Water problems in Payson and much of the Rim country could be alleviated as soon as 2008 with water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir near Clint's Well atop the Mogollon Rim.
Legislation has already been passed in the U.S. Senate, and is pending in the House of Representatives that would allow the transfer of reservoir ownership from Phelps Dodge Mining Company to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Passage of that legislation, according to Payson Town Manager Fred Carpenter, is a necessary first step to securing a portion of Blue Ridge water for northern Gila County.
"Just before the pre-election congressional adjournment last month, the U.S. Senate passed (Arizona) Senator (Jon) Kyl's favorite bill addressing the Gila River Indian community water rights settlement," Carpenter said. "That bill contains a provision that allows Salt River Project to acquire the rights to Blue Ridge (although BOR will own it) and sell 3,500 acre-feet of water to northern Gila County per year."
Estimates of the total annual yield of the reservoir, built by Phelps Dodge and completed in 1962 to provide water for its mining operations, vary from 8,000 to 10,000 acre-feet. SRP would use the water not allocated to northern Gila County.
"Obviously, SRP is not buying that reservoir and getting it all set up just because they want to sell water to us," Carpenter said. "They have some other needs they want to fill."
Those needs include water for the Gila River Indian settlement and to help maintain water levels in Horseshoe Dam and other SRP reservoirs.
Payson will probably receive 3,000 acre-feet of the 3,500 allotted to northern Gila County, Carpenter said.
"To add perspective, our safe yield is 1,825 (acre-feet per year) and we're using in the 1,700s right now," he said. "So it would literally triple available water to Payson if we were to get that source."
If the town exceeds safe yield, then it will be mining water -- in effect, taking more out of the ground than is replenished.
The town would most likely build a pipeline about 14 miles long to get the water from an existing pipeline that ends near Washington Park to a treatment plant planned for the intersection of Houston Mesa Road and Highway 87.
"The most logical pipeline route would start up there at Washington Park and basically follow Forest Service roads all the way down to Payson," Carpenter said.
While many northern Gila County communities stand to benefit from the 500-acre-foot allocation the county will probably receive, delivery logistics mean that Pine and Strawberry -- two communities suffering the greatest shortages -- will most likely not be among them.
"Look at the maps," Carpenter said. "I don't know how they're going to get it up there. There's no easy way. The water provider for those people is a private company (California-based Brooke Utilities), and they're loathe to make multi-million-dollar investments for small customer bases."
Brooke Utilities declined to comment on specifics about any Blue Ridge investments the company may be looking at in the future.
Lionel Martinez, assistant to District One County Supervisor Ron Christensen, said the county is pursuing other options for Pine and Strawberry, but that all communities along Houston Mesa Road should get a share of the water.
"Gila County is exploring the process by which to become a water authority," Martinez said. "If we can do that, then those 500 acre-feet will be distributed to all the (communities) that are down that line, starting up in Rim Trail, Whispering Pines -- all the way down to Mesa del Caballo."
Both the town and the county are hopeful that help in funding the project will be available from the federal government.
"Our people say it will cost around $18 million to move the water from there to here, including the water treatment plant," Carpenter said. "(New Mexico) Sen. (Pete) Domenici introduced a bill earlier this year that would fund this type of water project for certain qualifying rural water systems like ours. It would be a 75-percent federal grant."
If the bill doesn't pass, Carpenter said the town will look at long-term financing options that might include future development impact fees, water rate increases, or a bond issue.
Once the legislation is passed, when the house comes back into session next Tuesday, SRP and the BOR must still conclude negotiations with Phelps Dodge to transfer ownership of Blue Ridge, and an environmental assessment of the impact of the pipeline must be conducted. While SRP has estimated it could be 10 years before water begins flowing to Payson and communities along Houston Mesa Road, Carpenter and Martinez are more optimistic.
"It's all very tentative, but we're looking at the next few months being key," Martinez said. "If the House of Representatives passes the Central Arizona Water Settlement Act, then in December or January we expect Phelps Dodge and SRP and the Bureau of Reclamation to (complete the agreement) transferring the assets and water to SRP, then we're hoping to complete the legal work on whether we can do a water authority in February.
"My best guess is probably around '09 for everything to be done, maybe '08 -- somewhere through there."
Carpenter said he also hopes the time frame is closer to five years than 10, but Brooke Utilities President Robert Hardcastle sounded a cautious note.
"The water source alternative from Blue Ridge Reservoir has been considered for years." Hardcastle said. "There still remain more questions than answers ... To the best of my knowledge, there have been no realistic economic proposals that rate-payers, regardless of their location, can afford."
Dave Roberts, manager of water rights and contracts for SRP, said that while time-consuming, much of the remaining administrative and legal work is procedural.
"We've been tracking other transfers like this and they've gone fairly well," Roberts said. "We're positive things can be done and something can be worked out so Payson has a more assured, reliable water supply. Meanwhile, (Payson) can work on all the engineering work."
Roberts said Blue Ridge offers a stable way to lessen the town's traditional dependence on groundwater.
"Blue Ridge is a pretty good source of water," he said. "It's on a small watershed, but it's a very productive watershed because it's high mountain. It's on the Rim there and it gets quite a bit of snow, and so it's pretty reliable."
At a meeting Monday of the Citizens Awareness Committee -- a local political watchdog group -- Carpenter said the water is needed soon just to accommodate additional homes the town has already approved.
"We have another 1,500 lots in town that have already been platted, that have already been subdivided," he said. "That allows another 4,000 people to move in here."
In the meantime, and even after Blue Ridge water is available, Carpenter believes conservation efforts should continue.
"Two years ago, we were at 99 percent safe yield," Carpenter said. "With the water conservation program, we got it down to 93 percent. Even if we get new water supplies, we shouldn't change a thing about our water conservation ethic. We need to stick right to that."