Water Woes Create A Dilemma For Council

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Members of the Payson Town Council are faced with a big dilemma that's not of their making. How do you balance a shrinking, known available groundwater supply during a long-term period of drought against the economic realities of a growth economy with a very strong and active home-building element? The question is complex and so is the answer. To really understand the issues we need to take a closer look.

There are two ways to stretch a water supply: reduce demand or increase supply.

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When a well on McKamey Street collapsed recently, town water officials scrambled to get it back into full production. Meanwhile, the town's search for new water sources has so far come up dry.

People in Payson are pretty familiar with the town's long-term efforts to reduce demand, which have focused on increasingly stringent conservation measures such as replacing high-flow fixtures (toilets, shower heads and waterless urinals) with low-flow alternatives, odd/even watering days, bans on new lawns, swimming pools and spas, and implementation of a progressive water rate structure that discourages high users. And these measures have been remarkably successful: The average Valley city uses more than 200 gallons per capita per day, while we here in Payson are now down to a little more than 90.

Of course, there are limits to the success we can achieve through conservation without seriously decreasing our quality of life. Yes, we can implement steeper rates and can consider more extreme measures like the one recently implemented in Las Vegas, where customers are now being paid by the square foot to remove existing lawns. But as the population grows, it will get harder and harder to maintain our renewable supply, which will lead inevitably to groundwater mining--the term used to describe taking more water out of the ground than is naturally replenished annually. What's more, as well levels drop, it will become more difficult to meet peak-day demand because we can only pump so much, so fast as lifting distance gets greater and greater.

The town of Payson is now at 93 percent of safe yield, which is the amount of water we can withdraw annually without mining groundwater. Staff estimates there are about 2,000 vacant buildable lots already subdivided in Payson. At 2.2 persons per household, that's 4,400 new people we could add without creating any more subdivisions. And that's the basic problem we are facing: without a new source of supply, the town is facing a future in which ever more stringent water conservation and growth management will be required just to break even. Not a bright prospect.

It's obvious that if we don't want to face a bleak future with increasingly more severe water conservation measures, we need to increase our supply.

There are three major options for increasing the town's water supply.

First, we could get new water from private lands surrounding Payson. During the past several years, we have looked in many different places, from Rye to the Doll Baby Ranch. Various ideas have been proposed, such as purchasing a ranch in Tonto Basin or buying water from a ranch east of Payson on the Mogollon Rim.

Most of the ideas have either come up dry or presented legal and technical problems too difficult to overcome.

Second, the town could get new water supplies in the national forest. We have explored a variety of nearby forest areas and are in the permit process for exploration in the Diamond Rim area. We recently reached an impasse with the Forest Service on completing the environmental assessment for that project. The issues involved are quite complex, but we believe the way will soon be cleared to proceed with the environmental assessment. However, there is no certainty that a renewable, reliable supply of groundwater will be found or if the related environmental issues can be overcome.

As mentioned with regard to private lands, various other ideas have been proposed, such as pumping water from Fossil Springs. All, however, present daunting environmental, technical and legal challenges.

The third and final option is Blue Ridge Reservoir. Salt River Project (SRP) would like to gain control of the water in the reservoir and has expressed a willingness to sell 3,000 acre-feet of water per year to the town. (To put that number in perspective, safe yield from the town's current groundwater wells is estimated at 1,826 acre feet per year, so 3,000 acre-feet represents a dramatic long-term improvement in the town's water supply.) Latest indications are that SRP is continuing its efforts to acquire the reservoir. The problem is we don't know when the acquisition will be complete -- it could be next week or it could take years. If we overcome all the legal hurdles, we will then face the technical problem of getting the water from Washington Park (about 15 miles north of town) to Payson. That, however, will be a challenge we would all relish.

All this brings us to the most difficult question of all: When can we expect new water to be available? It would be much easier to answer this question if the town had total control of the options. That, unfortunately, is not the case.

SRP's control of Blue Ridge might be just around the corner, but there are a lot of unknowns.

In regard to the forest groundwater exploration project, there are still many uncertainties. Legal processes could delay the start of exploration substantially, as has been shown by the three-year history of the current environmental assessment. After we receive exploration permits, the testing process could require more than a year. Then there would be another environmental assessment for production wells. How long will all of this take? Your guess is as good as mine, but I can't see water flowing to Payson from Diamond Rim in less than five years as a best-case scenario.

Where does all this leave us? Unfortunately, right back where we started. The town council is wrestling with the dilemma I mentioned at the beginning of this article. No councilor wants to shut down Payson's growth completely. At the same time, no one wants to be an irresponsible water manager, either.

The council is in the process of attempting to balance the two extremes of no-growth and irresponsible water management. Staff has already been directed to determine how new zoning requests meet the water element of the general plan and to make recommendations accordingly. Additionally, at the Aug. 5, 2004, special meeting, the council requested legal advice on various questions so it can establish a legal, clearly defined growth management strategy until new water sources are secured.

Although the outcome of this process is uncertain, the residents of Payson can take comfort that your town council is not shrinking from this issue, but addressing it head on, and is developing a legal and well-reasoned policy designed to protect the current and future residents of Payson.

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