are experiencing.

The two stratas most of the area's wells reach are identified as Schnebly hill and, just below it, supai. Most Strawberry wells access water in the fairly porous lower Schnebly hill area, while Pine wells access the rockier, less porous upper supai layer.

"Strawberry is underlaid by Schnebly hill, whereas it doesn't extend under Pine," Kaczmarek said. "It extends out under Strawberry Pass and Strawberry Mountain, but only to the northwest side of Pine."

While Supai rocks are not very porous, they are fractured, and water can move through the fractures.

"Fractures don't store a lot of water and they're sensitive to changes in precipitation," Kaczmarek said. "The yield declines in time, and that's why Strawberry wells are more reliable than those in Pine."

But neither communities' wells will be sufficient to meet demand, even in times of plentiful rain. Kaczmarek cited the water shortage the communities faced in 1989, despite 12 years of above-average precipitation.

"Drilling more wells (into those two layers) isn't going to result in a greater supply of water," Kaczmarek said. "The aquifer system in Schnebly Hill and Supai just isn't an adequate source to support even current demands."

That's why Kaczmarek sought a new source of groundwater -- one less sensitive to short-term fluctuations in recharge. But any wells drilled into the Redwall limestone layer, which ranges from about 1,400 feet to 2,500 feet, would be costly.

"At the suggested drilling site in the northwest corner of Strawberry, the estimated depth to the top of the Redwall is 1,560 feet, and to the bottom of the Redwall would be a total estimated depth of 2,100 feet," Kaczmarek said.

The price tag to drill a test well, which would also be suitable as a production well, would range from $606,000 to $870,000, depending possible complications.

"In the drilling business, we figure Murphy was an optimist," Kaczmarek said.

Town of Payson water resources hydrologist Mike Ploughe attended the meeting and warned that deep wells can be very problematic.

"The bottom line is that it's not practical to drill to depths of 2,500 feet for water," Ploughe said. "It just gets too expensive to retire the debts that would be incurred to do that, and there's still no guarantees as to how much water would be there. Up in Williams they're spending millions on 2,000-2,500-foot holes, and some they're even losing trying to get them in. So it's still a bit speculative."

Strawberry Hollow developer Loren Peterson said he welcomed the new research, but that he already has a test well that reaches the Redwall limestone

"Our well should confirm parts or portions of their theory because it is in and below the Redwall limestone they're talking about," Peterson said. "We're going to test it next week."

For many in attendance, the presentation was difficult to follow.

"A lot of it is real technical stuff that I don't understand," Strawberry resident George Rogers said after the meeting. "My biggest concern was the chart that showed that even when the rain is bountiful, the wells are still going down. That was the biggest thing that impacted me from the whole meeting -- that whether we have light rain years or heavy rain years, the water levels are going down."

Whether a well drilled at the recommended site ever reaches the mother lode, all new information is welcome, according to Ploughe.

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