Come April, Payson will make water history.
But the rest of the state is confronting a scary shortage.
Still, Payson water guru Buzz Walker is not planning anything special. He just wants to make sure his shiny $14 million water treatment plant works smoothly.
After 20 years, $54 million and a 25 percent hike in Payson water rates, the first splash of water from the C.C. Cragin pipeline will gush into town in early April. After making sure the town’s new, high-tech system works — the water will flow from taps all over town in June, said Walker, who heads up the C.C. Cragin project for the town. The pipeline will eventually deliver 4 million gallons of water daily.
“Nobody’s talking about a ceremony, but who knows,” laughed Walker, who started working on the project more than 20 years ago.
The town ultimately needed an act of Congress to gain a legal right to 3,000 acre-feet of water annually from the 15,000 acre-foot reservoir atop the Mogollon Rim. The town has been building the pipeline itself since 2012.
Walker feels downright parental about the project.
“We’ve watched the little kid get conceived and get born. The treatment plant is a big, complex machine and now we have to find room in our heads to learn a new system.”
The complicated system will bring 3,000 acre-feet of water from a completely different watershed to Payson each year.
Mind you, Payson currently uses about 1,800 acre-feet annually, pumped out of its 42 wells — most of the wells are hundreds of feet deep.
The pipeline will supply all the town’s water needs for nine months out of the year. Even then, the town will pump an additional 1,300 acre-feet annually into the underground water table through a network of 12 wells.
The new water will insulate the town against drought, provide wastewater to keep the country club golf courses green, ensure a long-term water supply for Mesa del Caballo, recharge the town’s water table — and still provide plenty of water for Payson to grow to a town of 30,000 to 40,000.
The arrival of the C.C. Cragin water comes just as the rest of the state is struggling to figure out how to handle projected reductions in water from the Colorado River flowing into the Central Arizona Project water system.
Twenty years of drought and a century-old miscalculation in the flow of the Colorado River have left both Lake Powell and Lake Mead half empty.
If Lake Mead falls another 40 feet or so, water users throughout the West will face water rationing.
In the meantime, groundwater levels continue to fall throughout the state as headlong population growth resumes.
Arizona barely met a federal deadline to determine how it will cut water deliveries in the event the Bureau of Reclamation declares a water shortage.
The state agreed to put up millions of dollars, pay several tribes to forego water deliveries and drill new wells for farmers in declining water basins.
Arizona hopes a deal will convince California and other states to share the shortage, even though Arizona and Nevada are last in line for the water.
All that underscores the value of Payson’s secure, long-term water supply.
“I gave a talk to a water conference in Phoenix last week. The conference was the whole ‘woe is us’ thing, with all the shortages. All the big shots from Bureau of Reclamation and Senator McSally were all saying, ‘Oh, we signed the plan — yeah, we’re going to take a shortage, but we get a say.’ I was the last speaker — and I said, ‘Does anyone want to hear about a community with no water issues?’
“They got an agreement on ‘pay me now or pay me later.’ And they were sort of celebrating that. In stark contrast, here’s this little old Payson — ‘Oh, we don’t have those problems.’”
The water independence didn’t come cheaply.
Payson obtained a roughly $40 million loan from the state Water Infrastructure Finance Authority (WIFA) and about $7 million in state and federal grants.
The town also put in about $14 million raised from water impact fees on new development. Payson boosted water rates about 25 percent to ensure it had enough money coming in to pay the WIFA loans.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of the C.C. Cragin pipeline on Payson’s future.
In Tuesday’s Roundup read about the spin-off effects of the pipeline and how it is benefiting other Rim Country communities that have struggled with water, like Mesa del Caballo and the Tonto Apache Tribe.
Impact fees on new construction intended to help pay for town infrastructure come with lots of strings attached, the Payson Town Council learned recently.
Critics complain impact fees for water, parks, police and other infrastructure can scare off developers.
The Arizona Legislature some years ago responded by making it much harder for towns to impose impact fees on new development.
Payson eliminated many of its impact fees during the recession as a result.
New state rules require that fees directly benefit the business or homeowner who pays them.
The only impact fee left that is assessed by the Town of Payson is a $6,700-per-house water fee.
“If the council would like to charge fees, there are so many other things that can go into it,” said Deborah Barber, town finance director. “If you decided to have an impact fee in one area ... it is not so much about refunding it, it is about spending it where it is required to be spent.”
Arizona law allows a town to charge impact fees to cover the cost of adding water, sewer, parks and police services. Payson at one time imposed a fee for police and parks, as well as water.
The Northern Gila County Sanitary District also charges an impact fee, but lawmakers exempted sewer districts from the new rules.
Councilor Steve Smith wondered why the town couldn’t purchase much-needed equipment for the fire and police departments using impact fees.
“Our police cars have 100,000 miles on them ... we still haven’t gotten enough to pay for one (fire) truck ... with nothing more than a tax to support them,” he said. “Are we prepared with the necessary documentation now, if you wanted to have impact fees in 2014 — are we prepared now to implement new impact fees this year?”
Community Development Director Sheila DeSchaaf said the council could decide to implement new fees, but it would increase the cost of development.
“There’s those issues that are bigger philosophical issues than we (staff) can’ answer,” she said.
