Water treatment plant

The water treatment plant near Mesa del Caballo treats the water from the C.C. Cragin Reservoir before it reaches Payson.

The arrival of the C.C. Cragin water will also wash away the last stains of the “water wars” that once dominated Rim Country politics.

At the same time, it brings a gush of possibilities — making Payson one of the only communities in the state with an assured, long-term water supply that exceeds its needs.

Payson leaders hope the water will set in concrete the region’s future development prospects, even as an intermittent, decade-long drought has strained the water planning efforts of many communities throughout the state.

The wet winter deferred the reckoning for Phoenix, Tucson and other communities dependent on the $5 billion Central Arizona Project, which brings water from the Colorado River.

Lake Mead is only half full, still perilously close to the level that would trigger water rationing throughout the region. The seven states that share Colorado River water narrowly agreed on a plan to spread the pain in the event of rationing, but the region has few additional sources of water, declining water tables and no long-term plan to deal with the shortage climatologists say will get much worse in coming decades.

Other rural areas and potential competitors for Rim Country for development are in even worse shape, with no pipeline, quickly dropping water tables and not enough water to supply future residents.

The region’s short-term water rationing plan does almost nothing to address those long-term problems. A return to the drought will require painful cutbacks in existing levels of water use, including taking thousands of acres of farmland out of production and limiting growth in many water basins where cities can’t guarantee a long-term water supply.

By contrast, the arrival of water from the pipeline will add 3,000 acre-feet annually to the 1,800 acre-feet Payson uses each year from a network of ground water wells. Town planners say the additional water will recharge the underground water table and provide a sustainable supply for a build-out population of 40,000 — compared to the current population of about 16,000. The 40,000 figure comes from an estimate based on developing all the existing residential property in town to its maximum density under the general plan — which is a conservative estimate.

So the pipeline has secured Payson’s future, just when the region has stumbled into a water crisis.

In the meantime, the arrival of the C.C. Cragin water last week also drowned a series of political controversies that once dominated Rim Country politics for a decade.

End to the water wars

Star Valley incorporated in part to protect its own underground water supply from neighboring Payson. Payson rationed water use for years to slow the rapid drop in its water table. The town required developers to prove they had a long-term water supply, without further depleting the water table. One developer got his permits by developing the Tower Well in unincorporated Star Valley and turning it over to Payson. The project was never actually built, but many people in Star Valley worried Payson would ultimately drain the water table, which is much closer to the surface than in Payson.

Payson and Star Valley ultimately struck a deal. Payson turned over some wells to Star Valley and agreed to limit pumping from the Tower Well. Payson also agreed to provide a backup water supply for Star Valley.

Meanwhile, Star Valley bought the private water company serving about one-third of the town and has been busily adding wells. It now can generate far more water than residents use from its own network of wells.

Star Valley’s water table will likely rise once Payson stops pumping water from its uphill water table for the nine months a year it receives C.C. Cragin water, not to mention the effects of injecting about 1,000 acre-feet annually into Payson’s water table. Although the interconnections in Payson’s unusual “perched granite” water table remain unpredictable, some of that water may trickle down to the Star Valley water table as Payson’s well levels rise.

Country clubs and

a water contract

The arrival of the reservoir water will also dissolve another political struggle from years past.

The water treatment plant will produce a steady supply of wastewater from flushed out microfiltration tubes. The water remains clean, but has algae, dissolved solids and other materials from the reservoir and pipeline. The town can recover some of that water by running it through the system again, but ultimately ends up with water it can’t use for drinking.

Normally, Payson would have to pay the Northern Gila County Sanitary District to process that wastewater. Instead, years ago Payson struck a deal with the two private country clubs to buy the wastewater for use on the golf courses. Originally, the country clubs had planned to irrigate the championship golf courses with treated, but non-drinkable water from the sanitary district. But the supply of treated water fell short, causing alarm about the health of the grass. The country clubs built a million-dollar pipeline so they could use the wastewater from the town’s pipeline system. But the town’s pipeline fell several years behind the original schedule, in part because the building slowdown dried up impact fees. Moreover, the town hoped a proposed university project would help offset the costs.

During that period, the town agreed to supply the golf courses with any extra water they needed with treated town drinking water. The town charged the golf courses a much lower rate than regular customers for the water — partly in consideration of the investment in the pipeline.

That caused sharp criticism of the town and factored at one point into a mayoral race.

However, with the arrival of the reservoir water, the golf courses will soon be using the filtered wastewater rather than drinking water to keep the greens, well, green.

In the meantime, the MHA Foundation has announced a plan to put in ballfields and a park on the property it bought from the Forest Service for an eventual university site. The MHA Foundation hopes to also strike a deal to build a prep school nearby, while still trying to lure a university or college partner to the larger site.

The wastewater from the C.C. Cragin pipeline will also water those new playing fields, which backers hope will also lure more tournaments and events from the Valley, to bolster summer business.

So the benefits of the pipeline have already started to flow into the economy of Payson — one of the few towns in the West with plenty of water.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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