Town Looks At Water From Blue Ridge

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The town of Payson expanded its search for new water sources on two fronts this week, taking a closer look at Blue Ridge Reservoir and authorizing the use of sophisticated, non-invasive technology to further evaluate the groundwater potential of the Diamond Rim area.

Blue Ridge Reservoir

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During the tour of Blue Ridge Reservoir, participants took a close look at the pipeline that carries water to the pumping station. On top of the pipe are (left to right) Joe Sparks, a lawyer for the Tonto Apache Tribe; Greg Cornrumph of SRP; and Fred Carpenter, Payson Town Manager. On the ground are Carol Irwin of the Bureau of Reclamation and town Public Works Director Buzz Walker.

A busload of town officials and other interested parties, many involved in the regional water study organized by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, visited the reservoir and its pumping station atop the Mogollon Rim near Clint's Well Tuesday. Originally constructed by Phelps-Dodge, the reservoir is currently not being used, but is considered a major piece of the water puzzle in the area.

"It was certainly more than I expected," Town Councilor Judy Buettner said. "We followed the whole scenario of where the water goes there -- to the power station and to the surge pump and to the $2 million dollar tank and all the way down to where it goes into the East Verde."

Public Works Director Buzz Walker, who also was on the tour, called the reservoir "quite an asset," but one that poses logistical problems.

"It's about a 12,000-acre-foot, man-made reservoir on top of the Rim, about 25 miles from Payson as the crow flies," Walker said. "But to get there, you have to drive up past Clint's Well and turn on Forest Road 141 and go in about five miles to see the reservoir, and then a mile from there is a pumping station that takes water out of the lake and pumps it over the Rim. You have to drive for over another hour or two more forest roads to get to see it."

Among those with an interest in the reservoir is Salt River Project, which also was represented on the tour.

"SRP has always claimed an interest in the reservoir if it wasn't used by Phelps-Dodge," Walker said.

"They're asserting that claim and they've asked the federal government to take it over so it's operated by the Bureau of Reclamation for the benefit of northern Gila County, Payson and others."

Among the "others" likely to want at least some Blue Ridge water is the Navajo Nation, Walker said.

"They will make a claim on that as a water source, and their rights are older than everybody's," he said. "The Navajos have asserted treaty obligations from the formation of the reservation that the federal government has to satisfy, and when you go looking for water on the south part of the reservation, there aren't a whole lot of ways to get water to go by gravity anywhere. One of them is out of the Blue Ridge Reservoir."

The Tonto Apache Tribe also participated in the visit to Blue Ridge.

Walker is hopeful the regional water study will produce results, and believes SRP brings some much-needed clout to the table.

"It's a very interesting and positive development as far as we're concerned because we have people now that build dams and operate dams -- Salt River Project -- that would be doing what I call the heavy lifting and try and insert that into the state-wide water rights settlement," he said.

"Probably better them in that position than Payson. That was just a (heck) of a chore for this little place."

SRP is a Valley-based conglomerate that provides electricity in the Phoenix area and water to a service area in central Arizona.

Under the National Reclamation Act of 1902, SRP claims to own the water rights to a 13,000-square-mile watershed that includes Payson, Prescott, Flagstaff, Show Low and vast areas around and in between.

According to Leslie Myers, water conservation coordinator for the Bureau of Reclamation, SRP has a strong claim to Blue Ridge water.

"At this point, there is nothing to stop SRP from taking ownership of Blue Ridge," Myers said. "Phelps Dodge has issues with SRP that they need to work out, but they have an exchange agreement that says if at some time Phelps Dodge no longer wants those facilities, SRP has the first right of refusal."

But Myers said the Navajo issue "will always be looming in the background."

"From the federal side, we're kind of torn," she said. "On one side we'd like to see Payson, Pine and Strawberry -- the Mogollon group -- get their issues solved. On the other side, we're working on the Navajo settlement and we want to see those issues solved."

Diamond Rim geophysical survey

The town council approved funds Wednesday for a non-invasive survey utilizing sophisticated technology to further delineate the groundwater potential of the Diamond Rim area of the Tonto National Forest where the water department has proposed drilling exploratory wells.

The survey will consist of inducing and then gathering electrical current via a series of electrodes strategically placed into the ground and then interpreting the resulting data to map the sub-surface geology of the region.

"You have a bunch of science geeks out there using the computer and electrical resistivity techniques to characterize the sub-surface geology without drilling a lot of holes," Walker said.

He hopes the information will help move the approval process forward with the Forest Service.

"With the federal environmental process for getting these permits, you have to do so many surveys, studies, public meetings, and comment periods that it's not going to be until next summer at the earliest that we get any permission to drill in the forest," Walker said. "It's been like five years we've been trying to get out there, so we decided to use another method to gain information without drilling holes."

Because it's non-invasive, the Forest Service has no objection to the survey, even though the technology has been used primarily by the mining and oil industries.

"They have no problem because now you gain valuable information on the natural resources on public lands, it costs the public nothing, and it doesn't do any kind of damage at all," Walker said.

But the town will also gain valuable information.

At the very least, the survey should make the exploratory drilling more efficient and cost-effective for the town.

The scope of the exploratory drilling has expanded beyond the original proposal, which was limited to the Mayfield Canyon area.

"When we went back to the drawing table after that public scoping meeting a couple of years ago, we sat down with the Forest Service and decided the best approach was on a regional scale," town hydrogeologist Mike Ploughe said. "Now it's called the Diamond Rim study. We're looking at an area basically west of Preacher Canyon and east of Houston Mesa Road and north of every community and south of Diamond Rim itself."

The entire survey project will cost $302,000, with $85,000 of that going to Zonge Engineering and Research Organization of Tucson to conduct the field testing. The balance will be paid to HydroSystems, a Tempe company, to interpret the data and produce a final report.

"The second contractor does the charts and graphs and the colored pictures and all that," Walker said.

If all goes well, the final report should be available before the end of the year.

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