The past year brought huge gains in making Payson one of the only communities in Arizona with plenty of water to meet all its future needs.
Two decades of effort came to fruition with approval of plans to build the Blue Ridge Pipeline and start of construction – but in town and at the base of the Mogollon Rim.
The pipeline in 2014 or 2015 will deliver some 3,000 acre-feet annually to Payson, more than doubling its long-term water supply. That will give Payson enough water to triple its population – while maintaining a cushion for drought years.
The water rights to 3,000 acre-feet annually from the C.J. Cragin Reservoir underlay the town’s effort to build a university campus here as well as year-round employers. Despite projections of drought and water shortages statewide, water from the 14,000 acre-foot reservoir give the town all the water it needs. The start of the pipeline construction this year completed Payson’s transformation from water shortage – to a surprising scramble to put a gush of new water to good use.
Thank the Blue Ridge pipeline and a partnership with the Salt River Project — coupled with a diligent, 20-year effort to secure the region’s water future. Few towns its size could have persisted so long and handled such a complex project, but the rewards look tremendous.
Currently, Payson uses about 1,800 acre-feet of water annually — a little less than rain and snow deposit in the town’s underwater bank account in an average year. The Blue Ridge pipeline when completed in 2015 will deliver 3,000 acre-feet annually — more than enough water to supply the town’s projected build-out population of 38,000. In addition, many water-stressed, unincorporated communities along the way can also buy into the pipeline.
Moreover, the rush of new water will allow the town to keep three golf courses in the area lushly watered — since much of that water ends up back in the water table. The town also wants to turn the normally dry American Gulch into a stream running through the middle of town, another project designed to return the depleted water table to historic levels. Payson also approved construction of an extra water line to divert pipeline water before it goes through the treatment plant so that it can help finance the Blue Ridge project by selling excess, untreated water to the golf courses and the proposed university, which will need to water playing fields.
By contrast, towns and cities throughout the rest of Arizona face an uncertain water future. Many climate projections suggest the region faces longer, more severe periods of drought in coming decades. Payson’s ample water supply should then give it another key advantage over its economic competitors.
The water will flow from the Blue Ridge Reservoir — also called the C.C. Cragin Reservoir — high atop the Mogollon Rim. An international mining company built the reservoir to store water it could trade with SRP, which eventually acquired ownership of the dam and rights to the 14,000 acre-feet of water in the lake. Payson lobbied tenaciously for a federal law that gave it rights to the water as well. It finally succeeded in winning water rights, but that meant it had to help overhaul and maintain SRP’s 15-mile-long pipeline from the reservoir to the headwaters of the East Verde River and build its own $32 million, 15-mile-long pipeline.
Payson imposed a $7,500 per-house water impact fee to raise money to finance the pipeline project and qualified for federal grants and long-term, low-interest-rate loans.
Unfortunately, the long building downturn dried up the flow of impact fees into the town’s pipeline construction fund.
Before the building downturn, Payson was adding 300 homes a year to its housing stock — and the water table was falling rapidly. Without the Blue Ridge water locked up, Payson imposed its impact fee and a 250-unit cap on new construction. The town also developed water conservation standards that produced among the lowest per-person water use rates in the state. But with the Blue Ridge water assured, the town eliminated the growth restrictions and started making ambitious plans.
Since the downturn took hold, the town has approved more like 30-50 new homes annually. The sharp decline in the flow of impact fees prompted the town council to approve sharp increases in the water rates to provide a flow of revenue sufficient for the town to issue low-cost revenue bonds to finance the balance of the construction costs. The town still hopes that a revived construction industry will minimize the need for future water rate increases to pay for the expensive pipeline project. The town also got a roughly $5 million grant and a $6 million, low-cost loan from the federal government to help cover the costs of the pipeline. Payson expects it will also get a long-term, low-cost federal loan to cover the balance of the costs, secured by water department revenue – either from water rates or impact fees.
One great additional benefit lies in SRP’s plans to make use of the 9,000 to 11,000 acre-feet it draws from the Blue Ridge Reservoir each year. The Valley utility puts that water into the East Verde River, greatly augmenting the flow of the river that crosses Highway 87 just west of Payson. The Arizona Game and Fish Department stocks the East Verde with trout in the summer, making the beautiful, augmented stream a major amenity. The Arizona Department of Game and Fish is working on a stream design study that could end up substantially increasing the lure of the East Verde for anglers, adding another major tourist attraction to the region. The town is also studying a plan to turn the American Gulch into a flowing stream as part of a plan to recharge the water table with the excess Blue Ridge water.
The Payson Council in the past year has awarded millions in design and construction contracts for the pipeline. Crews worked in town to create connections between different networks connected to separate groundwater wells. Connecting up the whole system will allow the town to recharge the water table by relying entirely on Blue Ridge water during the summer and fall, to let rainwater recharge depleted wells. The town will then switch over to its wells during the winter months when snows on the Rim shut down the pipeline.
Crews also started work on the pipeline itself, which will run from Washington Park along Houston Mesa Road all the way to a $7.5 water treatment and filtration plant next door to Mesa Del Caballo.