Town ‘Turns Every Rock' In Search For Water



(Editor's note: This is the second in a bi-weekly series featuring in-depth interviews with the people who impact the Rim country's water situation.)

Payson Public Works Director Buzz Walker approaches his job with a sense of humor. He says it's the only way to survive.


Public Works Director Buzz Walker explains why the town plans exploratory wells on Northern Gila County Sanitary District land. "If there's any water leaving town, it would probably be through that narrow valley (on the western edge)," he said.

"That has to be your character," Walker said. "Utility people are hard nuts.

"If there isn't inherently something about you that allows you to take a lot of pressure, you don't last. It's like natural selection."

Walker, who literally founded the town water department, has lasted -- for 32 years. He started with United Utilities in 1972, but when the town bought the Payson water system from United in 1980, Walker decided he'd rather work for the town than continue to worry about the smaller communities United served.

Communities in ‘dire straits'

"There are some communities like Pine and Mesa del Caballo that are in dire straits around here because they don't have the restrictions that Payson has," Walker said. "They don't have the growth management. They don't have any ordinances. They have to rely on somebody over 100 miles away to look after their interests.

"The reason I'm here is Mesa del and Pine. I didn't want that abuse forever. So I said, ‘I think I'll go to Payson.' We invented a water department in about a week and it's gone real well ever since."

Doll Baby dry

Although the town's recent attempt to find water at Doll Baby Ranch was unsuccessful, Walker is moving forward on a number of fronts.

"We have an agreement with the (Northern Gila County) Sanitary District to drill some exploratory holes because they're at the far western edge of town where the valley pinches in. If there's any water leaving town, it would probably be through that narrow valley."

The town is also continuing its quest for permission to drill exploratory wells in the Diamond Rim area of the Tonto National Forest. While working through the bureaucracy, the Forest Service has given the town permission to conduct a non-invasive survey of the area.

Non-invasive mapping

Preliminary work on the survey, which consists of mapping the sub-surface geology of the region utilizing electrical current, is now under way.

"This won't find water; this will just define the most optimum places to drill," Walker said. "If we're not finding fractures or any type of aquifer down there at all, if the return signals are showing solid rock, we're out of there," he said.

Blue Ridge viable

The town is also participating in the regional water study organized by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Walker believes that study will come to one conclusion -- that Blue Ridge Reservoir is at least a partial solution to the Rim country's water woes.

"I don't think they will come up with any other options," he said, "the reason being the tremendous amount of work the Town of Payson has done. We've pretty much identified the options and worked the options."

Located atop the Mogollon Rim near Clint's Well, Blue Ridge was originally constructed in 1963 by Phelps-Dodge to provide water for that company's mining operations.

"It's just a narrow canyon with a very unremarkable, thin arched dam on the end of it," Walker said.

Walker takes exception to Pine water guru John Breninger's assessment that Blue Ridge won't solve the area's water problems.

Conjunctive water management

"Blue Ridge can be the answer, but you have to know conjunctive water management," he said. "You can't just walk in and say, ‘I've been an engineer, hence I know everything.'

"In years when we don't have enough supply and Blue Ridge is dry, how do you satisfy the demand? In years when we have excess, how do we take care of that water that would normally flow to the Gulf of Mexico and keep it in storage for other times?

"That's the conjunctive part of it and you have to see the whole picture. You have to get off groundwater the years you're on surface water, and when you're not getting surface you go back to ground."

In defense of SRP

Walker also defended Salt River Project.

"They are absolutely a positive force," he said. "We've never had a bad relationship with them; we've never had a relationship, period.

"The water is ours by location, but it's theirs by right. We've accepted the legal realities and the options we have because we're small and isolated, and the answer for assistance for us is from the haves and not the have-nots."

Valley conservation a farce

According to Walker, SRP wants the large communities it serves to institute tougher water conservation measures, but is not getting much help.

"SRP is big into conservation," he said. "But all they do is supply water to the municipalities, which are absolutely not big into conservation.

"Until SRP told the cities they were going to cut back on delivery, cities wouldn't do anything. So last year, the Valley cities went into this anal Stage One conservation which says, ‘You know, we live in a desert -- but we've got plenty of water.'

That attitude, Walker believes, is why Valley residents use at least twice as much water as their Rim country neighbors to the north.

CAP deal made sense

Back in 1994, Walker sold Payson's Central Arizona Project water allocation for $4.3 million. He still finds himself having to defend the deal.

"We didn't have any rights at all to CAP water," he recalled. "We had an allocation. It's just like sitting at a card table. Someone gives you five cards, but you don't own them. You just get to use them for awhile.

"They said, ‘It's down there in a canal in Phoenix, and if you can find a way to use it, it's yours.' We tried for 21 years to figure out a mechanism to do an exchange."

In early 1994, the Department of Water Resources told the town it was going to have to start paying $250,000 a year for the allocation, whether it was used or not.

"That's when we developed the legal process whereby we took an allocation that cost us zero and turned it into money by selling it to a developer in the Valley," Walker said. "That's thinking outside the box.

"The minute we did that, Prescott, Camp Verde, Prescott Valley, Sedona, Nogales -- everybody used the Payson model.

"We made something out of nothing, and instead of getting a statue put up as a tribute, somehow people think it's a bad thing."

Payson won't run dry

Walker has a simple message for the people of Payson and the rest of the Rim country.

"We need to live within our means," he said. "It's not that somebody isn't looking out for their future interests every day, but there's a practical limitation on what we can do because the options are controlled by someone else.

"The options that are controlled by us are exhausted. Nobody can say we didn't turn over every rock."

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