Rainfall And Thrift Produce A Great Water Year

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Rain falls down. Wells rise up.

And Paysonites cut back.

That’s the gist of Payson’s good-news, annual water status.

For starters, water use last year dropped from an already thrifty daily average of 89 gallons per person to just 80 gallons — less than half the average daily use in Phoenix and one of the lowest totals in the state.

“That number’s unheard of in Arizona — or even nationally,” said Payson hydrologist Mike Ploughe.

As a result of two wet winters on top of ongoing conservation efforts, Payson in 2008 used only 62 percent of the water from streams and rainfall that went into the water table. As result, well levels throughout town rose 10 or 20 feet.

“This is all good news,” Ploughe last week told a town council which has spent all year choking down mostly bad financial news. “It’s always been our goal to stay ahead of the curve and grow at a sustainable rate.”

Payson’s water use in 2008 declined by about 5 percent to some 1,649 acre-feet — less than two-thirds of the long-term average inflow of 2,681 acre-feet.

Ploughe praised residents for sticking with water conservation measures, even when winter rains eased the impact of the drought. The 80-gallon per person daily average makes Payson one of the most water-thrifty cities in the nation.

The large number of empty second homes plays a role in that low average use. The 80-gallon figure comes from dividing total water use by the number of meters, even if one of those meters represents an empty house. Compared to other Arizona towns, Payson has a relatively high percentage of second and vacation homes.

However, Councilor Mike Vogel said average use has dropped steadily, even with the number of second homes taken into account.

“Even when growth was exploding, you still didn’t exceed” the safe use yield, which is the long-term average amount of water flowing into the water table, he said.

The water report’s figures show that water use trends changed drastically and permanently in 2001, when the town instituted an ambitious bundle of water conservation measures.

Those measures included limits on thirsty plants in landscaping, restrictions on yard watering and car washing, strict landscaping requirements for new houses and a program to help residents replace water wasting appliances, like washing machines, shower heads and toilets.

The imposition of those conservation measures quickly affected water use.

For instance, between 1975 and 2002, Payson’s water use rose from about 250 acre-feet to about 1,800 acre-feet. That reflected a long construction boom that peaked with 300 to 400 new homes built each year, plus the arrival of some luxury, golf course developments.

In that period, well levels dropped from about 200 feet to about 500 feet. Throughout that period, the amount of water consumed was doubling every 10 years or so.

With a decades-long quest for more water stalled and growth booming, the town imposed a series of measures to make the water last.

First, the town adopted one of the most comprehensive water conservation measures in the state, with a ban on lawns, an insistence on native plants, and a program to help residents buy low water use toilets.

Second, the town also imposed both a $7,500-per-unit water infrastructure fee on new construction and a 250-per-year limit on new homes. The impact fee was intended to raise money to build a $30-$40 million pipeline to carry water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir. The growth limits were to make sure the town didn’t outstrip its water supply before the Blue Ridge water arrived.

Third, Payson also obtained from a developer a well in Star Valley. However, Payson’s ability to pump a lot of water through the Tower Well upset Star Valley residents and so spurred its incorporation. Payson has operated the Tower Well at a fraction of its full capacity in the past few years, but the town’s ownership of the well still provokes criticism from its neighbor.

Finally, Payson concluded its decades-long effort to win rights to 3,000 acre-feet from the C.C. Cragin Reservoir. The town expects to complete a pipeline and treatment plant by 2015 to deliver that water, which will more than double Payson’s long-term supply.

The town recently won a $10.5-million federal grant to repair the existing portion of the proposed pipeline on top of the Rim, which also became part of the water report.

A team of federal grant managers visited Payson last week to make sure the town has all its paperwork in order for the stimulus grant, which will pay for the repairs atop the Rim and all the pipe necessary to build the second half of the pipeline running along Houston Mesa Road.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said the grant managers reviewed thousands of pages of supporting paperwork and then predicted that Payson will be the first community in the state to win full approval for a federal stimulus project.

“The meeting went very, very well,” said Ploughe after a day with the federal auditors. “In their words, it was the best application they’ve received at this stage.”

Ploughe said that despite a so far abnormally dry spring, well levels have still risen significantly in the past two years. He said the town will remain at the now routine “Level I” conservation status. That means a continued ban on washing down paved areas and sidewalks and limiting outside water use to certain days of the week, depending on the address.

Ploughe noted that the complicated jumble of rock layers beneath the town makes it hard to predict the response of the water table to drought and even its long-term storage capacity. Star Valley lies downhill from Payson, so it relies mostly on shallow wells — most of them owned by individual homeowners. Payson’s wells go down much deeper, to water stored in a crushed and fragmented rock layer. As a result, Payson’s 100 wells respond differently to drought — and heavy rain — depending on which pocket of crushed rock the well taps into.

Overall, “most groundwater levels are actually higher than last year due to an unprecedented (in recent times) consecutive wet winter season. The town’s groundwater resources are improved from previous years,” said the water department’s report.

The 22 inches of rain Payson got last year was only a little bit above the long-term average, but it was higher than the average during the preceding decade of drought.

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