Payson and Salt River Project have worked out all the major issues standing in the way of a deal to more than double Payson's water supply, making the town one of the few rural areas of the state with enough water for all planned future growth even in the face of prolonged drought, town officials announced on Thursday, Jan 31.
Town officials hope to sign an agreement in February that would start the years-long process of building a $30-million pipeline to deliver about 3,000 acre feet annually from the C.C. Cragin Reservoir, formerly known as Blue Ridge.
That pipeline could also deliver another 500 acre feet of water to neighboring communities like Star Valley, which would have to negotiate water rights and payment arrangements separately.
In return for the water rights, Payson would agree to pump no more than 2,500 acre feet a year from its wells and to not get water from any new out-of-town wells. That would ensure SRP that Payson wouldn't drain water that would otherwise flow down the Salt River to thirsty customers in Phoenix.
"This is a pretty historic day for Payson," said Mayor Bob Edwards after an executive session during which town staff briefed the council on the months of negotiations.
"Ultimately, we will end up with an agreement to secure a water supply that would be the envy of the west," said Larry Castor, a Phoenix-based contract attorney who helped lead the "candid and cordial" negotiations.
"The hard part is over, we are just working on a few remaining issues," said Town Attorney Samuel Streichman.
The announcement vindicated a far-sighted plan by Payson Water Director Buzz Walker and others, who a decade ago started pushing for legislation that would enable the town to gain water rights to a 12,000 acre-foot reservoir atop the Mogollon Rim.
Securing rights to that gush of unclaimed water in a drought-plagued state has shadowed development politics in Payson for years. Concerns about overbuilding and the town's water supply prompted the town to embrace the yield of "safe yield," meaning the town would limit future growth to the number of homes and businesses that could be supplied by the average annual rainfall amounts. That estimated 2,500-acre-foot natural supply provided the baseline for a growth plan that will limit the town's ultimate population to no more than about 35,000.
Currently, the town supplies the needs of 16,000 people with 1, 700 acre feet per year pumped from town wells. If the town grows to 20,000, its wells must supply about 2,500 acre feet per year, according to Walker.
The studies showing that rainfall delivers 2,500 acre feet per year and a decade of well monitoring during a severe drought enabled the town to promise to cap its groundwater pumping at 2,500, which was the key to convincing SRP to sign over water rights it had originally obtained from the Phelps Dodge mining company. Meanwhile, the town had imposed a $7,500-per-unit building fee to help provide for expansions in the water supply.
Many of the construction details of the 15-mile long pipeline, five-acre water treatment plant and pumping stations still need to be settled. Pumps will lift the water out of the reservoir, but then gravity will carry the water down to Payson. Hydro power generators on the downhill run will fuel the pumps and probably provide extra electric power for Payson, said Walker.
Once Payson and SRP sign an agreement, it will take more than a year to formerly transfer the water rights. In the meantime, the town will seek federal funding under recently enacted guidelines for rural water projects.
If all goes well, Payson should begin receiving water in about 2015, which is about when town projections suggest the existing wells will have nearly reached their "save yield" limits.
"This agreement will secure a permanent water supply we can pass along to future generations," concluded Edwards.