The water wars that once roiled local politics and embittered neighbors ended with a firm handshake in an empty council chamber as the Payson Town Council approved a historic agreement to sell Star Valley three wells and provide a backup water supply.
The Payson council quickly approved the intergovernmental agreement on Thursday that the Star Valley Town Council had already ratified the week before.
Under the terms of the agreement, Star Valley will buy three unused wells from Payson for $82,000, which represented the “book value” of the three wells.
“This is a memorable day,” said Su Connell, one of the longest-serving members of the Payson council. “We ought to be proud of the residents and of the Star Valley council. The water wars and the hate and the misery are all behind us now and I’m proud to have Star Valley next door to us.”
Star Valley Mayor Bill Rappaport came forward from the audience to mark the occasion. “This has been a long time coming,” said the mayor of the agreement and the turn from confrontation to partnership it represents.
“Hindsight being 20/20,” he continued, “there are a lot of things that should not have transpired that this puts right. This is the first building block of a sustained relationship.”
Rappaport credited Star Valley Councilor Vern Leis for driving the transformation of the relationship between the two neighboring towns. Payson’s acquisition of the Tower Well from a builder in return for development credits effectively spurred the incorporation of Star Valley, based on fears Payson would drain the shallow water table from which most of the wells in Star Valley draw their drinking water.
“I’m normally not at a loss for words,” said Leis. “But this does something that we never could have done on our own. It lets us address these issues as a community as a whole instead of fractured.”
After the meeting, Rappaport expressed surprise that the council chamber remained mostly empty for an event that marked a sea change in the region’s politics. “After all we’ve been through, this is an historic occasion. This is definitely why I became mayor — to settle the water problem and pave the streets. I can leave now and feel good.”
The neighboring towns have dramatically changed their once-contentious relationship in the past year, including the agreement by the two councils to partner in setting up the Separate Legal Entity that will build and operate a college campus in Payson.
Both a change in councils that brought in new players not entrenched in the earlier struggles and Payson’s success in securing rights to water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir contributed to the political shift. Blue Ridge will double Payson’s water supply and provide more than enough water for a build-out population of 38,000.
The water agreement opens the door to big changes for Star Valley, which is also negotiating with Brooke Utilities to buy the 300-customer Payson Water Company. If Star Valley does acquire the water company, the three deep wells it just bought from Payson can provide a water supply that could help cushion the impact of drought, enable the town to bargain for a share of the water from the Blue Ridge pipeline and perhaps provide a water supply sufficient to support commercial development along the highway. Such development could provide the town with a revenue source to make it less reliant on speeding tickets.
Star Valley still faces key problems in making use of the wells it just purchased, especially in getting access to the wells despite landowner Chris Benjamin’s refusal to give the town an easement or sell an easement unless the town buys his property. Benjamin maintains that the combined impact of the Tower Well and the three new wells would make his well worthless and so dramatically reduce the value of his property.
Town manager and attorney Tim Grier has said the town can resort to condemnation to force the sale of the easement at a price set by a judge.
One mark of the transformation in the level of trust between the two towns showed up in the fine print of the water agreement, in which the Star Valley council dropped a provision that would have limited pumping from the Tower Well to about 530 gallons per minute.
In closed door negotiations, the Star Valley council evidently decided that Payson’s own policies that limit groundwater pumping from any well to a “sustainable yield,” plus the capacity of the Tower Well itself provided enough protection for Star Valley’s water table. In return, the revised agreement also increased by one-third the amount Star Valley can pump from the new wells.
Payson agreed to a change in language that ensures the town will provide a backup water supply to its neighbor if requested. Ironically, the plumbing installed to connect the Tower Well to Payson’s water system makes it a simple matter to provide that backup water supply.
That all opens the door to the water business for Star Valley, providing it can successfully negotiate the purchase of the Payson Water Company. Star Valley has to be a “water provider” in order to negotiate for a share of the 500 acre-feet of Blue Ridge water reserved for northern Gila County communities other than Payson.
Star Valley currently relies mostly on private wells that tap into a shallow water table that remains close to the surface due to the area’s topography. However, Star Valley faces a potential problem in the future since most homeowners also rely on aging septic systems close to the network of water wells, posing the danger of groundwater pollution.
Star Valley’s acquisition of the building blocks of a water system could ultimately allow it to join Payson as one of the few rural communities in Arizona with an assured, long-term water supply.