“We should be OK forever,” said Payson Water Department Director Buzz Walker of the town’s water supply — providing the town never has more than about 50,000 residents.
“We’ll have a water supply for 50,000 people, but we think we’ll build out at 32,000 to 35,000 and we’re happy with that because there’s no where else to go for water,” Walker told an attentive and well-informed group of about 20 people at the Citizens Awareness Committee meeting on Thursday.
Walker ran through the long struggle and the complicated details that will make Payson one of the few rural communities in the West with more than enough water to satisfy all of its projected growth needs. He said the key environmental studies started on Monday, after the Forest Service approved the study plans and accepted the town’s $169,000 check to offset any Forest Service costs in supervising the study.
Walker said the town currently uses uses about 1,800 acre-feet of water from its wells to supply about 17,000 people — but rainfall in an average year puts 2,500 acre-feet into the water table. At the present population — the town uses only about 60 percent of the “safe yield” of its groundwater wells.
When an additional 3,000 acre-feet arrive from the Blue Ridge Reservoir in a $30-million, 14.5-mile-long pipeline along Houston Mesa Road, the town can dramatically reduce its use of groundwater.
At least initially, the town will probably pump its wells only during the three winter months when the Blue Ridge pipeline is shut down, allowing the wells to perhaps recover to “pre-settlement” levels. In the early years, the town will probably inject about 800 acre-feet of water from the Blue Ridge pipeline into the water table, by letting it flow out of storage tanks into the wells.
Walker offered his attentive audience a glimpse of some of the complicated fine points of running a water system, by noting water managers will actually have to “buffer” the almost mineral-free Blue Ridge water before injecting it back into the town’s wells. If they don’t tinker with the chemistry, the pure Blue Ridge water could cause minerals to precipitate out of the mineral laden groundwater, which could clog up the wells.
“That would be kind of embarrassing to us,” said Walker, “if we put the water in and it came squirting right back up.”
Even if the town’s population grows to some 44,000, the 3,000 acre-feet from Blue Ridge combined with the 2,500 acre-feet of annual groundwater recharge should supply the town’s population indefinitely — with a cushion to get through droughts and unanticipated problems that might shut down the pipeline for a time.
Unfortunately, the collapse of the housing market has complicated the town’s plans to pay the roughly $30-million cost of the pipeline without increasing water rates.
The town’s original plan called for using a $7,500-per-unit water development fee imposed on new homes to cover the cost during the next 20 years. That would require an average of about 215 new homes annually, which was actually below the annual average right before the home-construction market collapsed. In the past two years, the town has averaged more like 30 permits annually.
However, a federal stimulus grant will reduce the ultimate cost by about $10 million.
In addition, the town should qualify for low-interest, 30-year bonds under a state program, which could reduce the cost by another one-third.
Better yet, the town will probably qualify for a not-yet-finalized federal program that offers an even lower interest rate for 40 years — plus grants to further reduce the cost.