It was under gray skies that the team of well drillers lowered hundreds of feet of steel pipe into a borehole Thursday morning. That the clouds would soon let loose a torrent of moisture provided an ironic setting to the work happening at the site — a search for water locked 3,000 feet underground.

The work represents what will likely be the city’s final effort to coax its Dogtown 1 Well back into operation after it failed in May.

The well's collapse is among a stack of water challenges that have piled onto the city's plate over the past year due to weak winter moisture, well failures and aging infrastructure.

In its latest move to stabilize the city’s water situation, Williams City Council on Thursday voted to spend up to $2.1 million to drill a new well on city property north of Interstate 40. The city has optimistically dubbed it the Sweetwater Well.

“Like any city, we need to be staying ahead of the curve instead of falling behind it. We should never be in a spot where we are, where we're maxed out in capacity,” City Manager Brandon Buchanan said. “Council is committed to breaking the cycle and getting us ahead of the game to where we need to be.”

A trail of water woes

The city has been operating under the highest level of water restrictions since last February when a dry winter caused the city’s reservoir levels to dwindle. At that time, the city had only one operating well and 19 months of water left.

The restrictions allow water to be used for only  household necessities and prohibit things like washing cars or watering lawns. They also don’t allow the city to issue any new building permits.

Now, after $450,000 in improvements to its long-abandoned Rodeo Well, the city has two operating wells. The other one is Dogtown 3, which pulls up about 240 gallons per minute. City officials have poured $2 million into a so far unsuccessful bid to resuscitate the Dogtown 1 Well.

Meanwhile, water in the city’s reservoirs is still at dismal levels, and that’s what is used to determine the need for water restrictions.

 Dogtown Lake, the city's largest reservoir, has a capacity of 360 million gallons but is about one-third full. Two other sources, Santa Fe Dam and Kaibab Lake are so low they’re now untreatable, and another two, Cataract Lake and Buckskinner Lake, have only small amounts of treatable water.

All of those sources together provide the city with a 16- to 19-month supply of water, said Kyle Christiansen, Williams’ public works director.

But the scary thought is if one of those wells fails.

“In 10 seconds I could get a call and that calculation (of water supply) could go from years to seven months,” Buchanan said.

That’s why the city is working so hard to establish additional well water supplies. Investing more than $4 million on wells alone is a huge burden on the city’s $18 million budget, but right now there’s no other backup water plan.

With a greater well capacity, the city could pump more water into Dogtown Lake in order to build up its surface reserves. That’s what it did last winter, allowing it to avoid catastrophe over the summer when, for a while, the city was down to one well.

Water makes the world go 'round

The city's water dilemma is the number one priority for its seven-member council. The city's vitality depends on water stability, Williams Mayor John Moore said.

“It’s like a stack of cards,” he said. “If you don't have water you can’t issue permits you can’t issue permits you don't grow and on and on.”

And while the city is struggling with production, it’s losing money and water on the distribution side of the equation as well. About 40 percent of the water the city releases from its treatment plant is lost to leaks or isn’t accurately tracked by water meters, preventing the city from recovering the cost of that water.

“We’re not looking to bring other sources online to throw away 40 percent of them,” Buchanan said. “What business can give away 40 percent of its revenue and be OK with that?”

A more typical loss rate is 7 percent to 9 percent, he said.

With that in mind, the city’s water reforms include replacing most of the approximately 1,500 water meters in Williams to more accurately measure and charge water users. The city also is pursuing a community development block grant that would replace a 28,000-gallon water storage tank with one that can hold 178,000 gallons.

But even if they build out more infrastructure, Williams officials know that it will all be for naught if they can't coax water from the ground.

“We have to be optimistic and hope it happens. I'm praying that it will," Moore said of resuscitating the Dogtown 1 well. "It’s that simple.”

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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