Payson will get at least a little C.C. Cragin Reservoir water this year and the East Verde River will get a six-month reprieve before it dwindles toward running dry.

The news emerged last week from a meeting on how to save the reservoir by thinning the 64,000-acre watershed.

The dry winter left the 15,000-acre-foot reservoir just 29% full at the end of the spring runoff period, leading the Salt River Project to hold off pumping water out to deliver to Payson and release into the East Verde.

However, SRP started the pumps on May 1 and will continue moving water for about six weeks, perhaps enough to keep the East Verde from drying up before the onset of the monsoon in July. The National Weather Service predicts a hot, dry May and June, but perhaps a blessedly average monsoon this year. The fire season is already well underway, with evacuations already ordered in the face of at least two wildfires in the state.

SRP Director of Water Supply Bruce Hallin said the pumps started on May 1 and continue running through mid-June.

“This past winter was dry and it didn’t help that we had such a dry monsoon (last year). We only saw 9 inches of precipitation on the watershed, which is 54% of normal. It’s just an indicator of how dry the forest is.”

Payson Water Department Director Tanner Henry said Payson will take about 553 acre-feet of water from the reservoir in its $50 million pipeline, which connects to the SRP system at Washington Park at the headwaters of the East Verde. Normally, the town takes 2,500 acre-feet, enough to supply all the town’s needs for the nine months the pipeline runs.

SRP will also deliver a portion of the several hundred acre-feet contracted for by the private Payson Water Company to supply the residents of the unincorporated community of Mesa del Caballo.

Henry said Payson probably won’t take delivery on its shrunken allotment this year until the first week in June. “Later in the year is better for us when it’s hot and dry.”

Tanner said he spent the week on the watershed hunting turkey and noted dry stock tanks. “It’s definitely dry up there this year, and the watershed can certainly use some help. Thankfully, we banked some water this year.”

Payson normally uses about 2,000 acre-feet per year. Water levels in the town’s groundwater wells had dropped some 200 feet before imposing water restrictions a decade ago. The town pumps about 1,000 acre-feet per year back into the water table from the C.C. Cragin pipeline, which has raised the water table in the past three years. The town has been relying entirely on the pipeline during the nine months it normally runs.

The 554 acre-feet from the pipeline this year won’t cover the town’s use, leading to renewed pumping of groundwater.

The flow of the East Verde at Crackerjack Road has declined to 1 cubic feet per second before SRP resumed pumping. The East Verde remains popular with anglers and visitors. The swimming holes at Water Wheel draw a flood of summer visitors and Arizona Game and Fish has turned the stream reaches above First Crossing into a showcase fishery for native Gila trout.

However, Payson’s still in much better shape than most areas in the state — which face plunging water tables and rationing of water from the shrunken reservoirs on the Colorado River. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said it will this year declare the first water shortage in the history of the Colorado River, triggering deep cuts in delivery to Arizona cities through the Central Arizona Project. The state gets about a third of its water from the Colorado River.

The legislature failed to act on half a dozen groundwater management bills introduced this year. In many rural areas, huge corporate farming operations have drained water tables with wells that are thousands of feet deep. Studies show that some 90% of the state’s riparian areas are already dewatered or degraded.

Lawmakers introduced several bills this session to cope with the crisis. The handful of urban areas receiving Colorado River water were required to limit groundwater pumping, but most of rural Arizona has no limits. One bill would have given county supervisors the authority to limit groundwater pumping in certain circumstances and would have limited the number of new wells in an area with a rapidly falling water table. All the water shortage bills died in committee without ever making it to the floor of the House or Senate.

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