Long-Awaited Water Study Unveiled

Blue Ridge still town's top priority

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Preliminary results of the long-awaited U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) water study are in and will be presented at a public meeting from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Payson Public Library.

"We're going to have an open house and we're going to put up all the maps that we've created and we'll have all the background documentation," Study Manager Leslie Meyers said. "The consultants will be there and all the study partners and all the members of the technical committee."

The study, which has been going on for three years, was originally designed to bring together all existing research and studies on water in the Rim Country. It was co-funded by the BOR, Gila County and Town of Payson, but other participants included Salt River Project (SRP), Arizona Department of Water Resources, Tonto National Forest, Tonto Apache Tribe and others.

What participants learned about the area's water resources is good news, according to Meyers.

"I'm very optimistic, and I think people will see that when they come to the meeting," she said. "We show that we have water and I think that's very positive, but developing it and using it is a whole different issue."

Early on in the study, participants decided new research had to be conducted to fill in a lot of gaps.

"What we found right off the bat is that it's really hard to make good recommendations or good decisions based on information that is really lacking in some areas, in particular our groundwater resources outside the Town of Payson," town hydrologist Mike Ploughe said. "So we commissioned a consultant to continue geologic mapping of the entire region, not just the Diamond Rim exploration area northeast of town where we were looking to do some exploratory wells."

Putting old and new information together, the participants were able to confirm some theories that were previously unproven.

"In particular, we confirmed that the groundwater systems that exist up on the Rim, like the C Aquifer (for Coconino sandstone), is part of a regional aquifer system that doesn't end at the Rim," Ploughe explained. "It continues beneath our feet, and that's one of the reasons we've been successful (finding more water) when we go deeper."

In addition to geologic mapping, the study employed isotope chemistry.

"Isotopes are odd forms of elements in water that show up in certain circumstances and certain proportions based on the water's history and where it traveled," Ploughe said. "We sampled a lot of wells and springs throughout the region to get a handle on where the groundwater is coming from. (Our question was) is it all just the rain that falls locally, or is it coming from further away, too?"

The data revealed that the groundwater in some parts of Payson actually came from "somewhere north of the Rim."

"Because of the geology and all those fault systems and fracture systems and the way that aquifer system is interconnected, that groundwater can make it here and it does," Ploughe said.

Unfortunately, it doesn't do Payson residents much good.

"It's all out on the national forest, so functionally nothing has really changed because access to those resources is still under the same controls and issues," Ploughe said.

But it does validate the town's quest to explore for water in the forest.

"If anything what this does is add more value to that existing application," Ploughe said.

As that process winds its way through environmental assessments and public comment sessions, the town's greatest hope for a new water source is Blue Ridge Reservoir atop the Mogollon Rim.

"As far as the town is concerned, I can assure you that Blue Ridge is the top priority," Ploughe said. "We need to get that new source -- a surface water source."

The BOR study actually helped to move the Blue Ridge project along.

"From the beginning we had identified Blue Ridge as an alternative," Meyers said. "Maybe the fact that Salt River Project was participating with all of this scientific information made SRP more aware.

"All the pieces came together. It was just probably the right time."

According to Meyers, the study can be completed soon after the public meeting on Tuesday.

"It's very close to being done, but we really can't have it done unless we give the public a chance to take a look at it and ask questions and have a chance to comment on it," she said.

"Did we forget anything? Is there anything else we need to address?"

Once the final report is issued, possibly in July, the participants will decide whether their work is finished or if they need to continue.

"There are additional technical studies we can do to support this appraisal level, beginning study," Meyers said, "but it's possible we could just disband."

Whatever they decide, the original study was well worth the time and money invested, according to Ploughe.

"In my mind this is a huge study with huge implications," he said.

"It's very important that we get it right, and we're confident that we got it right.

"The meeting is about where we are now. It's not a final report. It's a presentation of the preliminary findings."

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