More than three weeks after the Payson Town Council signed a water agreement, the Star Valley council reviewed the pact Tuesday night, with most councilors supporting the deal.
Councilor Gary Coon offered the harshest criticism for the agreement, but even he said he would likely vote for it. The council took no action on the intergovernmental agreement and did not set a date for when it would.
Coon said he would likely back an IGA with Payson for the purchase of three wells for $99,200, if the use of the Tower Well pipeline to carry Blue Ridge water to Star Valley were included and the town could figure out how to access two of the wells currently blocked by private property.
“We all agree this is our opportunity to get involved with Payson,” Coon said. “If we can iron that out, I don’t see a problem.”
Town Manager/Attorney Tim Grier and Mayor Bill Rappaport worried before the meeting that Coon would flood the council meeting with rhetoric against the IGA.
“They are extending a hand of friendship that I cannot see pushing away,” Rappaport said of an IGA Payson signed May 20.
The agreement includes the purchase of three wells, limits how much water Star Valley can pump, limits pumping of Payson’s Tower Well and gives Star Valley back-up water in an emergency.
“Common sense tells me adding them in our repertoire for $99,000 is a damn good deal,” said Councilor Vern Leis, who is also head of the water and sewer commission.
Star Valley hopes that by acquiring the wells and hooking one up to two homes, it will become a “water purveyor” and therefore qualify for an allocation of 500 acre-feet of Blue Ridge water set aside for northern Gila County communities. This would give the small community a more reliable water supply.
Currently, most homes are on individual wells and septic systems. In the past, the Star Valley Water and Sewer Commission said wells could become contaminated as septic systems age and leak.
Critics of the deal say one of the problems is that Star Valley cannot access Blue Ridge water without a pipeline.
The cost of building a pipe would be astronomical, so the only real possibility is reversing the flow on the Tower Well pipeline, which is owned by Payson. No mention of using the Tower Well pipe is included in the IGA, which worries Coon.
However, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said on Thursday that the agreement does commit Payson to providing Star Valley with water in an emergency, which means the agreement assumes the town will modify the Tower Well piping so it can also deliver water to Star Valley. He said Star Valley didn’t ask for language about delivering Blue Ridge water through the Tower pipeline to be included in the agreement. Evans said Payson was clearly willing to help Star Valley gain rights to Blue Ridge water and to use Payson’s infrastructure to deliver it.
At the Star Valley council meeting on Tuesday, Grier said the IGA is likely not negotiable.
But Coon countered, “I have never gone into an agreement that is not negotiable.”
If Star Valley cannot access Blue Ridge, the deal is useless, he said.
“I just wonder how we will get the water,” he said. “I think that could be worked out, but if it’s not on paper, I don’t buy it.”
Even without the pipeline, the proposed IGA is monumental for Star Valley, Grier said.
The town incorporated in 2005 to protect its groundwater supply from Payson, who many feared would suck the ground dry with the Tower Well. For years, Star Valley attempted to buy the well or block its pumping. After spending more than a $100,000 in legal fees, Star Valley learned it could no sooner stop the pumping of the well than end a drought.
With this realization and with Payson acquiring enough water through Blue Ridge to double in population without depleting its groundwater, town officials began to work together as neighbors.
“Living in the southwest, water is always at a shortage. We are always going to face challenges with it. We need to look hard at all the opportunities, and tonight is one of those opportunities,” Grier said.
The agreement includes three small well sites that lie between Mayfield Canyon Road and the Sky Run RV Resort near the National Forest boundary.
Two of the wells are currently accessible only through Chris Benjamin’s property, while the third well, Pinegate, is further south and accessible.
Before Star Valley incorporated, Benjamin blocked developer G. Michael Horton from putting in an easement to access those wells. Horton sued, but Benjamin won the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning he could not be sued again. Parts of Benjamin’s legal fees were paid for by the Diamond Star Water Coalition, which would help form the town of Star Valley.
Grier said he sent a letter to Benjamin asking about an easement and was waiting for Benjamin’s response.
On Thursday, Benjamin said he could see no benefit in it for Star Valley.
If Benjamin denies an easement, Star Valley could pursue acquiring one through condemnation, the power given to the government to take property for public use.
Grier said it would be ironic if Benjamin denied an easement that could help solve some of Star Valley’s water woes, since he was one of the people who initially helped protect it.
With the Pinegate Well, Star Valley plans two water hookups, giving the town purveyor status, which Grier hopes means the town can negotiate a deal with SRP. A dozen other communities want to tap into that pipeline.
“We have an opportunity for allocation, but what do we need to do to get that?” Grier asked. Star Valley’s water attorney in the Valley is currently researching that.
If Star Valley gets a share of Blue Ridge, Grier said he believes Payson would donate the use of the Tower Well pipeline.
“We hope the agreement will provide that opportunity. It does not bind them to that, but commits them,” he said.
Coon asked why the Tower Well pipe was not included in the IGA or a substantial limit on the pumping of the Tower Well. The proposal does include an 855 acre-feet per year limit pumping cap on the well, however, this is close to the well’s current pumping capacity.
“This is not about limiting the Tower Well,” Grier said. “We can’t limit the Tower Well pumping. We need to look past that and look to opportunities.”
Coon said if Payson’s population booms in future years, it could elect to pump the Tower Well at capacity and suck Star Valley dry.
“What do you propose Star Valley does then?” Grier asked.
“I would like to go back to Payson” and talk about adding our use of the pipeline in the IGA, Coon said.
“I am not ruling it out, but we need to go back and negotiate on the pipeline,” he said.
After hearing Coon’s comments, Grier reiterated the council was not going to vote on the issue and that the meeting was just a chance for the council to get its feet wet.
“This is a very different direction than this town and Payson have taken in the past. It is no secret that the Tower Well has been divisive. The town of Payson has changed direction from wells,” he said. “They are waiting to hear from us.”
Although not 100 percent satisfied with the deal, Councilor George Binney said he was pleased.
“I really hope we can find a way to make this work,” he said.
Councilors Paty Henderson, Barbara Hartwell and Vice Mayor Del Newland echoed similar sentiments.
Councilor Vern Leis said when you factor in the cost of well development and pump engineering design that Payson is willing to pay on the Pinegate Well, purchasing the wells for less than $100,000 is a great deal.
Leis cautioned, “If we do something like turn around and say ‘no,’ shame on us. Star Valley will cease to exist. We need to be partners with them more than they need us.”
Rappaport said it would be foolish to turn the deal down.
“This is something that has been needed for a long time. They are gifting us with a lot of things. This is the first real progress made to heal the towns,” he said.
The proposed intergovernmental agreement between Payson and Star Valley:
• Gives Star Valley three wells for $99,200.
• Limits Star Valley’s pumping of PW-1 and PW-2 wells to 323 acre-feet annually and 57 acre-feet from Pinegate.
• Prevents Payson from ever pumping more than 855 acre-feet annually from the Tower Well.