The crystal clear, nearly mineral-free water flowing from the bottom of Blue Ridge Reservoir will solve all Payson’s problems — right?
Well, mostly — except the odd and unexpected ones it creates.
Consider the astonishment of town officials earlier this spring when Salt River Project for the first time let the full 40 cubic feet per second gush from the end of its pipeline into the headwaters of the East Verde River.
The creek promptly turned milky white.
What’s going on here?
Turns out, the clear, pure water from the distant reservoir atop the Mogollon Rim has dramatically different chemical properties from the water that flows into the East Verde — whether from springs that gush from fractured layers of limestone or storm water sluicing down side canyons picking up silt and minerals. Moreover, the East Verde normally dries up in stretches each year, leaving pools of water to evaporate and concentrate minerals.
So when the Blue Ridge water hit the East Verde, all sorts of odd chemical reactions took place — as minerals came out of solution.
In the case of the East Verde, the visible reaction lasted for a couple of weeks and only extended downstream for a short stretch.
But what will happen when that Blue Ridge water flows into Payson’s water system in three or four years?
Payson has relied for decades on well water, pumping out water that has seeped through layers of rock, limestone and cracked granite. That water has flowed through the oldest water mains in Payson for 50 years, leaving its residual of minerals in the pipes.
Now, Payson wants to figure out what impact that flush of chemically distinct water will have on its plumbing, especially since the town plans to put much of the Blue Ridge water into the underground water table — perhaps returning well levels that are more than a hundred feet deep to levels not reached in decades.
So last week, the town council approved a $259,000 consulting contract to design a $1.5 million system to turn several of Payson’s wells into ways to inject Blue Ridge water into the underground water table. The move came at the same meeting the council approved big potential increases in water rates, needed in part to ensure the town has enough money to build the Blue Ridge pipeline despite the housing crash that has dried up impact fees.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said the contract with HydroSystems Inc. will help the town anticipate any problems.
“Although water out of Blue Ridge is high quality, it is a very different kind of water. As we have seen in the East Verde, our best guesses are just best guesses.”
The town hopes to avoid the kinds of surprises that caused a furor in Tucson when Central Arizona Project water arrived, carried in a canal 336 miles from the Colorado River. The largest city in the country dependent solely on well water, Tucson needed the infusion badly as well levels had dropped 200 feet in the past few decades. Initially, Tucson put the river water directly into its system. But the much different chemistry of the new water ended up dissolving rust that had been building up in the system for years, causing tap water to come out brown and smelly and triggering a rash of line breaks. Some 5,000 water users filed damage claims in the first year and voters quickly passed a ban on injecting the Colorado River water directly into the system.
Tucson then developed a system to blend the Colorado River water with well water until it was chemically compatible with the system. The city also had to replace 164 miles of iron water mains with plastic pipe and cast-iron mains with cement.
The HydroSystems contract will focus on avoiding such a shock to the Payson system and finding ways to inject some 1,500 gallons per minute into the water table.
Payson could also use other innovative methods to inject the Blue Ridge water into the water table.
For instance, town officials have speculated on whether an artificial stream flowing to a groundwater recharge area might put water into the water table and also provide the town with a world-class tourist attraction — perhaps trout fishing downtown.
Officials have also noted that Payson or Star Valley could sell water to the country club golf courses, which now have barely enough reclaimed water to keep their grass green. If the golf courses used enough Blue Ridge water on their courses, most of it would soak into the water table.
The town will be receiving some 3,000 acre-feet of Blue Ridge water annually, once it builds the $30 million pipeline between Washington Park and a proposed water filtration and treatment plant, probably by the Shoofly Ruins off Houston Mesa Road opposite Mesa del.
Currently, the town uses about 1,800 acre-feet annually — all from wells. The town’s stringent conservation measures have resulted in one of the lowest per-meter consumption rates in the state — about half the per-meter use in Phoenix. That reflects the impact of the town’s emphasis on water-thrifty toilets and showers, plus a ban on lawns and a requirement that new construction use native plants that don’t need watering. However, it probably also reflects the large number of second homes only occupied a couple of months per year.
Still, the current general plan and water use patterns suggest that the town will be injecting Blue Ridge water into the water table for years after the water starts to arrive.
That could ultimately save the town when it comes to the cost of operating its system — mostly by cutting its electric bills.
Currently, the system relies on pumping water out of the ground and up into big water storage tanks — often from wells that are 150 feet deep. Those storage tanks at high points produce the water pressure to deliver water to all the downhill meters — but the system consumes a lot of energy to fill those tanks.
The Blue Ridge water will arrive under considerable pressure as a result of its long, downhill run from the Blue Ridge Reservoir. The town and Salt River Project will install hydroelectric generators to produce the electricity needed to get the water up out of Blue Ridge and to run the town’s water treatment plant. The system should also generate enough pressure to deliver the Blue Ridge water to most of the town’s storage tanks, where it can be blended with well water as necessary.
As a result, once the town builds the system, the Blue Ridge water will actually cost much less to deliver to homes than water pumped out of the ground.
Moreover, the town’s electrical bills will also fall as the water table rises.
And that will provide additional operating savings even during the three months of the year that snow up on the Rim forces the shutdown of the Blue Ridge pipeline. The current plan calls for the town to use mostly Blue Ridge water when it’s available, while putting the excess into the water table. Then in the winter, the town can draw out that stored water. Providing, of course, town officials don’t get any yucky, rust-colored surprises when they turn on the tap.