Meeting About Forest Drilling Productive

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It wasn't exactly friendly, but the 120 people who attended the meeting of the Diamond Star Citizens Action Coalition Monday evening seemed more willing than before to accept the process being used to evaluate the town's request to drill exploratory wells under the Diamond Rim.

While past meetings on the subject of the town's proposal to search for water in the Mayfield Canyon and Diamond Rim areas had been contentious, this gathering, held at the Lamplighter RV Park community center, was focused on providing information and answering questions from those in attendance, many of whom live within several miles of the proposed drilling area in Star Valley or Diamond Point Shadows.

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Water was the topic on the table at the meeting of the Diamond Star Citizens Action Coalition Monday evening. Ed Armenta, head ranger for the Payson Ranger District, explains the procedures the Forest Service has implemented to consider the town's proposal to drill exploratory wells.

Coalition leader Chuck Heron kept a tight rein on the meeting, which he structured to provide a step-by-step review of the entire issue, dating back to the town of Payson's decision to sell its Central Arizona Project water rights and use the money for new water exploration. That decision, made in the early '90s, led to the town's eventual decision to search for water on Forest Service land.

"In 1998, Payson got real serious about going outside town boundaries and they came to the Forest Service with a plot map," Heron said at the meeting.

Because the sites proposed first were in scattered, remote areas, the Forest Service allowed the town to drill several exploratory wells under special-use permits and categorical exclusions, and without public input.

"In most cases there wasn't going to be a lot of people impacted if a well went out there," Heron said.

The town first pitched the Mayfield Canyon exploration project to the Forest Service in August 2001. When opposition arose, Ed Armenta, head ranger for the Payson Ranger District, determined that a detailed evaluation process, including public input, needed to be used.

"I made the decision we were not going to do a decision memo or categorical exclusion, based on a couple issues -- the potential impact to the national forest, and the concerns you raised regarding the impacts to your wells," Armenta told attendees.

Armenta asked that the town delineate the entire scope of its forest drilling project, and the Mayfield Canyon project evolved into the Diamond Rim project. Heron argues that since the two projects overlap, public input submitted on Mayfield Canyon also should be valid for Diamond Rim.

Ken Houser of SWCA Environmental Consultants, a Phoenix firm retained by the town to help conduct preliminary testing, explained the scope of the town's current proposal. That plan is 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 from which the wells in the areas opposing the project draw.

"We have geology information, we have geophysical information that is a study of the resistivity of the geology below the ground," Houser said. "We have all of this good data and good science to back it up that says that there is a very good likelihood that there's an appreciable amount of water there."

But that doesn't mean the town will be putting that water into its system anytime soon.

"Do we know that it can be pumped out of the ground in quantities that make it economical to do that?" Houser asked. "No, we won't know that until we do this project."

Attendees were told that any impact on neighboring wells would bring the project to a halt, and Payson Town Manager Fred Carpenter, who also spoke at the meeting, emphasized that Payson intended to be a good neighbor. If the town did decide that bringing the wells on-line was economically feasible, the entire evaluation process would begin anew.

"The town will come back and visit the Forest Service once more and basically start from scratch," Houser said, "and we'll all be back here again with more boards and more fact sheets and more mailings and more information."

Carpenter explained why the town needed new sources of water.

"We estimate that the aquifers now tapped by the town can safely provide up to 1,826 acre-feet per year ... under normal precipitation conditions," Carpenter said. "Unfortunately, we are at that limit today, and in the grips of a sustained drought. Our projections indicated that by 2005, demand in Payson will exceed 2,000 acre feet annually."

Heron encouraged all interested parties to provide input, but cautioned that a popular vote will not decide the issue.

"If we write 500 letters and the town of Payson writes 200, it doesn't mean we win, they lose," he said. "Each one of these letters must be analyzed and fed into the entire system."

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