Water from C.C. Cragin travels from the top of the Mogollon Rim to a treatment plant near Mesa del Caballo and then Payson.

Sometime this week, your tap water changed.

And Payson Water Manager Tanner Henry either had a nervous breakdown — or is maybe getting his first good night’s sleep in a couple of years.

That’s because Payson threw the switch on its new, $53 million water system early this week, after decades of effort and years of innovation.

Payson town leaders and visionaries have spent decades working to bring the C.C. Cragin water to town, led all the while by Buzz Walker, the former water manager lingering in retirement on a special contract to see the project through.

Henry now runs the water department and has spent the past year in a harrowing effort to make sure the innovative system actually worked this week.

“We have $14 million worth of equipment that’s just been installed and that’s an awful lot of fittings and pieces that aren’t supposed to leak,” said Henry, who was a consulting engineer for Tetra Tech for 14 years before taking on the Payson Water Department. “During one stress test, a fitting blew off and we had an eruption in the parking lot.

“I’m losing sleep every night thinking, ‘holy-moley,’” he added.

The project will make Payson one of the few communities in the Southwest with an assured “forever” water supply, although it required outlasting behemoths like the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and bonding consultants — not to mention solving a host of daunting technical problems.

The town also had to win the support of residents already paying 20 to 40 percent more for their water. The town phased in the rate increases several years ago to assure the financing of the project.

The massive effort will each year deliver enough water to cover 3,000 acres in a foot of water, with about half of that flowing into homes and businesses throughout town and the other half going into the water table.

Already, the complicated system has attracted the attention of water experts all over the world.

“Hydrogeology consultants have already taken some pilot testing data and presented it to a world geology conference in Mexico City,” said Henry. We’re on the cutting edge of technology. They’re all sitting with bated breath, wondering how this is going to work out since some of their programs are contingent on our success.”

Moreover, the water goes to work immediately — producing the power needed to run the system. First, the Salt River Project pumps it out of the deep, narrow reservoir and into a pipeline that runs from the lake all the way down off the Rim to Washington Park. There, it passes through a hydroelectric generator, producing the power necessary to drive the pumps on top. About 3,000 acre-feet then goes into the Payson pipeline and perhaps another 10,000 acre-feet into the East Verde River. The water in Payson’s pipeline runs some 17 miles along Houston Mesa Road to the treatment plant near Shoofly Ruins and Mesa del Caballo. Here it passes through another generator to produce the power needed to run the high-tech treatment plant.

Henry said the town will probably hold some sort of ceremony in the fall to mark the decades of effort. But “I want to flip the switch and make sure the whole thing functions properly before we celebrate. The town manager said we’d have some short of shindig in the fall, once we kick the tires and take it around the block. It will take a week or so for water to spread throughout the system.”

Henry said the whole project has been an engineer’s dream.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with some wonderful engineers like Gary Dashney — right on the ground floor of the C.C. Cragin and Green Valley Park. He was a mentor not only for me, but for Buzz too. Now that I work on this side of the table, I’ve learned how unbelievably talented our crew is. You can put us up against any other water company out there.”

The success of the system rests on three questions, each with complex answers and big impacts.

How do you mix mineral-free snowmelt with mineral-laden groundwater, without a water quality nightmare?

How do you stash perhaps 2,000 acre-feet of water underground each year for future use?

And how can you use this gush of water to wash away old political conflicts, while securing the region’s future?

Learn more about the system in the next installment of this series on the C.C. Cragin project.

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