Wet Weather Doesn't Mean End Of Drought

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As yet another storm system moves through the Rim country this week, Payson Water Department officials caution that recent precipitation might have little impact on the drought, which has gripped the area since 1989.

"The annual total for 2004 isn't that much above normal, which is right around 22 inches," Town Hydrologist Mike Ploughe said.

That's good news, considering that precipitation has reached normal levels only twice in the last 10 years. But in fact, an occasional normal year is "normal" during a prolonged drought, according to Ploughe.

"Typically you have a pretty wet period within the middle of a long-term dry cycle, so this could just be another one of those bumps within a dry cycle," he said. "That would be my interpretation at this point, but it's really anyone's guess when it comes to drought predictions because it's not an exact science."

Forecasters, in fact, are hedging their bets these days, according to Public Works Director Buzz Walker.

"NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the National Weather Service have just about quit going past maybe six months out, and now they qualify it so it's basically a worthless prediction," Walker said. "Before they would have made a prediction about inches of rain and everything, but they don't do that anymore."

What the national forecasters did predict was a "slightly warmer, possibly-wetter-than-normal winter for this area," according to Walker.

"As far as I'm concerned they were right on that one," he said.

Last week's storm produced more than 3 inches of rain in Payson, bringing the year end total to 24.93 inches, according to Anna Mae Deming, National Weather Service observer.

Without an occasional above-normal year, surviving a drought would be much more difficult.

"With our aquifers here, anytime we get a good year, especially an above average year, it can make up for quite a few years of decline," Ploughe said. "But all this is going to do is level us off so our groundwater decline stops."

It's just too early to tell exactly how much the area's aquifers have benefited from recent rains.

"I like to see where we are at the end of the recharge season, right about the end of March, before I really want to say exactly where it's at," Ploughe said. "I want every last drop of water to get in there."

The water department issues a water status report in April based on the readings taken in March and on other information collected during the preceding 12 months. What could really have a positive impact on that report, according to Ploughe, is some serious snow.

"You get lots and lots of runoff when you have this kind of rainfall," he said. "The ground can only take in so much at a time, so that's why the snows are so important to us -- because they melt slowly and percolate into the ground a little bit slower, more equal to what the ground can actually take up than what happens when it rains like it's been."

Payson has basically reached "safe yield," or the point at which the amount of water removed from the ground equals the amount that is replenished. The town council tries to operate on the principle that safe yield will not be exceeded.

Both Ploughe and Walker remind residents that the town is still at water conservation level 3. According to the town's water conservation ordinance, the conservation level is determined each April based on the annual status report, which is in effect until the following April.

"It's a 12-month ordinance and a 12-month cycle," Ploughe said.

Besides other restrictions, Payson residents are not allowed to water native plants; water between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.; wash paved areas or vehicles; and fill or refill swimming pools, wading pools or spas. Under the ordinance, water waste of any kind is prohibited, along with the planting of new turf areas; using artificial water features such as ponds and lakes larger than 50 gallons; and growing plants that require spray irrigation and the use of misters.

Violators can be fined or have their water service terminated.

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