It probably won't happen for a decade or more, but the Blue Ridge Reservoir should eventually be the renewable source of water the Rim Country desperately needs.
That was the primary message delivered Tuesday evening by the participants in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Water Resources Management Study. The meeting, held at the Payson Public Library to gather public input before a final report is released later this year, attracted an estimated 250 Rim Country residents.
They heard an information-intensive presentation, including an in-depth update of the Blue Ridge Reservoir project, given by Greg Kornrumph, Salt River Project senior analyst for water rights and contracts.
"(Blue Ridge) represents a renewable water supply," Kornrumph told the standing-room-only audience. "Nearly everyone here is completely dependent upon groundwater."
The problem with depending exclusively on groundwater, Kornrumph explained, is that area wells "have been depleted 80 feet, 90 feet" over the last 20 years.
"Blue Ridge offers a great opportunity to allow that aquifer system to recover some lost pumping capacity because you've drawn down those wells so far," he said.
While Blue Ridge has a storage capacity of 50,000 acre feet fed by a 70-square-mile watershed, it currently contains only about nine or 10,000 acre feet, according to Kornrumph.
"Yes, there will be some years you may not get any water out of Blue Ridge, but all that time you have been using alternative water and recovering your well system may just enable you to get by," he said.
Other new information presented at the meeting included an update of Gila County's plans to utilize its allocation of Blue Ridge water. Under the Arizona Water Settlement Act passed by Congress last year, 3,500 acre feet of Blue Ridge water is allocated to northern Gila County -- 3,000 to Payson and 500 to the other communities in the area.
"One of the plans is to form a water authority to utilize the county's share of this water coming down the pipeline in some of the communities with some small treatment plants," Harry Jones, the county's representative, said. "The number of residents in the county is approximately equal to the number in the town, but they are in 44 separate locations."
Town Public Works Director Buzz Walker also spoke extensively. He said the town is "currently restricting development as much as we can based on the limited water supply we have," but the study identified new possibilities for improving the situation.
"There is water deeper," he said. "There is water coming into Payson from farther out. There are alternatives that are probably physically, legally and financially available, and that have come about because of studies like this."
Estimates of when Blue Ridge water might actually reach Payson originally ranged from five to 10 years, but town councilor Robert Henley recently told the Roundup he is now estimating seven to 14 years.
The BOR study, which has been going on for three years, was co-funded by the BOR, Gila County and the Town of Payson, but other participants included Salt River Project (SRP), Arizona Department of Water Resources, Tonto National Forest, Tonto Apache Tribe and others.
Diamond Star town councilor Chuck Heron, head of the Diamond Star Action Coalition that is fighting Payson's attempts to extract water from the Diamond Star-Star Valley area, characterized the meeting as "a love fest."
"I heard a lot of ‘feel good,'" Heron said. "I think the timing has something to do with the (Payson town council) election."
Heron agrees that "there is water in this area," and he's "glad to see them making some progress in getting the Blue Ridge water down here," but he wonders why the town can't wait until it gets that water to build new subdivisions.
"They say they're not developing fast, but they're developing beyond their ability to supply the water," he said. "Otherwise they wouldn't have to be in Star Valley looking for it."
Heron invited Rim Country residents to hear another side of the water story when Diamond Star hosts a Town Hall meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28 at Star Valley Southern Baptist Church. The meeting will feature a Powerpoint presentation on the area's water resources by LFR Levine Fricke, the hydrogeology firm retained by Diamond Star to conduct a safe yield study of the town.