The declared end to the water wars between Payson and neighboring Star Valley rests uneasily on the details of a long-delayed agreement with the Salt River project to provide enough water to lubricate future growth in Payson.
Despite a heralded meeting between Payson Mayor Bob Edwards and Star Valley Mayor Chuck Heron, the truce remains tentative.
Heron said that he had understood one condition of the Salt River Project agreement with Payson was that in return for 3,000 acre feet of new water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir, Payson would shut down all its wells -- including the controversial Tower Well in Star Valley.
Drilling the Tower Well, which can pump up to 852 acre feet a year, spurred the incorporation of Star Valley and years of conflict between the neighboring towns. Payson maintains that the Tower Well taps into a deep water table that's isolated from the shallow water table supplying almost all of Star Valley's water. However, Star Valley studies have reportedly shown that well levels in the area react every time Payson switches on the pumps of the Tower Well. Payson disputes those findings, saying
pumping from the Tower Well hasn't "harmed" Star Valley wells.
However, both sides agree that the Tower Well has been pumping only a fraction of its capacity in the past year, since Payson's other wells have provided plenty of water -- especially in the wake of a wet winter.
The potential for renewed conflict rests largely on the details of the Blue Ridge project.
Star Valley officials had hailed the agreement and Heron had declared the end to the "water wars," partly on the apparently mistaken belief that the deal would prompt Payson to permanently shut down its wells -- including the Tower Well.
Payson officials have consistently described the arrangement differently.
Payson water officials say that the agreement with SRP will allow the town to pump up to 2,500 acre feet per year, which is the estimated amount rainfall puts into the water table in an average year, said Payson Public Works Director Buzz Walker.
Right now, the town pumps about 1,800 acre feet annually. So reaching the 2,500 foot limit would entail running most of the town's existing wells at nearly full capacity -- including the Tower Well.
Payson wouldn't actually need that much water from its wells unless the population grows to about 42,000, which is more than the current general plan anticipates.
In fact, Payson could stop pumping groundwater for several years after the Blue Ridge water starts to arrive in about 2015, said Walker. At that time, the 3,000 acre feet of Blue Ridge water would supply the needs of the town's projected population of about 21,000.
Payson would start drawing on its wells as growth continued toward a "build out" population of 36,000 to 38,000.
In theory, Payson wouldn't need water from the Tower Well at all if its population tops out at 36,000. At that point, the town would need just 1,686 acre feet of water from its wells to supplement the 3,000 acre feet from Blue Ridge. Only if the population grows beyond 36,000 would the town need to start drawing on the additional 684 acre feet the Tower Well could generate if it runs at full capacity.
Star Valley Mayor Heron made it clear that if Payson ever ramps up production at the Tower Well, the water wars will resume.
"I guess our biggest concern -- and I'll be blunt about this -- is that if you read the ads from the Central Arizona Board of Realtors, this C.C. Cragin water is going to open up Pandora's Box and we can just build and build and build. We know that isn't going to work. Over a period of time, the water up here can only support so much population.
"The whole point of Salt River Project releasing that water to Northern Gila County was to cease and desist the pumping of all groundwater," said Heron.
He said Star Valley remains leery of any deal with Payson, based on past problems. He said Star Valley's water experts have questioned many of Payson's assertions, including the proper "sustainable" yield of groundwater, based on calculations as to how much rainfall adds to the water table each year.
Heron said he's still waiting to get full details on the agreement between Payson and SRP. Once those details are released, Star Valley will begin to negotiate its own deal with both SRP and Payson to determine how much of the 500 acre feet reportedly allocated for other Rim communities his town will seek -- and at what cost.
The Blue Ridge reservoir actually holds an estimated 11,000 acre feet of useable water. SRP hasn't so far made any announcement about what use it might make of that additional water.
Heron noted that any attempt to take more than 20 or 30 acre feet annually from the Tower Well will reopen the water wars between Payson and Star Valley.
"If that well comes to the point that it damages Star Valley's water supply -- even the shallow wells -- Star Valley will have its say in court."
He said that although Payson has repeatedly promised its wells would "do no harm" to Star Valley's water supply, Payson officials have never accepted the common definition of "harm" -- which he said is when the operation of one well causes the level in another well to decline by 10 feet in five years.
"If they ever ramped the Tower Well up, it goes far beyond sustainability and that's when the lawsuits start. You want to see Payson dragged through the courts -- it will be the court of public opinion -- it will go nationwide that the Town of Payson is drying up its neighboring town -- and that's not a threat, it's a fact," Heron said.
Payson Public Works Director Walker said that the agreement with SRP will give Payson the right to pump up to 2,500 acre feet annually from its wells, which will include the Tower Well.
However, the town's projections for population and growth suggest that it will have a cushion that exceeds the capacity of the Tower Well even when it reaches its planned maximum population in about 2032.
"One could surmise that the majority of that 2,500 acre feet will be from within the (Payson) town limit. The idea is we wouldn't exceed safe yield. The thing we need to make clear is that the agreement (with SRP) does not address production from each individual well. It gives us a cap."