For years, water has topped almost every list of most important topics in the Rim country, and two major developments in 2004 -- a very wet year and federal legislation that will eventually bring water from Blue Ridge Reservoir -- made it even more so.
With 27.5 inches of precipitation, 2004 easily surpassed the normal annual total of 22 inches, and it couldn't have come at a better time -- about 10 years into a protracted drought of indeterminate length. As of press time, the deluge continued, with about 17 inches falling since the beginning of 2005.
But both Buzz Walker, town public works director, and Mike Ploughe, town hydrologist, suspect the drought is a long way from over.
"It remains to be seen if this is the actual end of it, but I tend to agree with the meteorologists and the other hydrologists out there who think this is a blip in a long-term drought cycle," Ploughe said.
Some very specific and unique phenomenon accounts for all the moisture, Ploughe said.
"From what I've heard about the jet stream, it has been doing some pretty unusual things, and that's what everyone's been pointing at as the source for all our rainfall and some snowfall," he said. "What's driving that, I don't know. It's not just el Niño. There's an Atlantic oscillation that tends to affect things on this side just as much, and actually maybe even more than an el Niño."
Ploughe is trying to determine what it means for Payson's water supply.
"The bottom line for us here is basically keeping track of our aquifer and how it's responding to all of the rainfall," he said.
Each year in April, the water department presents an annual report to the council, and Ploughe is in the process of gathering the information he needs for this year's presentation. But he did offer some preliminary observations.
"(The aquifers are) recharging, but it's not as much as I would've hoped," he said. "In some areas, we've recovered to levels we haven't seen for three or more years, which is a really great thing."
"We made up for several years, but there's still room down there," Walker said.
Part of the annual water report is a recommendation for the water conservation stage that will be in place for the following 12 months. Both Ploughe and Walker believe that continued vigilance is the proper course to follow.
"We know there's going to be drought years, but we know there's going to be wet years like this, and those wet years tend to carry us through the drought cycles so long as we manage our resources as responsibly as we can," Ploughe said. "That's really our mission -- trying to bring what's really happening in the aquifers together with how we use the resource."
The town council will make the ultimate decision, but Walker says the indication he has gotten is that the council wants to continue to mandate a strong conservation ethic.
Ploughe said it only makes sense.
"With all the rainfall, the mindset of people might change, and this is something we really don't want to see," he said. "We need to keep this conservation mode going, because if all indications from the experts are that we're still in a long-term drought, I think the wise thing to do would be to continue with responsible water resources management, and I believe that's where (the council is) headed."
Hopefully, when water starts flowing from the Blue Ridge Reservoir, the uncertainty of groundwater supplies will be a thing of the past. And 2004 will probably prove to be the breakthrough year -- when Blue Ridge water went from being a pipe-dream to a pipeline-promise.
In November, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that cleared the way for Payson to receive water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir. Walker did not downplay its significance.
"It was the single most important thing that's happened to Payson since it was incorporated, bar none," he said.
Officially titled the Arizona Water Settlement Act, the bill was the culmination of nearly two decades of negotiations. It reshuffled the water that flows through the Central Arizona Project. But buried beneath the massive quantities of water allocated to tribes and communities that receive CAP water, the bill also cleared the transfer of Blue Ridge from Salt River Project to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation -- a critical step in the process of securing a new source of water for Payson and northern Gila County.
"We would operate that facility much like the rest of the reservoirs in the whole system under the Salt River Federal Reclamation Project," Dave Roberts, manager of water rights and contracts for SRP, said. "(The BOR) owns the reservoirs and we operate them under contract."
Critical as the legislation was to the process, much needs to be done. In fact, some SRP officials believe it could take as long as 10 years before water from the reservoir near Clint's Well atop the Mogollon Rim makes its way to Rim country residents.
"There's a few things we need to go through," Roberts said. "The facility is operated under a license by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and we need to have that license transferred into our name from Phelps Dodge (Mining Company). So there's going to be a hearing on that."
Phelps Dodge built the reservoir in the late 1950s and early 1960s to provide water for its mining operations.