Currently, the town only collects impact fees on water.
Staff said it’s easy to show the entity paying a water impact fee benefits, with the money going to the C.C. Cragin project, said Water Department Director Tanner Henry.
“In regards to water, we are building a great big project,” he said. “To determine what level of service we provide, it’s 100 percent, so it makes it easy. Are we going to spend the money in the next 10 years? We’ve already spent it.”
Currently, the water impact fees for a single family home averages $6,772. Businesses pay a larger fee based on the number of people served, but the water department works with owners to lessen the blow.
The council asked staff to update the information on the water impact fees and bring it back for a vote.
From a woman who lives in a trailer with no utilities to a man living in a shed, the faces of Payson’s homeless delivered a shock to volunteers recently that sought out the homeless during an annual survey.
But they weren’t easy to find.
Volunteers spent several days scouring the forest around town as well as looking in abandoned lots and behind shopping centers for homeless people, often coming up empty handed.
Volunteers were part of the Point in Time count of unsheltered persons, including those living on the streets and in shelters. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that communities, under the Continuum of Care (CoC), conduct an annual count to qualify for grant funding.
While Gila County agencies have met in the past to discuss housing issues, the county has never adopted a formalized CoC program to address homelessness, according to Malissa Buzan, Gila County community services director.
As a first-time volunteer, I was partnered with a man once homeless himself. We went out into the field after an hour of training with Dorine Prine, Gila County Community Action Program coordinator.
We were given a seven-page form to fill out each time we found a homeless person. The first question: “Where did you sleep on Tuesday, January 22?” If a person indicated they had slept in an unsheltered area they could be counted. If they were in a sheltered place, even a friend’s home temporarily, we did not count them.
We drove around looking in all the places you might assume a homeless person would stay: the back of Walmart, Home Depot and the wooded area behind Bashas’. We found lots of debris indicating that people had lived there, but no one. We drove down Houston Mesa Road and to the campground near Flowing Springs where the man I was working with said he had stayed in his truck. We didn’t see anyone.
So, we went to the Senior Center and to the library and asked if anyone knew of homeless people in the area. None were there that day.
“No one would know I was homeless the way I looked,” my volunteer partner said. “I always tried to be as clean as I could. No one ever asked me to be counted.”
The next day we went to the Community Presbyterian Church food bank. We found three people willing to talk.
This is what we learned.
“I’ll talk to you, but I don’t like it when I go into a place and they say, ‘That’s the homeless woman,’” one woman said.
The woman explained she was evicted with her child from an apartment she could no longer afford. She now lived in a trailer with no running water or electricity. She peed in a bucket.
“How awful that my child has to be homeless,” she said.
A second person said he couldn’t afford rent because he owed back child support. He lived in a storage shed.
“When will it end?” we asked.
“Never. All I can pay is the interest, which is 10 percent,” he said. “So I’ll never be able pay it off. They take the money out of my disability check.”
People have many reasons for being homeless and ones they often keep hidden. For some it may be a mental health issue, a disability or addiction, but for many, they simply can’t find an affordable place to live.
There is growing research for “housing-first,” giving people their own residence and then finding services to help deal with the issues that led them to live on the streets.
A report by the University of New Mexico Institute of Social Research found it actually costs less to house chronically homeless people than to leave them on the streets.
As Prine said when interviewing, “Be sensitive. Don’t judge. This could be you someday.”
In a break from cheering for this year’s Best of the Rim winners, the crowd rose to its feet Monday night in the Mazatzal Casino ballroom to honor a favorite town councilor.
Su Connell took the title of Best Payson Councilor in the Roundup’s annual readers poll more times than not, a favorite among many. She was known for her warm smile and giving heart, a volunteer in countless community organizations.
Connell passed in October and as a special tribute, the Roundup honored Connell just after handing out this year’s best councilor award.
Working with Connell’s husband, Stan Garner, Connell’s positive attitude was felt by all at the Best of event.
“One of Su’s last requests was that her good friend, JJ Smith, arrange to paint some rocks with cheerful messages to hand out at her memorial service,” Garner said. “She had become fascinated with painted rocks that began showing up around town a few years ago. People would paint them and leave them in various locations for others to find and leave somewhere else,” he said.
Town staff, friends and others started painting more rocks in her honor.
With a couple baskets of rocks left over, Garner volunteered to pass them out at the Best of event. Gary Tackett, the Roundup’s general manager, agreed and a rock or two were placed on each table.
As the 650-plus people attending the event took their seats, most were curious as to the purpose of the rocks on their table and as the event began, Tackett said they would find out later.
“About two-thirds of the way through, Gary announced the finalists for Best Town Councilor,” Garner said. “Su was nominated, but as her illness kept her out of the public eye, fellow Councilor Chris Higgins was given the award.”
Tackett invited Garner on stage and gave him a special certificate in honor of Connell’s 12 years on the council — the Jewel of Payson award. The crowd gave Garner a standing ovation.
“It was a touching moment. I was asked to explain the rocks, which I did. Gary encouraged people to take a rock and share it. There were no rocks left,” he said.
“A big thanks to Gary Tackett and the Payson Roundup for such an honor, Su would be happy.”