Consideration of the town's proposal to drill exploratory wells under the Diamond Rim in the Tonto National Forest has been suspended by Ed Armenta, head ranger for the Payson Ranger District.
Armenta informed Town Manager Fred Carpenter of his decision in a letter dated June 18. At issue is whether the U.S. Forest Service has the legal right to consider the impact the project might have on the wells of nearby residents.
The issue was raised by Attorney Thomas Wilmoth of Fennemore Craig Law Offices, the firm that is representing the town in its efforts to acquire a special use permit authorizing groundwater exploration in the Tonto National Forest. In a letter to Rod Byers, lands staff officer for the Payson Ranger District, Wilmoth contended that "protection of third party well owners is not within the scope of the Forest Service's authority."
Wilmoth points out that "certain phrasing" in the Forest Service's NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) scoping document "may inadvertently create in third parties the expectation of rights in groundwater not afforded under Arizona law."
According to Wilmoth, state law allows groundwater to be withdrawn "notwithstanding impacts to neighboring well owners, so long as the groundwater is put to a reasonable use." The town wants to drill up to 15 exploratory wells and 13 secondary test wells to determine the presence or absence of a significant aquifer system in the Diamond Rim area northeast of Payson and Star Valley. The proposal is based on the premise that such an aquifer is deeper than and unrelated to the aquifer(s) that the wells in nearby areas draw from.
A group of nearby residents calling itself the Diamond Star Action Coalition has vehemently opposed the town's proposal. Since the outset of the town's proposal, the Forest Service has emphasized that any impact on neighboring wells would bring the project to a halt.
In his letter to Carpenter, Armenta said he was suspending consideration of the town's proposal pending "legal confirmation from our office of general council," but also threatened to pull the project permanently.
"If Mr. Wilmoth's stated position is accurate, then I will also be exploring all options to curtail any further exploration drilling on forest lands," he wrote. "If we cannot provide protections for forest resources and existing private well interests, then our basic premise for providing parameters for exploration must be reconsidered."
Armenta emphasized that he has not yet rejected the town's proposal.
"Our water policy states that we would be concerned about private property wells, and now they're saying we have no authority to do that," he said. "I didn't say we were terminating the ... process. I said we were suspending it."
Carpenter was diplomatic about Armenta's letter.
"This is a project of great importance to the town," he said. "We're disappointed that there's delays and we hope that the issues can be resolved pretty soon."
Payson Mayor Barbara Brewer also expressed her desire to get the town's the proposal back on track.
"It's a setback for the town," she said, "but I'm trying to be very respectful of (Armenta's) position, too. If you respect each other's territory and know what has to be done, you can find a solution."