For the past 37 years, Phelps Dodge Corp. has pumped an average of 8,900 acre-feet of water per year over the Rim and through the East Verde River, sending it to Phoenix.
In 1999 that flow could be cut by two-thirds due to a new water agreement being worked out by the Salt River Project, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, Phelps Dodge and other agencies.
Residents from Verde Glen to Whispering Pines would see a decrease in flow, but those further downstream will notice only a slight lowering in water levels, said Rod Byers, head of lands and minerals department for the Tonto National Forest.
Very little will change on the river front until water exchanges are approved, said Cindy Chandley, manager of the land and water resources department of Phelps Dodge.
But the prospects alarm some residents of the affected subdivisions.
"We are very disappointed," said Whispering Pines resident Troy Young. "No one ever indicated that this was ever going to be shut off."
When he and his wife, Roberta, bought their property along the river's edge in 1968, they assumed that the East Verde flowed naturally.
"Nobody told us that it was not a natural flow," Young said. "We did not know that for years."
Phelps Dodge began pumping water out of Blue Ridge Reservoir and down through the East Verde in 1962 to repay Salt River Project for water diverted out of the Black River, a tributary of the Salt River. Phelps Dodge uses the Black River water for its Morenci mine, said Rich Siegel, principal analyst for SRP's water rights division.
Phelps Dodge pumped as much as 11,900 acre feet into the East Verde back in 1966, and as little as 560 acre feet in 1990. The amount of flow is at the discretion of Phelps Dodge, Siegel said.
United States Geological Survey data shows wide fluctuations in the flow of the upper East Verde. There are two flow-monitoring stations on the East Verde -- one just above the pipe from Phelps Dodge and another west of Payson.
Data provided on the Internet (http://water.az.usgs.gov) from these shows a peak flow on the upper East Verde in 1965, when the river saw 260 cubic feet of water per second flow down from the Rim. However, just the year before, the average flow was less than 1 CFS for the year. In an average year the flow tops out at 135 CFS and bottoms at about 10 CFS.
The lower East Verde runs a bit more consistently at an average of 30 CFS, with fewer peaks and valleys. This is due to the natural springs that feed in the East Verde, Byers said.
Firefighting a concern
The proposed reduction in the upper East Verde water flow raises a number of concerns among area residents.
"Our primary concern is firefighting," Young said. Whispering Pines is surrounded by forest and has limited access. The community's fire department uses the river as a water source to fight fires.
In a dry year, faced with a dry riverbed, Young fears the worst.
There are also concerns for property values, ground water and wildlife accustomed to having water available. In years when the river has been low or dry, Young said, area wells went dry.
But legal issues may override those concerns.
In January, as a part of the San Carlos Apache Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act, Phelps Dodge is required to lease 14,000 acre-feet of water from the tribe's Central Arizona Project holdings, said Chandley.
Phelps Dodge will store that water at a location still to be decided until the exchange is worked out between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the tribe and SRP, Chandley said. Once the settlement is finalized, Phelps Dodge will no longer need to pump water from Blue Ridge Reservoir to repay SRP, Chandley said. This could happen in 1999.
As a part of the settlement, Phelps Dodge has proposed to turn Blue Ridge Reservoir over to the BLM for the benefit of the Navajo Nation. Part of that proposal includes keeping 3,000 acre-feet of water flowing through the pump stations for use by Pine, Strawberry and Payson, Chandley said.