With the Colorado River drying up thanks to 14 years of unrelenting drought, major cities that rely on the Central Arizona Project, including Phoenix, are bracing for water shortages.
But in Payson, things are flowing along fine, according to the annual water report presented to the town council Thursday. In fact, the arrival of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir perhaps as early as next year will likely allow the town council to lift the remnant of the state’s toughest water conservation code — including the ban on swimming pools and lawns.
Payson’s fractured granite aquifer is not only stable, but rebounding thanks to low demand, said Tanner Henry, water division manager. In fact, despite a dry year — well levels have risen again this year.
As a whole, the town used 61 percent of the safe yield in 2012. In 2013, that fell to 58 percent. The town’s “safe yield,” or amount that can be taken from the aquifer without depleting it faster than rainfall and snowfall recharge it, is 2,680 acre-feet a year. That calculation includes water that could be taken from the Tower Well in Star Valley. Payson has agreed to use water from that well only in an emergency. If you don’t count the potential yield of the Tower Well, Payson is currently much closer to its safe yield figure.
And in 2012, the average person used 79 gallons per day. In 2013, that dropped to 74 gallons. Both years are well below the town’s goal of 89 gallons per capita.
So not only does the aquifer appear healthy, but with the addition of 3,000 acre-feet of water from the C.C. Cragin project starting perhaps in 2015, Payson will have enough water for the foreseeable future.
Not many towns in the West can brag on a recovering aquifer with more than enough water on the way, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
“I think it is in fact attributable to the citizens of Payson and not Mother Nature that our groundwater resources continue to recover and our aquifers continue to be healthy and that is not universal across the region,” he said. “Some of the communities in Yavapai, Coconino and Gila are facing severe water shortages.”
With Cragin come potential changes to the town’s water conservation code.
If the council approves changes to the water code, gone will be the days when odd numbered addresses were only allowed to water plants and wash their cars on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and even numbered addresses the other days.
And residents could soon be allowed to have misters and build swimming pools and when Cragin water is flowing, the town will lift its ban on planting grass.
Before Cragin can start flowing, it needs something to flow through. Last year, the water department completed two new water lines, bringing the total to five of the eight in-town lines needed.
The two new lines run along Tyler Parkway and Houston Mesa Road to the future sight of the treatment plant near Mesa del Caballo.
The remaining three in-town waterlines include from Zurich Drive to Tyler Parkway; Highway 260 at Mud Springs Road to southeast Payson and connecting to a storage tank near Highway 260 and Tyler Parkway.
“As you can see, Payson continues to move along on the road to achieving a rare condition, water resource sustainability in the desert Southwest,” according to the water report.
Monitoring of the town’s network of nearly 100 wells, 42 of which are active, showed wild variances in water levels. Over a few months, for example, the water level in some wells dropped from 250 to 225 feet, and then back to 250 feet a few months later.
Payson’s fractured aquifer with a complicated network of interconnected cracks zones of crushed granite makes each well different and accounts for the wide variation in well levels.
Some areas have more cracks than others and some of the fractures are more interconnected than others.
Since 2010, groundwater levels have remained stable, rising in some areas despite an intermittent drought that ranks among the worst in the past 1,000 years.
From April 2013 to March, Payson received almost 20 inches of rain, below the average 22 inches. However, rainfall in March slightly improved the annual outlook after 56 days without any rain.
“The resilience of groundwater levels, in spite of lackluster precipitation in 2013, is indicative of an aquifer in recovery condition,” the report concluded.
With the drought expected to continue indefinitely, many communities are looking for ways to supplement their water supply. Payson is one of the few ahead of the curve. The Cragin water will give the town enough water to sustain an eventual population in excess of 38,000 — more than double the current total.