"The water is used under an old exchange agreement we entered into with Phelps Dodge back in the '60s that enables them to use this water as a replacement source for water they take from us out of the Black River in eastern Arizona for their mine in Morenci," Roberts said.
Assuming the license transfer is successful, the state then has to approve the severance and transfer of water rights from Morenci into SRP's reservoir district.
And while the BOR will own the land where the dam is located, the reservoir itself, the pumping plant and the pipeline system that currently brings water down to the East Verde River near Washington Park, is on U.S. Forest Service land. That creates another hurdle that must be cleared.
"(With the legislation passing) the facility is owned by the BOR, but it sets on top of Forest Service land, so there's going to need to be a memorandum of understanding between the BOR and the Forest Service," Roberts said. "That's going to take a little while -- probably next year some time, maybe a little longer."
And then SRP must finalize the agreements to sell water to Payson and northern Gila County.
Estimates of the total annual yield of the reservoir vary from 8,000 to 10,000 acre-feet. According to several town and county officials, SRP will sell 3,000 acre-feet to Payson and 500 to Gila County. The remainder will be used in the Valley.
"To add perspective, our safe yield is 1,825 (acre-feet per year) and we're using in the 1,700s right now," Town Manager Fred Carpenter said. "So it would literally triple available water to Payson if we were to get that source."
If the town exceeds safe yield, then it will be mining water -- in effect, taking more out of the ground than is replenished.
The town would most likely build a pipeline about 14 miles long to get the water from an existing pipeline that ends near Washington Park to a treatment plant planned for the intersection of Houston Mesa Road and Highway 87.
While many northern Gila County communities stand to benefit from the 500-acre-foot allocation the county will probably receive, delivery logistics mean that Pine and Strawberry -- the two communities suffering the greatest shortages -- will most likely not be among them.
"Look at the maps," Carpenter said. "I don't know how they're going to get it up there. There's no easy way. The water provider for those people is a private company (California-based Brooke Utilities), and they're loathe to make multi-million-dollar investments for small customer bases."
Preliminary engineering work is already under way by the town, according to Walker. But the Forest Service still stands between the town and Blue Ridge water.
"They're going to have to get a specialse permit from the Forest Service because they're going to be crossing Forest Service land," Roberts said. "They'll have to do an environmental assessment of some sort."
But Roberts is optimistic that time is the only thing standing between northern Gila County and Blue Ridge water.
"It's going to take a while, but we're positive that things can be done so that Payson has a more assured, reliable water supply," he said.
SRP believes that a more diverse water supply for Payson is in the best interest of all parties, including SRP.
"Payson has had an interest in going outside the city limits to acquire water resources in the forest, and they haven't had much success in many areas they've gone to," Roberts said. "That Mayfield Canyon area is an area we've had a lot of concern about because there used to be perennial flow there. It's now gone because of the pumping by Chaparral Pines, and we just don't want to make the situation worse.
"Wherever Payson went, they would end up de-watering that aquifer, and they'd have to go again someplace else," Roberts said.
"We think a much better solution would be to have a renewable surface water supply, and Blue Ridge is a pretty good source of water."
"Now we have two sources (groundwater and Blue Ridge)," Walker said. "If you have the Forest Service, we've got three sources. If you add waste water, that's four sources. Conservation is five sources.
Payson and northern Gila County are fortunate that Blue Ridge even exists, Roberts said.
"I think the days of building dams like that one are gone," he said. "There may be a few spots within the state where you could do that, but there's quite a bit of environmental work that would have to be gone through, and the other issue is there's not water left to appropriate."
SRP's experts agree with Walker and Ploughe -- the drought is most likely not over.
"It took us 9 or 10 years to get into this; it's not going to take us one normal or above normal year to get out of it," Greg Kornrumph, senior analyst for water rights and contracts, said. "In historical patterns over years and years of studying tree rings, they've figured out there are periods of 20- and 30-year cycles, and in those years there's going to be some spikes, and that's probably what we're in now, one of those spikes. That's why we have storage -- so you can capture it and withstand those periods when you have below normal rain."