New Water Source Surfaces For Town Council

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The Payson Town Council wants to look at any water offer that comes down the pike, whether it's at Blue Ridge or somewhere else.

But some council members say they have been "out of the loop" on getting information about new sources of water.

At a special meeting Tuesday, council members voted 5-2 to advise staff to do everything possible to look at Cibola Valley water resources, Blue Ridge water resources and every other water resource that would benefit the Town of Payson.

"And keep us informed," said council member Jack Monschein, who made the motion.

Council members Barbara Brewer and Ken Murphy voted against the motion.

Brewer said she objected to a part of the motion that included keeping Mayor Vern Stiffler, Town Attorney Sam Streichman and Public Works Director Buzz Walker as the town's representatives to discuss water issues.

"They didn't feel it was important to keep us in the loop on what was potentially available to us," Brewer said.

She and Murphy said information about a potential source of water rights from property in the Cibola Valley on the Colorado River between Yuma and Blythe, Calif. was kept from them.

Brewer said later that she only found out about the Cibola Valley water when she and Murphy attended an out-of-town meeting of the League of Cities and Towns recently.

Some members of the council and town staff knew about the offer of water more than a year ago, following a November 1997 meeting with the owner of the water rights.

Public Works Director Buzz Walker said there are things that seem legitimate, and others that are less so. "It's been my style to not burden the council with all this stuff," he said.

Stiffler said he had no problem not hearing about every little thing from Walker.

The meeting was held in Phoenix with then-Vice Mayor Val Lubken, Town Attorney Sam Streichman, Walker and Town Water Attorney Larry Caster.

The group met with Larry Gear, who owns 4,000 acres of land next to the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge. Gear has 22,560 acre feet of water rights he wants to sell. Also at the meeting was Dan Hellman, Gear's broker and the contractor for Stone Creek subdivision in Payson.

"Streichman, Caster and Walker determined that it would never work -- it was a far-out, blown-out idea that would never work, and, basically, at the time, it was," Lubken said Thursday.

She said federal officials had not determined yet if such a project was feasible. The Bureau of Reclamation had not been involved and the Indians weren't talking.

"A lot of things had to be done behind the scenes," Lubken said.

She said that had she tried to push for the Cibola water deal with no town support, it would have been completely lost.

But interest has been rekindled since Murphy became aware of the possibilities.

"Apparently, someone made the decision not to pursue this water," said Murphy, who reportedly heard about the proposal from Hellman on Jan. 7. Murphy met with Gear a couple days later.

Murphy said that the water rights Gear owns allow him to divert water anywhere along the Colorado River.

"This makes the Lake Powell area extremely important," Murphy said. "Grand Canyon, Flagstaff and Williams all desperately need water. They and the Navajos and the Hopis are priorities for getting water." He said Northern Gila County is the second priority.

Murphy described a proposed pipeline running from Lake Powell that would supply the Navajo reservation, Flagstaff, Williams and the Grand Canyon.

He said phase one of the report is due out any day on the feasibility of the project, which is funded by the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

An extension of the pipeline along Lake Mary Road to Northern Gila County is under discussion.

"This is just one of the possibilities that could occur," Murphy said.

He said the water rights from the Cibola Valley would give the Town of Payson "a bargaining chip -- it's like money in the bank, water in the tank, as Hoby (Herron) says.

"This is a complicated issue and there are many details to look into, but that doesn't mean we can't take a look at it."

Hellman said when he first made the proposal over a year ago, he was working on the Stone Creek project in Payson and thinking about moving here with his family.

"I understood that a long-term solution to the perceived water problem had to be resolved," he said.

Hellman's family and Gear's family had been friends for many years, and Hellman approached Gear with the idea of selling the water rights to the Town of Payson.

"I believed that these water rights could be an integral part of solving the long-term water needs for the Town of Payson, fully understanding that this type of transaction is very complex," Hellman said.

Proposal taken to county
When a year passed and the town did not pursue the matter, Hellman took the proposal to sell the water to Gila County Supervisor Ron Christensen. Lubken said she set up the meeting.

Hellman said he was surprised to learn that the Town Council knew nothing of the proposal until just recently, when he talked with Murphy and council member Barbara Brewer.

"As far as I know, Barbara did not know anything about this until I mentioned it to her," Hellman said. Murphy said that he had not heard anything about Cibola Valley water, either.

Hellman said Gear now wants to work with Christensen and the Northern Gila County Water Planning Partnership.

On Jan. 13, Murphy set up a conference call with Gear, Caster and Streichman. Streichman included Walker in the discussion of the Cibola Valley water.

Murphy said he then met with the rest of the Town Council to inform them of the proposal. He said Stiffler refused to meet with him on the matter.

"The next thing I know, this stupid (Jan. 19) meeting gets called because everybody wants to know who's responsible for talking about water," Murphy said Wednesday.

Council member Hoby Herron said he does not want to circumvent staff. "But when somebody brings up something that they think wasn't handled correctly by staff, we have to listen," he said.

Murphy said he would continue the pursuit of finding water for the town "with or without staff." He said that, in his opinion, he did the honorable thing in talking with Hellman and Gear.

Council member Ray Schum said, "In these 30 months that I've been on the council, I've never heard of Cibola until the past two weeks."

Herron said he often complains about all the paper work he gets. "But, I'd like to get a memo, anyway, especially about water."

Town Attorney Sam Streichman, also under fire for failing to share what he knew about Cibola water, told the council, "If you tell me to get Cibola water, I'll do it. "If you tell me to get Blue Ridge water, I'll do it. Cibola is water at the asking price of $18 million."

Streichman said Cibola water could be used for trade, if the Navajo tribe wants water for water. "But the Navajos want money," he said.

"What we're working on, and have been working on for four years, is water for cash," Walker said.

Many questions unanswered
Responding to Murphy's criticism about not keeping the council informed, Walker said Thursday that he followed a "routine lead" about the Cibola water.

"There were some major questions that were unanswered at the time and are still unanswered today," he said. "The biggest question is how the acquisition of those (Cibola) water rights would somehow fit into the Blue Ridge water settlement."

Walker said all of Payson's debt resources would be used to pay for the pipeline to use Blue Ridge water.

"How would we pay for Cibola? Whatever we ultimately do has to be within our financial capabilities -- it's going to have to be carefully and cohesively structured."

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