One of the more encouraging developments in the Rim country's ongoing search for solutions to its water shortage is the fact that Gila County and the town of Payson are finally working on the problem together.
The vehicle that made that happen is a study being conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR). Facilitating that study is Leslie Meyers, BOR water resources planner.
"I believe this is the first time these partners have been working together -- Gila County, which represents all the unincorporated communities, and the town of Payson," Meyers said.
The Arizona Department of Resources has expressed an interest in joining the group, and the Tonto Apache Tribe has also attended the meetings.
"We'd really like to have Tonto Apache Tribe as a partner," Meyers said. "That would bring in a lot of other authorities and things we can do."
Two other interested parties are on the study's non-decision-making technical committee -- Salt River Project and the U.S. Forest Service.
"At this point everybody has their issues, and it's a good thing everyone is bringing them up," Meyers said.
The study is comprised of two phases.
"The first phase is an appraisal level study and that's what we're doing now," she said. "It pretty much takes all the information that's out there -- and in northern Gila County there's a ton of information -- and puts it together into an appraisal report.
"The Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District has done lots of their own study work, and Payson has done all kinds of exploration and study work analyzing water supplies in the area."
The first phase of the study will last about three years and cost $600,000. The BOR is footing half the bill.
During the second, or feasibility, phase of the study, participants will attempt to apply the information gathered in the first phase.
"We're looking at making this project happen at that point," Meyers said. "In the end it is not likely any one of the alternatives identified in the first phase will provide what Gila County needs. There will be some kind of a conjunctive situation between several of these alternatives."
The study includes all aspects of the water issue.
"We're looking at legal restraints, environmental restraints, funding costs, recreational aspects -- everything," Meyers said.
Finding the water and getting it where it needs to go is not a major problem.
"The engineering part is the easy part," Meyers said. "The hard part is not where is the water and how we're going to get it; it's figuring out legally how we're going to get access to it. There's a lot of water rights issues and environmental issues."
Meyers, who has a degree in civil engineering, with emphasis in environmental resources and water management, has worked for the BOR for 15 years. For the past seven years she coordinated the BOR's water conservation program.
Through that, and the BOR's rural watershed program, she has worked with both the town and county over an extended period of time. Based on area population projections and other information on the area, she provides a realistic assessment.
"I hesitate to say you're in trouble, but we definitely need to work on the water situation," she said. "We need to find additional supplies or find some alternatives. We need quite a bit of water if these communities are going to grow."
Meyers offers a balanced perspective on Salt River Project's role in the Rim country's water shortage.
"The communities on the SRP watershed don't have access to that surface water and that's the water rights system -- the doctrine of prior appropriation," she said. "Whoever used it first has the rights to it.
"So SRP is doing their job for their surface area and their stakeholders -- making sure nobody messes with their water rights. That's really tough on the folks (in the Rim country) who are watching the water run past their homes.
"SRP is a tough cookie for the rural folks on the watershed. They've been around for 100 years and they know their business.
"I think the water laws aren't going to change anytime soon and I think the best thing we can do in our study area is involve SRP in the whole process. I believe they want us to succeed as much as anyone -- just not at the detriment of SRP."
Like Payson Public Works Director Buzz Walker, Meyers believes it's unfair to blame SRP for the Valley's high rate of water consumption.
"SRP is very conservation-minded," she said. "They're a leader in the Valley.
"But they're a wholesale provider. They provide water to cities that then provide it to customers. The cities have come a long way (encouraging conservation), but it's a tremendous job."
While Meyers applauds the town of Payson's new water conservation ordinance, she doesn't believe it will become a model for the rest of Arizona anytime soon.
"I think the town of Payson implemented that ordinance because they needed to," she said. "You're in a situation where you pump as much as you recharge, so you need to promote that.
"It ultimately comes down to people's right to choose, and I'm not so sure we should take that right away. You hope people will choose the right thing, but you have SRP and the Central Arizona Project in the Valley, so you don't have the same dire situation the rural counties have.
"Conservation is not the priority of the rest of the communities."
United States Bureau of Reclamation
The United States Bureau of Reclamation was founded by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 to reclaim the arid West for irrigation.
"Essentially what they were doing was reclaiming the land and putting in irrigation projects so people could move to the West and farm," Leslie Meyers, BOR water resources planner, said.
In part, because it has had different names over the years, many people don't understand the agency's role today.
"Our mission is to manage, develop and protect water and related resources in an environmentally friendly and economically sound manner in the interests of the American public," Meyers said.