The good news?
Payson residents remain so thrifty with their water that despite the return of the drought, we’re only using about 60 percent of the sustainable capacity of our water table — not even counting the coming infusion of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.
The bad news?
One reason we’re using so much less water is that there are fewer of us.
This mix of good and bad news emerged from Thursday’s annual report on the state of Payson’s water supply, offered to the town council by hydrologist Mike Ploughe.
The town reported a nearly 24 percent drop in water use in December — and about 10 percent for the year. The decline probably reflects a significant population drop due to the sickly economy, which remains depressed locally even two years after the official end of the recession.
“It was a real reality check in terms of the economy. We’ve been on a roller coaster ride. But we’ve never see this kind of a decline before,” said Ploughe.
Payson residents used an average of 79 gallons a day, one of the lowest totals in the country, said Ploughe. However, the number looks extra low in part because of the large number of second-home residents, who often don’t use any water at all for months at a time.
Ploughe noted that the town’s well levels remained steady, despite a winter that delivered only about 65 percent of the normal snow and rainfall. He noted the town’s wells remain “in very good shape” despite projections that the next few years will deliver well below normal rainfall.
Most of the town’s wells hit water at about 250 feet, which is still more than 100 feet deeper than when the town first started pumping water heavily as growth escalated in the 1990s. However, levels in the deepest wells have actually risen significantly, some rising from about 350 feet to 250 feet.
Moreover, the town last year made huge strides in securing a nearly drought-proof, long-term water supply through a $34 million pipeline to deliver high-quality water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir atop the Rim.
The town last year completed an environmental assessment of the pipeline route, bought 12.5 miles of 18-inch-wide pipe now stored in Phoenix, and completed the preliminary engineering work necessary to get a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to start work on the pipeline itself.
Equally important, the town had a “huge success” in testing a way to put excess Blue Ridge water back into the depleted underground water table, said Ploughe.
The town’s water department ran tests on 12 different town wells to determine whether it could ultimately pump extra Blue Ridge water back down into the wells to replenish the underground water table. No one knew for sure whether that approach would work, since the fractured granite that holds the deeply buried water the well field taps into might not have a structure that accepts water pumped back down the well bore.
Turns out, engineers discovered that they could return 200 to 750 gallons a minute to the water table.
“In one well we were pumping 750 gallons a minute into fractured rock, which is pretty cutting edge,” said Ploughe.
Engineers also set up a prototype of the filtration system it hopes to use to remove bacteria and algae from the water pumped out of Blue Ridge, which will run across the top of the Rim in a pipeline owned by the Salt River Project and then put into Payson’s pipeline.
The system relies on forcing the water through an array of tubes with holes too small for the bacteria, algae and sediment to pass through. Ironically, water engineers will then have to add back minerals to the ultra pure Blue Ridge water to prevent the lake water from dissolving the minerals from the groundwater that coat the insides of all the pipes in the distribution system.
After listening to Ploughe’s presentation, Councilor Ed Blair commented — “When I see all the things you go through to produce this clean, beautiful water, it just makes me sick to think that some people just waste it.”