Study Raises Sobering Water Questions

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As charges and countercharges swirl around the issue of bringing water from the Diamond Star area to Payson to build three new subdivisions, a study just released by ThinkAZ and summarized on the front page of last Friday's Payson Roundup offers a rare opportunity to inject an element of objectivity.

ThinkAZ is the Arizona Center for Public Policy, an independent, non-partisan research institute dedicated to providing objective, thorough and accurate information on public policy issues that impact Arizona's economic and social well-being. The three authors of the study -- Rita P. Maguire, Herb Dishlip and Michael J. Pearce -- have years upon years of water experience and impeccable credentials.

The study itself presents case studies of the towns of Payson, Buckeye and Prescott Valley in the larger context of the state's need to balance growth with water availability. The complete text of the study can be read at www.thinkaz.org, and it's an interesting read -- especially the Payson case study.

But here, in overview form, are some points we found especially interesting:

  • Of the three towns in the study, Payson's water needs are the most immediate.
  • Payson's population, according to the town's own general plan, is projected to go from an estimated 16,345 this year to 24,520 in 2020.
  • Between 1992 and 2002, Payson's groundwater pumping increased 72 percent, from 1,047 acre-feet to 1,805 acre-feet. Demand is rapidly approaching safe-yield of 1,826 acre-feet.
  • Payson's general plan estimates that the current water supply can support a population of 16,800 if conservation goals of 89 gallons per-capita per-day are met.
  • Payson is dangerously close to overspending its existing resources and needs to fill the supply gap.
  • Payson's best hope is the Blue Ridge Reservoir, but it is by no means as sure a thing as we have been led to believe. And failure to acquire Blue Ridge water will leave Payson few alternatives.
  • Payson must be prepared to limit residential growth if additional water supplies are not found.
  • If growth continues without new water supplies, residents of towns like Payson will be faced with chronic water shortages, but if civic leaders choose to limit growth, they risk exacerbating the existing affordable housing problem.
  • If town growth is limited, future residents are more likely to build outside the town's limits, constructing exempt domestic wells that further draw down the water supply.

If nothing else, these highlights shed some light on the intensity of the dispute between Diamond Star and Payson over groundwater. But they also put into perspective a problem that could threaten the well-being of our entire community.

We're not water experts, but several things seem clear to us.

  • The people of the Rim Country must work together on the issue of water. Taking water from one community to another is, at best, a stopgap solution to a bigger issue -- how many people can the Rim Country's finite water supply support? It's a question that needs to be answered -- and not by developers -- before another subdivision is approved.
  • The solution must include all communities, all water purveyors and all private well owners.
  • Conservation is the best stopgap strategy. Payson needs to return to Stage 3 restrictions and all other Rim Country communities, must do likewise. Rainwater harvesting and other conservation measures must be encouraged, if not mandated.
  • Blue Ridge must not fail, and a way must be found so that all Rim Country residents share its bounty.

Like we said, we're not water experts. In the weeks ahead, the Roundup will use this study as the basis for a renewed look at the single most serious issue our community faces.

We hope to make a complex issue as understandable as possible so everyone can participate in the process of finding a solution.

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