The Payson Town Council is struggling with perhaps the most important challenge it faces -- how to manage the town's water supply to ride out a drought that could go on for another decade or longer.
The council held a special meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday to address information contained in the recently released 2003 Water Status Report -- specifically that the town reached 99 percent of safe yield in 2002.
Safe yield, the concept that the amount of water taken out of the ground be equal to or less than the amount put in, has for years been the guiding principle upon which the town's water policies are based.
With deadlines looming for adoption of both the one-year corporate strategic plan and the 10-year general plan, a sober town council engaged in a free-ranging discussion of the entire water situation.
Public Works Director Buzz Walker introduced the topic and presented a list of possible actions the council could take.
"I expanded a little bit on the options we have to either reduce demand or increase water supply and the status of those actions, and included a few suggestions on some actions we could take on growth management and some possible implications -- political, social and cultural -- from my perspective," Walker told the council. "Nothing is cast in stone."
The four options Walker identified included: increasing available water supply; decreasing local water demand through conservation programs and water rate increases; and decreasing future demand through existing and additional growth control measures, including a worst-case moratorium on new building permits.
After 75 minutes of discussion, Mayor Ken Murphy summarized the council's concern.
"We want to do what's right by this community in terms of our water supply," Murphy said. "No council ever wants to face this situation, but unless we get more rain, this drought (will have) a huge impact on our predictions of what we can supply for our residents, and this could be a long-term event."
Town Manager Fred Carpenter promised to incorporate the ideas and insights expressed at the meeting into a new statement of water policy the council can consider for incorporation into the two planning documents. Based on the discussion Tuesday evening, that wording will express a recommitment to the concept of safe yield. There was also strong sentiment for not taking any radical steps until the town's new water conservation ordinance and water rate structure have been given ample opportunity to reduce consumption.
The new conservation ordinance ties use restrictions to the previous year's precipitation rather than town storage capacity, while the new rate structure increases rates for heavy water users.
Walker believes the two measures could reduce consumption by as much as 10 percent, but that it will take about six months to determine their impact.
"If we're at 99 percent of safe yield and in six months we find the conservation program has worked and we're at 89 percent, then we're not hitting the wall and we're OK," Murphy said. "But we (also) need to tell the public what we're going to do if it doesn't work."
Several council members expressed their concern about the impact of curtailed growth on the town's economy.
"Somehow we need to tie (a moratorium) with our budget and realize what a devastating effect it's going to have," Councilor Bryan Siverson said. "It could reduce our budget 30-40 percent, and I'm a firm believer if we ever get to that point it's going to be devastating for the whole town."
"I pretty much think we are all of the same mind," the mayor said. "I just think we're all scared to death over how bad it's going to get, and nobody wants to kill an entire (construction) industry."
Both Walker and the council also expressed frustration with the slow progress on developing new sources of water, particularly the proposal to drill exploratory wells in the Mayfield Canyon area of the Tonto National Forest.
"We have every reason to believe that it is at least as promising an area for groundwater potential as Payson," Walker said. "Our concern is that the federal process whittles us down to such a small number of wells, we may never know what the potential is."
Several council members also expressed frustration with Salt River Project's ownership of surface water rights
"I know SRP owns the surface water rights, and I know there isn't much you can do about it, but at some point can you fight them in court?" Councilor Bryan Siverson asked Walker. "It seems totally unfair they have no requirements to service our area but they get the surface water that flows through it."
"This is the wild west," Walker responded. "First in time, first in right. That's just about as fundamental as you can get in Arizona water law.
"If we're going to be the ones that tilt at that windmill, we better raise water rates and water development fees and spend it all in court," Walker said. "We don't know of any legal avenues that are going to break these very basic laws of the state of Arizona."
Both Walker and Town Attorney Sam Streichman emphasized their belief that more will be accomplished working with SRP than against it.
"I firmly believe that anything we do in terms of a long-term water supply will be as a result of their political influence," Walker said. "I think they're ultimately going to be part of the solution."