The mixed blessings of extra water


A new addition to the "mixed blessings" file: The town of Payson, Arizona, will soon get relief from its perennial water shortage, having cut a deal with utility power-broker Salt River Project for a share of the water from the nearby C.C. Cragin Reservoir (formerly known as the Blue Ridge Reservoir). You can't blame Payson residents for being overjoyed by this news; they have been living with rigid restrictions such as town-designated "water conservation levels" for some time.

An up side of this enforced community awareness, however, has been an admirable decrease of nearly 20 gallons per household in daily usage over a ten year period ending in 2006. A visitor driving through the attractive mountain town will indeed notice few lawns and much native and low-water-use landscaping, visible evidence of residents' and businesses' commitment to water thriftiness. It helps that native plants include picturesque Ponderosa pines, Manzanitas, and a nice variety of wildflowers.

In retrospect, it seems kind of silly that the reservoir's water hasn't been available to Payson until now, but its history echoes that of much Western U.S. resource-use history: the mines had a hand in it. In the early 1960s, Phelps Dodge Corporation built the dam on East Clear Creek in a complicated arrangement with Salt River Project in exchange for water rights on the Black River, near its Morenci copper mine in the Eastern part of the state. Once the deal was no longer beneficial for the mining company, they sold the reservoir outright to Salt River Project, which is now free to sell water to the thirsty towns in the region.

Herein lies the mixed blessing. Like many mountain towns around the West, Payson both benefits and suffers from its desirable geography. Only a one-to-two hour drive from the metro Phoenix area, it sees a large influx of visitors, especially in the summer. These visitors now drive the economy of this former logging mill town, providing service industry and other jobs to locals. Many visitors like it so well they buy second homes or retire there, which broadens the tax base and supplies construction jobs but also drives up the median home cost (still an astonishing $221,262 in recessionary 2010) and, of course, increases the demand for water.

Now that there's a reliable supply, will growth increase? Will Payson's admirable conservation practices, developed out of necessity, devolve into the water-hogging ways of other Arizona municipalities, or will the town teach the rest of us lessons in sustainability? Finally, where does this situation fall in the larger ethical debate over exploiting dammed waterways in the first place? Stay tuned.

Essays in the A Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Dr. Jacqueline Wheeler is the Writing Programs Associate Director at Arizona State University.

Image of the Blue Ridge Reservoir courtesy Flickr user Kevin Dooley.

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