In a strongly worded letter to District Ranger Ed Armenta, Salt River Project has told the Payson Ranger District that Payson's application to drill 21 exploratory wells near Mayfield Canyon should be denied.
The letter, dated July 30 and signed by David C. Roberts, manager of water rights and contracts for SRP, was made public by both the Town of Payson and the Diamond Star Citizens' Action Coalition. As he gave the Roundup a copy of the letter, Town Manager Rich Underkofler said, "I just want you guys to see what we're up against."
Chuck Heron, chairman of the coalition, said his conversations with SRP left little doubt that the company is dead serious about thwarting Payson's application at any cost. Heron was also upset about an e-mail from Town Councilmember Jim Spencer to a dozen or so local business and real estate leaders asking them to send letters to the U.S. Forest Service in favor of the project.
"He was complaining about getting blindsided at the meeting at the high school last week. It just shows you what goes on down at Town Hall," Heron said.
In the e-mail, Spencer wrote, "As many of you already know, the USFS Mayfield Canyon Water Exploration Meeting was a fiasco from the word go.
"Ed Armenta did nothing to control the meeting and it had a lynch (mob) mentality. Even though Buzz Walker and Mike Ploughe made an excellent presentation regarding the science of the exploration, the crowd really did not want to be confused with any facts."
Roberts takes issue with the town characterizing the project as science-based.
"It's not a scientific experiment," the SRP executive said. "If it were, they would be taking a whole different approach to this thing."
"I have an obligation as a councilmember to help secure an adequate water supply for the town," Spencer said, defending his e-mail. "I encourage all citizens of Payson to write to the Forest Service and their elected leaders in Washington D.C. to ask for their support."
In his letter to Armenta, a seven-page document, Roberts cites four reasons for denying Payson's application:
"The Tonto National Forest was established principally to protect the water supply needed for the Salt River Reclamation Project, not as a water source to serve the Town of Payson. Today," he wrote, "that water supply is relied upon and managed to serve more than two million people in the Salt River Valley."
As further evidence of this claim, Roberts cites the Tonto National Forest's own Internet Web site, which says the forest was created in 1905 "to protect the watersheds of the Salt and Verde Rivers ... and ensure the water supply of what were then (the) heavily agricultural cities of Phoenix, Mesa and Tempe in the Salt River Valley."
"Pumping in the Mayfield Canyon area for municipal and industrial uses ... has already been demonstrated to impact surface water and groundwater resources." Roberts cited a special use permit granted to Chaparral Pines to construct a pipeline to convey water across forest lands.
"Since then," he wrote, "all of the riparian vegetation along the reach of Mayfield Canyon near Calhoun Ranch has died. Additionally, a spring which used to provide water to a nearby pond has ceased flowing."
"The proposal ... violates the Forest Service's policy for the use of groundwater on forest lands." Roberts cites several policies and procedures in effect, including one that allows use of groundwater for consumptive purposes "only if it can be demonstrated that such proposals will adequately protect forest resources."
"The proposal ... is no different than (others) considered but rejected by Payson because (they) conflict with the water rights claims by ... SRP." Roberts says that the town ruled out pumping groundwater from the Tonto Basin area because of conflicts with SRP users, and their current application should be denied because "this same conflict exists for the Mayfield Canyon pumping proposal."
SRP, which provides water to "a couple million" customers in central Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, Glendale, Tolleson, Avondale and Peoria, was originally established by the federal government when congress put the reclamation service in place in the early 1900s. "SRP was one of the first projects they put together," Roberts said.
"The landowners here in the Valley put up their land as collateral for a loan from the government to build the Roosevelt Dam," he said. "They had been using water out of the Salt River for irrigation since the 1860s. The dam was built to capture all the runoff from the watershed up there, including Payson although there was no Payson at the time. (The landowners) were instrumental in creating the Tonto National Forest to reserve portions of the watershed ... so water resources from the region would be available for use by the water users and shareholders of (SRP)."
Roberts said SRP has talked to the town for many years about doing water exchanges.
"Unfortunately they made the decision to sell their (Central Arizona Project) rights. We told them that would be fraught with problems," Roberts said.
While the town has ruled out water exchanges as too expensive, Roberts isn't sure town officials have done their homework.
Spencer would only say that the town and SRP have a difference of opinion.
"We'll let the process determine who's right," Spencer said.
Town Manager Rich Underkofler said it's not unusual for SRP to protest such applications.
"SRP routinely objects to anything like that in the forest," he said. "The only way to talk to those people is through lawyers," he added, "so our lawyer will be talking with the lawyers for SRP."
Roberts said he believes Payson has a fundamental problem.
"It's risky to develop a community on top of a rock where there are no aquifers," he said. "If they are going to grow, they need to grow in a way that won't impact others and it's going to cost them more money.
"There are options, but they are very expensive."