Easing Of Water Rules Examined

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Years of conservation effort and 27 inches of rain have finally balanced out Payson's water accounts -- should we tell voters?

That question ran through a presentation and council discussion on Thursday concerning the heartening water supply situation after the first wet winter in several years.

"We've come a long way with our water," said Town Hydrologist Mike Ploughe, noting that water use in 2007 fell to 85 gallons per person per day -- below the town's 89-gallon goal and less than half the per capita use in places like Phoenix.

Moreover, three nearly record-wet months resulted in a significant rise in well levels all over town. As a result, in 2007 Payson residents used just two-thirds of the water that fell from the sky.

So should the town lift the Stage II water restrictions that residents have been living with for so long that they've gotten used to only watering on odd or even days depending on their address?

Let's not, said Ploughe as he reported on residents' conservation triumph.

"Staying at level two covers our bases" by continuing to encourage conservation, said Ploughe.

Let's do, said Councilor Andy Romance, who said the town's credibility is on the line.

"I don't think we should be making decisions based on fear. I don't want to be a Chicken Little council. There's a time we ought to say, ‘you done good and we had 27 inches fall from the sky.'"

The water department is expected to soon recommend changes in the town law that would institutionalize most of the conservation restrictions year-round, regardless of rainfall.

Other council members expressed concerns about toning down the emergency after one wet year in the midst of an historic drought.

Moreover, the imminent conclusion of a deal with the Salt River Project that could deliver 3,000 acre feet a year from the Blue Ridge Reservoir starting in about 2015, might give residents a false sense of security -- and drive up what is now one of the lowest per-person water use rates in the state.

"My concern is now that we've secured Blue Ridge and there could be this euphoria," said Mayor Bob Edwards, and people will think there's so much water ‘let's go out and use it.'"

"I'm all for conservation," said Romance, arguing for a shift to Stage I restrictions, "and I'm looking forward to the new proposed policies. But today we have these words in our ordinance that say we're in very good shape. I don't want to operate on fear -- the idea that we'll dry up, burn up and blow away."

The discussion highlighted the heartening change in the town's water picture in the past two years, thanks to a strong resident response to conservation appeals, a break in the drought and an agreement in principle to give the town rights to Blue Ridge Reservoir water that totals almost twice what the town's 16,000 residents currently use.

Town water planners say that the 3,000 acre feet from Blue Ridge combined with the 2,681 acre feet that goes into the water table through rain and runoff will supply enough water for a projected build out population of 36,000 to 38,000 -- without depleting groundwater.

Those projections depend on future councils not dramatically increasing densities, continued conservation by residents and not sliding into a much longer, more severe drought. Climate experts now say that the southwest sometimes shifts into drought conditions that last for decades -- without even accounting for the impact of projected global warming due to the release of greenhouse gases.

Payson now rates as one of the few rural areas in the state with a water supply that should accommodate all projected growth without depleting ground water levels, town officials have said.

Ploughe gave much of the credit for the turn around to the town's residents. When the town started its water conservation efforts, per capita use stood at about 129 gallons per person daily -- lower than the more than 200 gallon daily usage in Phoenix, but far more than current levels in Payson.

"Our customers really do conserve water and we appreciate that," said Ploughe.

Moreover, Payson lacks the heavy water-using industries and businesses that drive up an area's average water use figures.

Currently, the town gets 88 percent of its water from groundwater and 12 percent from reclaimed water -- treated water from the sewage treatment plant that mostly goes to golf courses and parks.

All told, residents last year used 1,783 acre feet of water -- much less than the 2,681 acre feet of average annual recharge from rainfall.

Once the water arrives from Blue Ridge and the town reaches its build out population in about 2025, it will get only 19 percent of its water from groundwater -- with 67 percent from Blue Ridge and 14 percent from reclaimed water.

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