Aquifers Bounce Back, But Not Enough

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The official word from the town of Payson Water Department is cautious optimism following a record wet winter and the promise of water from Blue Ridge Reservoir in a decade or so.

But when Public Works Director Buzz Walker and his staff presented the 2005 Status Report to the town council last night, the emphasis was clearly on the caution part. Town Hydrologist Mike Ploughe, who delivered the bulk of the report, put it this way:

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Town Hydrologist Mike Ploughe

"We got a lot of rain and it would seem that the drought is over, but it probably really isn't," he said. "The biggest thing in there is that we need to be cautious -- that's the big deal -- because probably most people are under the impression we'll be at (water conservation stage) I. But I don't think that's the right thing to do. It's going to start to dry right out again as we all expect, come May or June anyway."

For that reason, the report -- which the council accepted unanimously -- only elevates water conservation restrictions from stage III to stage II, effective from April 2005 to May 2006.

"These water use restrictions include a ban on washing paved areas such as sidewalks or drives and (limit) outside water use to certain days of the week," according to the study.

Also banned under stage II restrictions are new grass, water wasting, fugitive water, watering native plants, and watering from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Payson residents will, however, be allowed to wash cars on alternate days and fill pools, spas, and wading pools -- activities that were not allowed the past 12 months while the town was under stage III restrictions.

According to the report, record winter precipitation led to groundwater recharge levels not seen over the past three to five years, but the drought and consumer demand have hampered the ability of the aquifer system to recharge completely.

Still, Ploughe said the recharge that did occur bodes well for the long term.

"We've been watching water levels go down, down, down, and we have one wet year and everything comes back huge," he said. "It really paints a picture of sustainability in the long term ... but you still have to be very responsible in the way you manage it."

At 27.5 inches, Payson precipitation was 25 percent above normal in 2004. But again the report cautioned against putting too much stock in one year.

"Most meteorologists and hydrologists theorize this year's rainfall to be a brief and wet time period within an otherwise long-term drought cycle," the report said. "The long-term trend ... indicates that future dry years await the town of Payson and surrounding environs."

Payson residents assisted Mother Nature by reducing consumption from 90 gallons per person per day in 2003 to 86 in 2004, a level last achieved in 1986. By comparison, residents in the Valley use 187 gallons per person per day or above.

Town Water Resource Specialist Jeff Durbin credited a number of factors for the reduced consumption.

"We attribute it to a lot of things -- innovative technologies, new water conservation techniques, our strict ordinance, our public outreach program," he said. "It's a multi-faceted program."

The decrease in consumption allowed the town to drop from 92 percent of safe yield to 88 percent. Safe yield is reached when the town uses as much groundwater as is naturally and artificially replenished.

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