Payson Council Loosens Water Sale Rules

New policy that could help neighbors — including Star Valley, Mesa del Caballo

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The Payson Town Council has cleared the way for the town to help bail out the water woes of its neighbors — for a price.

Star Valley, Mesa del Caballo and other communities along the route of the Blue Ridge pipeline could benefit from a loosening of restrictions on water sales outside the town limits approved unanimously by the town council last week.

The council vote essentially gave water department director Buzz Walker the authority to strike a deal, although he’s been having informal discussions all along.

“Is this part of our more friendly approach to our friends in Star Valley?” asked Councilor Ed Blair.

“We’ve done a lot with Star Valley,” said Mayor Kenny Evans, “and certainly this will clarify that. There are other communities that have water problems from time to time.”

The new policy could have a big impact on the chronically water-short residents of Mesa del Caballo.

A short pipeline could connect Mesa del Caballo to either Payson’s existing water system or the proposed Blue Ridge pipeline and treatment plant, planned for the mesa near Shoofly Ruins across Houston Mesa Road from the development.

Residents there repeatedly ran out of water during a dry stretch last summer, as usage peaked and well output shrank. Brooke Utilities had to truck in water and imposed big penalties on some homeowners whose water use continued despite a Stage 5 water alert.

Mesa del Caballo lies alongside Houston Mesa Road, close to where Payson wants to build a water treatment plant to handle water delivered by the proposed, $30 million Blue Ridge pipeline.

The town expects the pipe to begin delivering water in 2014 or 2015, unless voters reject the current Home Rule ballot measure and impose a spending ceiling on the town.

Mesa del Caballo is one of 19 small communities in the area that could qualify for a share of the 500 acre-feet of Blue Ridge water earmarked for Northern Gila County.

Because of its location, the community could probably get water more cheaply from Blue Ridge than from drilling deep groundwater wells.

However, Payson’s policies and the terms of its agreement with the Salt River Project limit its ability to provide water to anyone living outside the town boundaries. As a condition of securing rights to 3,000 acre-feet of water from SRP’s reservoir, Payson agreed to drill no more wells, seek no more water from outside the town limits and not resell its Blue Ridge allotment.

As a result, any deal that would enable Mesa del Caballo to get water from Payson would require the assent of SRP.

“Partly because we have a new relationship with SRP, we have to make sure we have their blessing anytime we deliver water outside the boundary of our town,” said Evans. “This gives us the flexibility to react to emergencies we can’t necessarily foresee.”

The council vote last Thursday cleared at least one hurdle for any such agreement.

Councilor Su Connell wondered aloud whether Payson has the ability to deliver water when the pipes run dry in a neighboring community. “Do we have the vehicles to do it?”

Walker hastened to clarify that the town wouldn’t haul water to its neighbors. This summer, Brooke Utilities water tanker trucks hauled water from its wells near Tonto Creek when Mesa del Caballo ran out of water, upsetting residents there.

The previous summer, Brooke hauled water from its wells in Star Valley to Pine, which prompted Star Valley to ban heavy trucks on the roads leading to Brooke’s wells.

“We will make it available and they will move it,” said Walker.

“Do they reimburse us?” asked Connell, drawing a laugh from other council members based on Walker’s reputation as a dogged, sometimes bare-knuckle defender of the town’s water system — the biggest single category in the town’s budget.

“There’s no discount for bulk purchases,” said Walker, dryly.

However, buying water from Payson even with a markup to cover infrastructure costs would likely cost less than drilling a new, deep well — which can cost several hundred thousand dollars, or trucking in water.

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