While most of the Rim country's water wizards are focused on finding additional sources of water, Karen Probert's job is to make sure you get the highest quality water every time you turn on your tap.
As the town's water quality specialist, Probert's responsibilities are in two areas -- water safety and conservation. Both have become more complex in the eight years she has held the position.
"My major responsibilities focus on water quality and that includes all of the drinking water compliance for our system, which is becoming increasingly complex as more regulations are promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ)," she said.
Ongoing water testing
Payson's water is tested on a regular basis at the points where it enters the system.
"We have a lot of different sources, but it's usually the well sites, so we do a lot more testing than most systems do," Probert said. "We have about 36 active production wells.
"We have special sample bottles and there are specific procedures we have to follow. We don't have our own laboratory because some of these tests require some very expensive equipment, so we use a certified testing lab."
The town publishes an annual Water Quality Report that is available free of charge in the water department building at town hall. It contains test results and other information about the town's water supply.
Tests run most frequently are for those substances considered by the EPA to have the most immediate or acute health effect on people.
Bacteria testing most common
"We test for bacteria and nitrates most frequently, sometimes as often as quarterly," Probert said.
The only serious problem the town has uncovered was the presence of PCE, a dry-cleaning solvent, in the groundwater at two downtown locations. With some state funding and help from ADEQ, that problem is being addressed.
"We have two treatment systems at 204 W. Aero Drive that have been operating since 1998, and so far we've treated about 69 million gallons and cleaned up that water and were able to put it into our system for use," Probert said.
While she describes Payson's water quality as "excellent," Probert said people in outlying communities can also have confidence that the water they drink is safe.
"They are bound by the same regulations we are," she said. "Occasionally, communities will have a problem with bacteria -- a couple of years ago some showed up in Pine -- and when that happens you try to locate the source and take what steps are necessary to protect public health."
Water taste is not usually a good indicator of water quality.
"A number of different things affect taste, especially with a surface water supply like a lot of the Phoenix water systems utilize," she said. "When large quantities of algae are growing in canals or lakes they release these taste and odor compounds.
Payson's water is chlorinated and that can be a taste issue for some people. Just traveling through pipelines can also result in tastes and odors developing, even though the water is perfectly safe."
Probert, who has a degree in biology from Arizona State University, noted that the product of public water systems is probably safer than bottled water.
"It's very possible bottled water is less tested than what comes out of the tap," she said. "A lot of people just don't realize how much testing is required of a public water system."
She said that some of the water vending machines in town simply sell you the same water coming out of your tap.
"There are different technologies used, but some of those machines just take drinking water and pass it through a simple filter, so people are paying a lot of money for what is essentially the same water they get at home," she said.
Home filtration systems are a matter of personal preference, Probert said.
Green Valley Lakes
Probert also is responsible for maintaining the water quality at Green Valley Lakes.
"Green Valley Park was originally designed as a water recharge project, not as a park," she said. "Once the planning process took place, we said why not make this into a beautiful public park. We have an urban fishing program so we monitor water in the lakes to make sure we maintain the proper water quality for that and for general public health. We don't want to contaminate our aquifers."
One challenge Probert faces is a buildup of algae in the lakes.
"We have a biological program in Green Valley lakes so we don't use chemicals to control the algae," she said. "Our main methods are some custom mixes of bacteria and enzymes that tie up nutrients so they're not available to algae for growth. They also break down some of the organic sludge that builds up on the bottom of the lakes.
Bales of barley straw floating in the lakes also help keep the algae in check, and the town recently developed a mechanical removal tool -- a "big rake on a hydraulic arm" -- that so far has been fairly effective actually scooping up the algae and placing it on the shore to dry.
Probert emphasizes that all Rim country residents share the responsibility of conserving water whenever and wherever possible. The use of appropriate plants and rainwater harvesting are two ways to do that.
"In conjunction with the High Country Xeriscape Council of Arizona, we built a demonstration garden at the community college," she said.
"Rainwater harvesting is an old technique that's coming back into popularity because it makes sense. People think of it as a rain barrel under a downspout, but that's its simplest form."
She said if one takes it a step further, they can actually incorporate it into their landscaping, building berms and swales to collect and direct water.
The town has a free booklet on rainwater harvesting originally produced by the City of Albuquerque that has a lot of ideas. A pamphlet is also available at no cost on the use of gray water, another technique Probert recommends.
She also emphasizes the need to use chemicals and pesticides wisely.
"In a community like ours where we have a limited amount of water available it's really important for people to think about how they're using chemicals and pesticides," she said.
The bottom line is education, and Probert believes it is incumbent on each and every one of us to learn all we can about the smart use of our most precious natural resource.
"With just a little knowledge, people can make a lot better decisions," she said, "especially in the wise use of water, some of the products they're using, and how everything recycles and how that affects our water system."