by Jim Keyworth
roundup staff reporter
When Salt River Project protested Payson's application to drill exploratory wells in the Mayfield Canyon area of the Tonto National Forest, some residents wondered why it was any of their business.
After all, the Valley-based conglomerate provides electricity in the Phoenix area and water to a service area in central Arizona. What could they possibly have to do with our water up here in the Rim country?
The answer is, they own it.
"More accurately, the state has given them the right to use it," said Rich Martin, group leader for physical resources for the Tonto National Forest. "They are a very interesting organization, to say the least."
The story of SRP goes back to 1903, nine years before Arizona became a state. That's when a small group of Valley farmers formed an organization called the Salt River Valley Water User's Association and pledged more than 200,000 acres of their land as collateral for a government loan to build a massive water storage and delivery system.
The loan was made possible by the National Reclamation Act of 1902 which provided funding for the construction of water storage dams and canals. It was used, in part, to build Roosevelt Dam to store and deliver water from a 13,000-square-mile watershed that supplies two-thirds of the nearly one million acre-feet of water delivered to SRP customers in central Arizona each year.
That watershed includes Payson, Prescott, Flagstaff, Show Low and vast areas around and in between. The entire Tonto National Forest, SRP claims, "was created to reserve portions of the Salt River and Verde River watersheds ... in order to protect and ensure that the water resources from this region would be available for use by the water users and shareholders of the Salt River Federal Reclamation Project."
For this reason, SRP argues, Payson should not be allowed to drill on forest lands.
"Nowhere in the historical record does it indicate that the water resources of the Tonto National Forest were to be set aside for use by Payson or anyone other than SRP," David Roberts, manager of water rights and contracts for SRP, wrote in a letter to Payson District Ranger Ed Armenta.
"The farmers down there were pretty astute people," Martin said. "They lobbied the federal government to protect the watershed for downstream water users."
Now, he said, SRP has come up with a new twist.
"They say the Tonto National Forest was created not only to protect the watershed, but also to provide water."
To understand how SRP came to claim it owns the Rim country water and what, if anything, residents can do about it, it is necessary to understand how Western water law evolved, Martin said.
"It wasn't a bunch of politicians sitting around who came up with this stuff," he said. "It was the miners who moved west and were working land that was in the public domain. When they found a gold strike, there was only so much water so they began setting up rules. What came out of that was the 'prior appropriation doctrine,' which pretty much became the surface water law of the West. It means 'first in time, first in right.'"
That's the principle upon which SRP's claim to our water is based.
"It's always a source of aggravation to mountain communities who see water flowing by the front door and down to the Valley," Martin said, "and SRP is very efficient at protecting those rights."
But there is also what Martin calls "a quirk" in Arizona law that is becoming an interesting battleground.
"Groundwater is viewed in a legal sense as different than surface water," he said.
Under the "doctrine of reasonable use," whoever owns the overlying lands has the right to drill and capture the groundwater. So the Forest Service or private landowners can drill a well and use as much water as they want, as long as they aren't wasting it.
While there are now separate doctrines governing surface water and ground water, Martin said in reality the two water sources are linked.
"That's why there is always a conflict over who owns what," he said. "SRP is getting much more aggressive in saying they are connected, but they have to prove that connection. Where it gets tricky is where a well is drilled beside a creek and the creek dries up. There's always a lot of tension around stream-side zones."
Martin said the position of the Tonto National Forest is that the groundwater beneath the forest is under "our jurisdiction, but we don't want anyone using it if it is going to hurt national forest resources."
As long as that can be demonstrated, and as long as neighboring wells are not affected, "we will consider providing water to people who need it," he said.
Payson Public Works Director Buzz Walker believes what SRP is doing is an outrage.
"This all happened 100 years ago, when conditions were very different," Walker said. "They say this area shouldn't grow without a water supply, but they are now providing water to mostly urban customers. This isn't about agriculture anymore."
Walker said he's also upset at SRP linking surface water and groundwater.
"They're not just satisfied with the surface water anymore," he said. "Now they're saying the groundwater is surface water."
But mostly Walker said he is concerned about SRP's take-it-or-leave-it attitude.
"They know when they make these demands, it's an impossible task for rural Arizona. How do they expect little communities in rural areas to continue to augment the water supply for major metropolitan areas? Why don't they just come out and say that rural Arizona ought to be denuded of human beings?"
Walker said he has repeatedly tried to reason with SRP.
"We've asked them publicly and confidentially, 'What do we have to do to get you to adopt us?'"
Taking on SRP in a legal arena is not really an option for towns like Payson, Walker said.
"The fight bill wouldn't be legitimate; it would be the world champ versus a bantamweight," he said.
Both Walker and Martin believe the only way to find out how groundwater and surface water relate to one another in the Mayfield Canyon area is to drill the exploratory wells and find out.
"It's all dictated by the geology, and there is no way to know that until we do pump testing," Martin said.
"I hope that some day, reason will prevail," Walker said, "and we'll find a way to work together that makes them happy and that we can afford. Usually, the big guy says, 'Everybody has a right to exist. Let's sit down at the table and see if we can fix this thing.'"
What he sees going on now just doesn't make sense, he said.
"You and I can drive 70 minutes down into the desert and there is plenty of water," Walker said. "But come up here where the water originates, and we can't use it because of 100-year-old water rights."