Once upon a time, a just-released report showing that Payson’s Tower Well in Star Valley caused a dramatic drop in the water level of several wells would have provoked a fresh outbreak of the water wars that triggered Star Valley’s incorporation.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the water wars this week: Peace broke out.
The strange change of tone took place after a consulting firm hired by Star Valley reported a dramatic 19-foot drop this summer in the water level of a well near the pump Payson put down in the midst of its neighbor’s territory several years ago. This provoked a drive to incorporate Star Valley based on fears its larger neighbor would drain the shallow water table on which residents depend.
However, instead of renewing old battle cries for lawsuits and campaigns, the chairman of Star Valley’s Water and Sewer Commission Vern Leis said a combination of factors, not just one well’s pumping, is lowering water levels.
Even Star Valley’s Mayor Bill Rappaport, who led the incorporation drive based on fears Payson would “steal” the town’s water, has taken a more conciliatory approach.
“We are trying to reestablish a relationship with Payson,” Rappaport said. “Some people might want to keep fighting, but the two communities need each other.”
Rappaport now says he was “naïve” to have believed the Tower Well would drain Star Valley’s aquifer. Rappaport said he realized water was not the town’s biggest challenge anymore in April when LFR released a study showing Star Valley has enough water for its current population.
Even though nearby well levels drop when Payson turns on the Tower Well, those affected wells will likely return to normal once the Tower Well has been turned off, as they do almost every fall, Leis said.
“When you turn on a well, the water level can drop. When you turn it off, it comes up,” said Buzz Walker, Payson’s Water Department manager. “Every year they come out and say that it is never going to come back.”
Payson normally runs the Tower Well at only a fraction of its full capacity.
However, critics maintain Payson is operating the well outside of the safe yield.
The LFR report states the year-to-date production from the Tower Well is 39 million gallons or 119 acre-feet, of which 29 million gallons or 87 acre-feet has been withdrawn since the May 19 rate increase.
Payson swapped the Tower Well with a developer for the right to build in Payson before it had secured rights to the Blue Ridge Reservoir that will more than double its overall water supply.
The Tower Well runs only intermittently and mostly provides backup capacity in case of drought. Star Valley residents have always worried about what would happen if Payson pushed the Tower Well to its full capacity during a water shortage.
Leis said, “Yes, the Tower Well has fallen, but it hasn’t fallen to a level that is critical.”
The current discussion began when the hydrology firm LFR Inc., released one-year water level data for 10 wells in Star Valley.
The report showed that water levels are falling in some wells around town ranging from half a foot to several feet each month. Well levels typically fall during the heavy use months of summer, then rise again as winter rains recharge the groundwater.
The level of the Sky Run Well, near the Tower Well, is falling more quickly, at five feet per month, even though the well is currently not pumping.
The report concluded that if the Tower Well continues pumping at a rate of 550 gallons per minute, the transducer in the Sky Run Well will be dry in the next year. Leis does not attribute the drop in the Sky Run Well only to the Tower Well because several other wells nearby also affect it, including Chris Benjamin’s well and Steve Coury's well.
Additionally, the failure of the summer monsoons has created a summer drought, which has lowered shallow well levels throughout the region.
“Except for a couple wells that are falling, why aren’t they all falling” if the Tower Well is having such an impact, Leis asked.
Leis said that the lack of rain since March could account for much of the drop in well levels. He also added that most wells are still at least 10 feet above their recorded historic minimum.
“The sky is not falling,” Leis said.
Currently, Star Valley does not have a monitoring device in the Tower Well, so the town cannot determine its precise impact, Leis said. The LFR study inferred its impact by watching the Sky Run Well.
“Since the Sky Run Well itself is not being pumped, and the response to the Tower Well extraction is instantaneous, hours of operation can be determined from the hydrograph,” the report states.
Leis said he went to Payson and met with Mayor Kenny Evans and several people from the water department to study their graphs and determine the well’s impact. After adjusting Payson’s water data to meet Star Valley’s parameters, Leis discovered both towns have similar data.
This apparently represents the first time the two once-feuding towns have used compatible data.
Leis also realized after looking at Payson’s four-year water elevations for the Tower Well, that every year after the well is shut off, levels return to normal.
On the Payson side, Walker asked why no one ever talks about that, and chooses only to focus on when the water goes down.
“They look at when it goes down, but never look at it when it comes up,” he said.
Payson has agreed to let Star Valley put its own monitoring device in the Tower Well. Leis said he is waiting to purchase a device to begin monitoring on a regular basis.
“We want to get away from this annual blow up,” Leis said. “We should work together for the benefit of the community, not just for Payson or Star Valley.”
“We need to work together to build a lot of good data to make sound, long-term decisions.”
Leis said the reports show that Star Valley has enough water, even with the Tower Well in place, and can focus on other problems, especially providing sewage treatment in a town that relies on groundwater wells and aging septic tanks.
“LFR says we have water,” Leis said. “We are moving forward and becoming smarter.”