Big Water Used To Come Over The Mogollon Rim

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Since the town of Payson is very serious about tapping into water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir on the Rim, this is a good time to review the history of that water source.

In the spring of 1963 the project was just getting under way, but the East Verde was running twice its usual volume from the last melting snows. Renewed springs gushed from the mountainsides and a hundred little fountains popped from the canyons, running across the trail as we hiked along the river.

The apple trees on our small "estate" were in full bloom, planted almost 100 years earlier by Mercedes Belluzzi, foretelling of pies and sauce come autumn. We were called irresistibly by the wilderness, and occasionally sat in silence listening to the birds and watching a water oozel bob in the rapids. A goldfinch did the strangest dance with its wings, just six feet away, holding a twig in its beak and calling urgently to its mate. The tassel-eared squirrels scurried up and down the trees, waving their long, full tails. We whispered our thoughts to each other, about the awesome beauty of this place, when suddenly the roar of a diesel engine interrupted our meditation. Rousing ourselves, we followed a deer trail to an opening in the forest, where a giant Caterpillar tractor was widening and smoothing the old pioneer trail, pushing giant boulders into a washout.

This intrusion into our sanctuary hypnotized us momentarily. Then a sharp "CRACK" echoed against the canyon walls, and a giant Douglas fir snapped wildly into a severe lean. The "Cat" had clipped the mighty tree with its deadly blade. An eerie look of power crossed the face of the driver as he prepared to finish his mistake. One push of a gear and the great tree came down, torn up at the roots and felling two lesser trees in its descent. We felt as if we had witnessed an execution. We were seeing the fruition of a long-term plan by the Phelps Dodge Mining Company to fulfill the obligations of a lawsuit they had lost to the Salt River Project.

It began at the outset of World War II when increased copper supplies were critical to the war effort. Phelps Dodge began a huge program at its Morenci mine to almost double the capacity of its concentrator. This required additional water, and there followed an agreement with the Salt River Project to divert 250,000-acre feet of water from the Black River in exchange for constructing Horseshoe Dam on the Verde River, 49 miles north of Phoenix. That dam was completed in 1947, but it was only the beginning of a chain of events. As Phelps Dodge continued to expand production at its Morenci operation, it requested still more water for Morenci. In 1952 the company entered a second agreement with SRP to construct the Jaques Dam at Show Low and pump the accumulated water over the Mogollon Rim into the Salt River drainage for storage at the Roosevelt Dam. Then in 1961, Phelps Dodge made a third water exchange agreement with the Salt River Project. This would involve building the Blue Ridge Dam on East Clear Creek, a tributary of the Little Colorado River, bringing that water over the Rim and into the East Verde River, where it would flow down for storage at Horseshoe Dam.

In April 1963 the dam was begun above the Rim, and heavy machinery was moved into the forest below the Rim. All that summer and fall they plowed their way through the forest and along the river, making a road viable for the heavy equipment needed to drill an eight-mile tunnel under the mountain. The plan was to tap the water dammed on East Clear Creek at an elevation of 7,500 feet, and let it flow by gravity through the tunnel to an elevation of 6,000 feet where it would empty into the upper reaches of the East Verde River. It was rather horrifying for us to watch that summer, as a narrow gauge railroad was installed to run into the mountain and carry out blasted rock. The old Moqui Trail and pioneer road to the top of the Rim were often obliterated, and the hand-placed rock abutments where the trail often crossed the river were destroyed. It seemed that the history of the canyon was being altered forever.

When the contractor could not fulfill the time requirement for the tunnel, that plan was abandoned, the equipment hauled out and the opening (which had gone in over a mile) blasted close. It left a huge open, rock strewn area in the canyon.

An alternative plan was launched, calling for a 30-inch pipeline to come over the Rim. Since the first mile of tunnel leading out of the Blue Ridge Reservoir had been completed, it was to be utilized. At the end of that mile, the water was pumped up into the pipeline, moving with great force as it descended by gravity and emptied into the East Verde River just above the old Belluzzi homestead, known today as the Rim Trail Mountain Tract. There, it enters a hydroelectric plant, turning the turbines that create electricity to operate the pumps back on the Rim. Excess electricity was sold to Arizona Public Service.

Ask those who live along the river and you will hear praise for the added water that was brought over the Rim. The terrible scars left in the forest by the project have been almost healed by nature's encroachment. The rush of water, doubling and often tripling the East Verde flow, provided cooling in summer and a new abundance of trout fishing. Blue Ridge Lake has become an added fishing resource and remains untrammeled by commercial development. However, after nearly 40 years of enjoying all this extra water, the contract Phelps Dodge had with the Salt River Project expired, and the flow of water ceased. This was a shocker to landowners along the river who had purchased property with the expectation that the water would always flow in front of their cabins. In many places the natural flow of the river simply disappears under ground. It remains to be seen if those who live below the Rim will be able to tap into the liquid gold again.

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