Water experts and Payson officials hope improvements in a pipeline and a deal between the town and the Salt River Project may eventually bolster flows in the East Verde River -- and thereby nurture the region's tourist business.
SRP has fixed leaks in the pipeline leading from Blue Ridge Reservoir to the upper East Verde River and completely overhauled the pumping, power generating and control systems as part of a recently-signed agreement to provide Payson with 3,000 acre feet annually from the reservoir.
The reservoir holds about 11,000 acre feet of water and with the overhaul of the pipeline nearly complete, the Phoenix based utility can only get access to its share of that water by releasing it into the East Verde, where it will flow down to the Verde River and on into Horseshoe Reservoir.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans and Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin have both supported finding some way to increase flows in the East Verde to boost recreation and tourism in the Rim Country.
Some SRP officials say they will seek to move as much of the Blue Ridge water as possible into the SRP system, which could result in bigger, more reliable flows in the East Verde for much of the year. Currently, the stream often all but dries up in the late summer.
The system can only operate from about May to October, since snows generally close the roads to Blue Ridge during the winter.
Supervisor Martin has suggested that the county might push to convince SRP to let as much water as possible run down the East Verde, including perhaps a share of the 500 acre feet due to other Rim Communities, several of which lie along the course of the East Verde.
Moreover, Payson Director of Tourism and Economic Vitality Cameron Davis said that surveys of visitors to Payson and other Rim communities indicate that most visitors want to camp, hike, fish and do other outdoor activities, which may make the East Verde a benefit to tourism.
People living along the East Verde will get a taste of potential peak flows in about one week, when SRP will test modifications to the system by putting about 30 cubic feet per second into the East Verde for a couple of weeks.
The previous operator of Blue Ridge Reservoir, Phelps Dodge, had also put water into the East Verde -- but only about two thirds as much as SRP wants to move annually -- and on an often-fitful schedule.
Some SRP officials were quick to note that many factors will determine how much water they let flow down the East Verde. They said they will not manage flows to benefit wildlife, habitat or recreation on that river.
SRP Principle Analyst Greg Kornrumph said "we're going to try to maximize the use of Blue Ridge. Some years that might mean we take the whole 11,000 feet."
He said the watershed delivers an average of 7,000 to 9,000 acre feet a year to the reservoir, so that would represent a more normal, year-to-year flow. Once Payson starts taking its 3,000 acre feet in a pipeline, that would reduce that flow into the river more.
Moreover, if the Verde River fills up its two reservoirs north of Phoenix, SRP won't want to deliver any more water down the East Verde.
"The East Verde only had a small natural flow to began with," said Kornrumph, "so this is just a supplemental flow. You have a lot of issues" anytime you put water into the river.
However, SRP Manager of Water Resource Operations Charles Ester said SRP will have good reasons to keep as much water flowing down the East Verde as possible, especially in the late summer when it sometimes goes dry.
So long as the soil beneath the river is saturated, about three quarters of the water released in its upper reaches will make it down to the reservoirs. Some of the rest will soak into water tables along the way and some of it will nourish trees and plants, which release moisture to the air. But if the river goes dry, the soil will soak up most of water released until the soil becomes saturated again.
"If I have any say as to how it's managed, which up to this point I don't," said Ester, "I'd say we want to start it in the spring and run it all summer long. It's the stopping and starting that kills your water efficiency. The first two weeks you put water back in, none of it's going to show up at the bottom end. Then all of a sudden it's going to start coming through."
He said the consistent flows that might result would, indeed, be a boon to the area.
"There's nothing better than camping or fishing a creek that's flowing -- wouldn't have the same draw if it was a dry riverbed."
Under the terms of federal law, SRP offered 3,000 acre feet to Payson and 500 acre feet to other Rim communities, in return for a promise to limit groundwater pumping. SRP officials say that rainfall and snowfall that seeps into the ground in Rim Country feeds the springs and streams that wind up in Lake Roosevelt, which stores up to 1.3 million acre feet of water for users in Phoenix..
Payson must complete a $30 million pipeline to get the water from that site to the town's water treatment facilities, which probably won't happen until about 2015. At that point, the 3,000 acre feet from Blue Ridge combined with 2,500 acre feet from groundwater will provide enough water to serve the needs of 38,000 residents -- Payson's projected, build-out population.