Town Wants To Take Our Water, Couple Says

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Chris Benjamin and his wife Karen just want to be left alone so they can "live their dream."

But the Star Valley residents, owners of Sky Park RV Resort, are afraid the town of Payson is going to take the water they need to keep their immaculately-maintained manufactured home park open.

The Benjamins began work on Sky Park, located on 7.5 scenic acres behind Blue Ribbon Auto in Star Valley, in 1995.

"It's been our dream to get it done and full and some day pay it off so we can retire and have an income," Benjamin said. "That's kind of what we were hoping to do."

But Payson requires developers of large projects within town limits to "bring their own water," and a company that wants to develop a prime parcel in town has purchased property adjacent to the Benjamins with the intent of piping water down Highway 260 to the town's system. To that end, the company, Terra-Payson 40 LLC, has drilled and tested a 1,000-foot deep well, and the town council recently approved a letter assuring them the town will accept the water so the company can develop the Buckmaster property, a 37-acre parcel behind Payson Town Hall and Rim County Mall.

Benjamin, whose 250-foot-deep well is just 200 feet from the developer's well, rejects the notion, claimed by Terra-Payson 40 and the town, that the two wells draw water from different parts of the aquifer.

"If I have a glass of water and my straw is here and his is over here, we're in different portions of that glass, but the guy with the deepest straw is going to take everything I can't get," he said.

During the first round of test pumping on the new well, Benjamin monitored his own well with an electric probe. Although Payson Mayor Barbara Brewer rejected the results because the testing wasn't done by a "professional," Benjamin says they were both accurate and frightening.

"They're disputing whether my claim that it affected me is legitimate because I'm not a professional," he said. "All it takes is a tape measure with an electric probe on the end. When you hit water it beeps. There's nothing scientific to it.

"In 10 days of pumping, we lost 10 feet of static level. I checked at the same time each day with my well off."

Local developer G. Michael Horton, a principal in Terra-Payson 40, said the drop in Benjamin's well was "negligible." Benjamin begs to differ.

"If 10 feet in 19 days is negligible, just keep doing it every day," he said. "I have a 150-foot column of water, so in 150 days I have no water."

Unfortunately, what Terra-Payson 40 is doing is perfectly legal according to Arizona water law.

"The law says a guy can put in a well next door to yours and he can pump as much as he wants and do anything with it as long as it's not going to waste," Benjamin said. "We could battle them legally, but in the end we would wind up with nothing because the law doesn't really protect us."

The irony, according to Benjamin, is that the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality made him prove he had a safe and adequate water supply before he could build Sky Run.

"Now ADEQ says, ‘Oh well, you'll have to truck your water I guess, if they take it,'" he said. "Nobody wants to stand up and say anything."

The Benjamins do have a second well a good distance from their primary well, but it only produces 6 gallons per minute, compared to 100 gpm for the one near the Terra-Payson 40 well. In a worst-case scenario they think they can deepen the second well and survive, but it won't be cheap and there are no guarantees.

And they're also concerned for their Star Valley neighbors who don't have back-up wells.

"We're not just fighting for us," Karen Benjamin said. "We're fighting for the other people in Star Valley who don't realize what's happening. They really don't know a lot about what's going on, and they're probably hoping it will just go away."

But there's really not much the Benjamins can do but try to put pressure on the town by going public with their plight.

"I would like a new Jaguar in my carport," Benjamin said. "Should I go steal it from my neighbor? The same analogy works. It's totally wrong."

"We just wish there were another way this could be approached," Karen Benjamin said. "In the old days, you sat around the table and you worked it out. Nowadays it's really changed."

The town claims it doesn't want to take anybody's water, and that the developer must prove its well doesn't affect anybody else's. The Benjamins ask them to back that promise up.

"If that is, in fact, true, when they do the next monitoring (of the Terra-Payson 40 well) I would hire an independent hydrologist to come here and monitor my well so they can document what I've already documented," Benjamin said. "But I'm reluctant to spend that money because I don't believe them."

The Benjamins are afraid it's all in the hands of lawyers at this point.

"You look at that draft (of the letter of assurance that the town will accept the water if the new well doesn't affect neighboring wells), and it's a lawyer's draft," Karen Benjamin said. "Why not spell it out in layman's terms? You walk away scratching your head and you wonder what it really means."

"You (get lawyers involved) and they're the only ones that win -- they really are," Benjamin said. "We don't have the resources to go down that road."

In fact, Benjamin claims one town councilor already told them they needed legal help.

"I asked one of the council people what does the letter mean," he said. "He told me he didn't know, and that I'd have to get legal counsel to find out. I felt like saying, ‘If you don't know, why did you vote for it?'"

In the end, what the Benjamins want is simple.

"We don't want to make enemies," Karen Benjamin said. "We just want to be left alone; we just want to be able to run our business and live our dream."

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