Payson's Water System Among Best In Arizona

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For a small rural town in the middle of the state, Payson's conservation policies and water system are among the most successful in the state.

The Arizona State Legislature and the Arizona Department of Water Resources look to Payson as a model for progressive water saving.

Gov. Janet Napolitano lauded the water policies of Payson, along with Flagstaff and Sedona, in an October 2004 report published by the Governor's Drought Task Force.

And Buzz Walker, the 30-year veteran of Payson's Water Department, and Hydrologist Mike Ploughe, are the men who oversee it all.

Payson's water system is an intricate network of wells, pumps, storage tanks, pipelines, water treatment facilities and communication systems.

"It is one of the most sophisticated water systems in the state because of its complexity and its capacity for conservation," Walker said. "You'll probably never see this in any other town in the state."

Because of the Rim Country's topography and climate, surface water is scarce, according to Mike Ploughe, town hydrologist.

That's why water production in this area relies on wells and pumps -- to tap into the groundwater that percolates into the aquifer.

"Water comes from the northeast to the southwest," Ploughe said. "Shallower parts of the aquifer intermix with deeper systems."

Forget the future-predicting wishing wells of fairy tales. Here in Payson, the wells and storage tanks share accurate, up-to-date information with each other and with the water department.

Payson's water system operates on a four-year-old wireless network called Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition or SCADA.

Forty-three wells, seven of which -- because of groundwater contamination -- operate in a separate system, comprise Payson's water system.

SCADA's military-grade sensors in Payson's nine storage tanks monitor water levels.

The tanks send the water department status reports every five minutes. SCADA keeps Walker and Ploughe abreast of pressure changes, level declines and other anomalies.

Payson's water tanks range from 24 to 35 feet high with capacities of 200,000 to 1.5 million gallons.

SCADA never lets water levels dip more than 4 feet.

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Public Works Director Buzz Walker tours a filtration plant dedicated to keeping chemicals from a decades-old dry cleaning spill out of the Payson water supply.

When that happens, the tank's communication equipment sends a radio transmission to a network of wells, letting them know it needs water.

And then the wells kick into action.

"These wells share the load with all the other wells in the area," Walker said. "None of them pump 24 hours a day."

During June, Payson's hottest and driest month, the town's highest-producing well ran 55 hours during a seven-day period. It pumped out 1.7 million gallons -- enough to fill the Payson water tower at the south end of town three and a half times.

Meanwhile, Walker said the town relies less on the wells toward the east end of town because of the population density.

"The wells in Star Valley only operate from 30 minutes to an hour a day," Walker said.

In this period of time, the town pumps an average of 4,000 gallons -- enough to fill the back of a pickup truck.

Six miles away, Payson's most prolific well, on Payson Parkway, descends 925 feet underground -- roughly 100 stories, equivalent to the Empire State Building.

A 125-horsepower pump sucks water through a 5- to 12-inch opening, connected to a 150-mile web of pipe.

"The pump is submerged 500 feet below, down a large-diameter galvanized pipe," said Walker. "Water comes through the pump like water through a straw."

When well water flows, homes and businesses have priority -- excess water is routed to the tanks, and during peak hours when need exceeds pumping capacity, the tanks unload water to meet demand.

Wells located on higher elevations rely on booster stations.

These facilities house special pumps, combined with compressed air and pneumatic pressure, to move water against gravity.

The capacities of the town's nine hydropneumatic booster tanks range from 100 gallons to 10,000 gallons of two-thirds compressed air and the rest, water.

Most of Payson's water is untreated.

The natural filtration process gives it purity, the darkness of the storage tanks inhibits the growth of algae, and an iota of chlorine kills everything else.

But some town sources need extra processing.

A cluster of wells on the south side of town sit on top of a contaminated site.

In the early 1990s, a chemical called tetrachlorethylene from a dry cleaning business was discovered in the ground.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality funded a water treatment plant specifically for this area.

Water from six wells in the affected area flows into the facility. There the water filters through two 10,000-gallon vessels containing 20,000 pounds of coconut charcoal each.

The water department tests the liquid once a month for contamination.

"It's a failsafe system," Walker said. "If there's any problem, it shuts off and it's never been shut off (for contamination)."

Payson's only other trouble spot is near Chaparral Pines. Iron and magnesium, though harmless, harden the water.

Through forced oxidation, the treatment plant filters the water and sends it back to the community.

Diluted chlorine, made at the processing, provides extra cleanliness.

The chlorine-making process is simple. Brine leeched from water added to a vat of rock salt meanders through a machine, which zaps the fluid with electricity. The chemical reaction turns the brine into chlorine.

Payson's entire water system, according to Walker, is valued at $19 million. Impact and development fees, state grants and a small portion of taxpayer money pay for that cost. Many of the tanks located on higher elevations receive funding from cell phone companies that rent the land.

But, Walker said, the foundation of any water system is conservation.

"If you had all the water you wanted, why would you waste it," Walker said. "It's a limited resource, and we're in a drought. Whether we grow or not, we need to be careful with our water."

For more information about Payson's water systems, contact Buzz Walker at (928) 474-5242.

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