Water Czar Fires Back At Star Valley Coalition

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Payson Public Works Director Buzz Walker accuses the Diamond Star Water Coalition of operating from fear, and claims to be working on regional solutions that could solve everybody's water problems.

In a wide-ranging, free-swinging interview last week, Walker lashed back at critics who placed much of the blame on him for the town's decision to accept water from local developer G. Michael Horton, a principal in Terra-Payson 40. The company is drilling wells in the heart of the unincorporated community and plans to pipe the water to Payson.

"How about that last (town council) meeting where they wanted to talk about incorporation, but they really wanted to talk about water, but they really didn't want to talk about incorporation because they wanted to incorporate themselves, but wanted to be refused by the town," Walker said. "There was nothing honest about that whole presentation."

Walker was referring to a presentation by the coalition in which the group pointed out that by state law it couldn't incorporate until the town passed on annexation. He also said town water officials didn't attend the meeting the county board of supervisors held last week on the subject because the town had already made its decision to accept the water.

"We don't see any good that can come from it, because we have learned from the Forest Service (meetings on drilling in Mayfield Canyon) where we had more hearings than what were required," Walker said. "It didn't do any good; it just gives somebody an opportunity to beat up on town staff. We don't like hostile workplaces for our employees."

Walker criticized the coalition for not doing its homework.

"We've had numerous opportunities to see that you just don't get accurate information from the other side," he said. "It is just a forum, and they've had enough forums.

"They got to talk way longer than I would have let them talk at the town council meeting. I think we bent over backwards."

"They're just people who don't understand. How many years have they had to get professional help -- legal and technical -- yet they still don't do it. They keep repeating the same old mantra."

Specifically, Walker criticized the coalition's assertion that the negative impact on a nearby well during testing of the developer's well was significant.

"You can impact anybody," he said. "Private people can impact the town. Developers can impact the town and private people, but when does it become negative?

"So you pull a well down 2 feet. There's still 200 feet of water over the pump. If you pull it down 190 feet, there's still 10 feet of water over the pump. You haven't hurt anybody."

The public works director noted that the coalition was essentially the same group that tried to stop the town from drilling in the forest, and that they will one day wish they hadn't.

"If you are concerned about water being produced from the Star Valley area, wouldn't you rather it was the farthest away from the Star Valley area?" he asked. "Gee, I wish I'd helped Payson get out there (in Mayfield Canyon) and I wouldn't have raised such a ruckus."

Had the town refused to accept Horton's wells, Walker said it would surely have been sued.

"It's a legal option the developer had," he said. "We limit the size of his development, which is a moratorium, based on the shortage of water in the future and then we're supposed to refuse the remedy? Can you imagine the lawsuit that would come up from that?"

But it was more than fear of a lawsuit that caused the town to go along with the developer, according to Walker. It was also sound water management policy.

"It's the same logic that we apply everywhere," he said. "Why would we go out and dry the place up, because we're drying our wells up at the same time. That's the whole concept of safe yield; you don't take more out than nature puts in. It's that simple."

What the coalition doesn't appreciate, according to Walker, is that the town's water strategies are recognized nationwide.

"With the town's national reputation for responsible water management, the coalition should be thankful," he said. "We came out with that annual water (status) report that shows us probably the most responsible water manager in the state of Arizona.

"If anybody is going to come into my back yard, that's probably the guy I'd want to come in -- not the developer or a private entity or something like that."

In fact, Walker says the town is hard at work on a water solution for the entire region.

"We're studying that right now," he said. "If Payson is going to build a pipeline and treatment plant (for water from Blue Ridge Reservoir), anyone adjacent to Payson is an obvious candidate for utilizing this surface water."

In fact, Walker says the town is requiring Horton to put in a 12-inch pipeline instead an 8-inch to accommodate two-way flow.

"No matter what pipe you put in, it goes two ways, but we're anticipating delivering domestic water service out there -- whether it's an agreement with a private water company, an agreement with an incorporated town of Star Valley, or an agreement with an area incorporated into the town of Payson. We just figured all the scenarios."

Even Pine and Strawberry, logistically the most difficult to service with Blue Ridge water, are within the town's purview. Walker says he has been talking to Brooke Utilities President Robert Hardcastle about getting Blue Ridge water to those northern communities.

"We have applied for a grant to determine the cost of getting water to Pine and Strawberry as well as the town of Payson -- not only what it's going to cost but how that area would retire the debt," he said. "And we're looking at other areas. So we're looking out for everybody.

"I mean, they're not doing it for themselves. Somebody has to think about these regional issues and get the perspective, and I'm not real happy about being roundly criticized for doing so."

Walker says the solution for the county and the coalition is simple.

"Rather than criticize Payson, who is ultimately going to be the fix for any problems they have, they need to get on board," he said.

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