County Leader Chides Valley For Water Waste

WATER WIZARDS

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This is the third in a series featuring in-depth interviews with the people who impact the Rim country's water situation.

Right up front, Gila County District One Supervisor Ron Christensen, issues a disclaimer.

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"It's going to take alliances and negotiating ...," Gila County District One Supervisor Ron Christensen said of the politics of water.

"I don't know what a water guru is, but I'm pretty sure I'm not one and I don't intend to be one," he said.

What Christensen does bring to the water table is 15 years of experience as a supervisor grappling with the most serious issue facing northern Gila County. During that time he's read reports, talked to hydrogeologists, and served on committees and commissions formed to deal with water. His is a broad-based and comprehensive perspective.

Arizona's largest watershed

"We set on one of the largest watersheds in the state, and yet we don't have any real claims on that water," he said. "So we have to find ways we can capture water off that watershed in concert with SRP, the federal government, the Indian tribes, and the local providers who are primarily using groundwater now."

One current attempt to sort it all out is the study being conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

"We, along with the town of Payson, entered into this agreement to really go through a comprehensive look at northern Gila County," he said. "We realize a great deal of water is generated here normally, but we have been in a drought now for a number of years, so the pressure is greater than ever."

SRP part of the solution

Christensen agrees with Payson Public Works Director Buzz Walker that SRP must be part of the solution.

"Salt River Project is feeling that pressure as much as anybody," he said. "They have agreements and structures in place that make them a major player in any water decisions, and we have to work with them and through them, and so far, from the county perspective, we've had good cooperation with SRP. They're very adamant about their positions and so are we, but we're talking back and forth and we have found avenues we can explore to create a water situation for us which is positive -- Blue Ridge being one of those."

Local providers too small

Further complicating the water picture from the county's perspective is the large number of smaller local entities that provide water.

"We have formed five domestic water improvement districts throughout northern Gila County, most of them in the Pine and Strawberry area," he said. "Payson is one of the larger providers, and we need to be talking to them too, because they're looking outside their immediate area for water."

While the county has been accused of allowing growth with little concern for an adequate water supply, Christensen said that's simply not the case.

Bring your own water

"What the county has done is to require anybody who wants to put in a subdivision or develop private lands -- and they're going to do that, they have a right to do that -- to prove they have a sufficient water supply," he said. "So far those districts have been able to supply their own people and also supply (water) to providers like Brooke Utilities."

But the long-term solution, Christensen believes, will be very complex and time consuming and involve a lot of major players.

"It's not going to be settled quickly and it's going to be painful because there are going to be winners and losers in the process. It's going to take alliances and negotiating, and whether or not the small local providers can survive is a big question mark."

In the meantime, Christensen is dealing with the recent dissolution of the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District.

"They are not a provider," he said. "Their whole emphasis was to try to find, negotiate and secure sustainable water supplies. Right now we're in the process of finding out what the community wants to do. Do they want it to become a provider? We're going to conduct a simple survey by mail. We have to elect another board back into the process at such a time as the supervisors feel all the difficulties that caused the last board to resign are cleaned up."

Rate increase hearings

The county also plans to get involved in the coming Arizona Corporation Commission hearings on the request for a rate increase by the Pine and Strawberry water companies, both subsidiaries of Brooke Utilities.

"The water improvement district is going to be involved in that," Christensen said. "We want Brooke Utilities to justify how their operations warrant a rate increase. There's a lot of intricacies in (Brooke President Robert) Hardcastle's company we don't know anything about and we would like to know more about."

Christensen also emphasized that the recent hydrogeologic study conducted by the PSWID is not being discounted. The study identified where to drill to tap into a large regional aquifer in the red limestone.

"We know there's water down there deep, and we're going to have to go for it at some point," he said. "But we want to have the best science available to tell us where that is. It costs a great deal of money to put a hole down 2,000 feet and bring the water up."

Because of the cost, Christensen has asked independent hydrologists to evaluate the study.

"There was a dramatic realization in that study of how water is moving in the area that wasn't previously (known), and I think that was a major accomplishment and a major step forward," he said.

Pooling resources

The bottom line, Christensen said, is that Arizona can only support so many people.

"Phoenix is a huge user of water, and one of the areas where conservation is least utilized," he said. "We up here are expected to and asked very often to conserve. Well, we have conserved.

"How many swimming pools do we have in Payson, Pine, Strawberry or Mesa del Caballo or any of these places? None. But I'm sure you've flown into Phoenix and there's enough water in swimming pools to take care of us for a number of years. And then they've built lakes down there and they advertise them.

"They built a Cadillac desert and people are flocking in there. They're expecting another three million people in there. Where is that water going to come from? Somebody's got to give up something to make this thing balance, and nobody wants to give up anything."

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