With a long-delayed flourish and a last few hard questions, Payson has officially contracted with the Salt River Project to secure water rights to the Blue Ridge Reservoir, after a 30-year quest for an adequate, long-term water supply.
"This is an historic day for Payson," said Mayor Bob Edwards.
"This is not only an historical moment, but the most important decision this town will ever make," said Public Works Director Buzz Walker. "What could be more important than securing a water supply to build out?"
The town council held a special meeting Tuesday to approve the laboriously negotiated agreement, which had already been approved by the SRP board. The town agreed to pay $4.5 million in the next five years, including a $1.5 million upfront payment for its share of some major repairs in an existing pipeline carrying water from the reservoir on the Rim to near Washington Park where SRP puts the water into the East Verde.
The town must also raise $25-$30 million for an additional 15-mile-long pipeline to bring at least 3,000 acre-feet of water annually into town from the C.C. Cragin (Blue Ridge) Reservoir. That money will come from a combination of savings, a $7,500-per-unit impact fee on new development and perhaps bonding and federal grants and loans.
In addition, the agreement limits all other groundwater pumping to about 2,500 acre-feet, which is roughly the capacity of the town's existing network of wells. It is also the amount of rainwater that seeps into the water table in the town's existing well field area in an average year, according to the town's estimates. The agreement prohibits Payson from getting water from additional outside sources -- as it did when a developer paid for a well in neighboring Star Valley.
However, the town could, under the agreement, negotiate or buy rights to some of SRP's extra water in the Blue Ridge Reservoir. The reservoir can store 11,000 useable acre feet, including the 3,500 acre feet reserved for Payson and other Northern Gila County communities.
Finally, the agreement requires the town to help SRP defend its surface water rights in court if necessary. The Blue Ridge reservoir normally drains into the Colorado River, which makes it part of one of the world's most litigated watersheds. Currently, the Navajo Nation has an unresolved claim for more Colorado River watershed water.
The agreement makes Payson one of the only rural communities in Arizona with enough water to support all anticipated residential future growth. The town's secured supply of roughly 5,500 acre feet will support a build-out population of between 36,000 and 47,000, depending on average water use levels.
Walker presented a review of the agreement and the town's decades-long search for water, which can still be viewed on the town's Web site.
Only Councilor Andy Romance questioned any provisions of the 42-page document. He cast the sole no vote. He said he strongly supported the project, but wanted the town to seek limits on its potential liability on several key points. He argued that the sweeping restriction on seeking any additional water sources would lock the town into remaining a residential community without any water-intensive businesses.
Moreover, he argued the town could some day face huge legal bills as a result of an open-ended requirement that the town share in any legal costs SRP incurred in defending its surface water rights. The agreement does not require SRP to help defend Payson in the event of lawsuits relating to its section of the pipeline.
"What we are now doesn't necessarily have to be what we can become. Our population estimate is based on looking at a map and the rows of houses, but that doesn't account for what those 45,000 might be doing for a living," said Romance.
"I'm all for this project -- always have been," he continued. "It's going to be hard to vote against this agreement language, but the risk involved just hasn't been well demonstrated to be containable, from my perspective."
Vice Mayor Tim Fruth later said he agreed with Romance's concerns, but opted to vote for the agreement when it became evident the council would not support a further delay to renegotiate those points.
All the other council members agreed the benefits outweighed the risks.
"I do believe when we start putting statues in roundabouts, our water czar ought to get one," joked Councilor Mike Vogel in recognition of Walker's tenacious fight to secure the Blue Ridge water. "It's going to be a model probably throughout the whole southwest."
"As far as the statue (of Walker) on a roundabout," quipped Mayor Edwards, for whom the signing is a crowning achievement, "on a sunny day that glare could cause a problem," he added in reference to the lionized Walker's lack of hair.
"This will give Payson a permanent water supply, which is pretty unprecedented for this area," said Edwards. "That's something that we can be very proud of and the Town of Payson can be proud of."
"In response to Councilman Romance's concern about risks," said Councilor Ed Blair, "think of marriage. You don't know what it's going to be like 40 years from now -- but the benefits greatly outweigh the risks, so I'm going to vote for this with great affirmation."
Romance asked SRP's lead negotiator Dave Roberts whether there was any "wiggle room" in the contract to adjust several details. Roberts replied "from our perspective there's no wiggle room."
"There's been a lot of wiggling going on in the last year," said Edwards in reference to the roughly "20 to 25" drafts of the 41-page contract.
"We've been wiggling back and forth all the way through and we're at the point to sign this thing and move forward," said Roberts.
Prior to the vote to approve the contract, Walker presented a sweeping overview of the town's struggle to secure a dependable water supply and revealed new details of the agreement and problems with the deterioration of the existing SRP pipeline, which takes water from Blue Ridge to a point where SRP can deliver water into the East Verde River.
Walker noted that the town's estimates of water needs were conservative. If water use continues at the present, low, 85 gallons per person per day, the available water would sustain a residential population of 48,000, providing the town doesn't add any water intensive businesses.
If water use per person rises to historically high 105 gallons per person per day, then the town could still sustain a population of about 36,000, without using more ground water than rainfall recharges on an average year, said Walker. Moreover, those calculations don't include effluent.
Currently, town planners estimate that the zoning in the town's current general plan would yield a "build out" population of 36,000 to 38,000, although the staff is currently reviewing those estimates.
"Just looking at the map, it's hard to see how you shoehorn in more people than that," said Walker.
As a result, the combination of well water and Blue Ridge water should provide about a 25 percent cushion at buildout, to safeguard against drought and other problems. "You'd really have to work to get into trouble," concluded Walker.
The Blue Ridge water should almost entirely replace well water when it first arrives in about 2015. The town will gradually add in ground water as the town grows, until it will need both the Blue Ridge water and the current well water levels at build out sometimes after 2025.
Walker noted that the agreement with SRP does include provisions that allow the town to increase it's groundwater pumping beyond the stipulated 2,580 acre feet annual limit, which in any case is based on a rolling, 10-year average.
For instance, if a drought dried up the 200-foot-deep reservoir or a pipeline break cut off water for an extended period, Payson could increase groundwater pumping.
Walker noted that the reservoir has never gone dry, even in the face of the current, decade-long drought. Moreover, it entered this winter at 40 percent capacity and filled to overflowing in a a few months. That capacity for the watershed to develop huge flows largely accounts for the failure of downstream users in places like Wilcox to ever harness the water, since small dikes were repeatedly swept away by floods.
"It's a very reliable reservoir," said Walker.
Larry Caster, the contract water rights attorney who helped the town negotiate the deal, said that despite the uncertainties Councilor Romance had identified, the deal was a good one for Payson.
"There is no opportunity that will ever come the way of this town that is comparable to this water resource. If you look around the west, there are very few communities that will ever have this chance. That's why to me the benefits are overwhelming, regardless of what your risk might be."
Afterwards, Councilor Romance shook the hands of the SRP representatives and vowed to work to build the partnership between the agencies.
"Now that the contract is in place, I believe a good relationship can bridge chasms," he said.