The water act that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week cleared the way for Payson to receive water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir, but don't expect to be showering in it any time soon.
"It was the single most important thing that's happened to Payson since it was incorporated, bar none," Buzz Walker, town public works director, said.
Officially titled the Arizona Water Settlement Act, the bill is the culmination of nearly two decades of negotiations. It reshuffles the water that flows through the Central Arizona Project, with two Indian tribes -- the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix, and the Tohono O'odham Nation south of Tucson -- receiving a combined 200,000 acre feet of Colorado River water each year.
But buried beneath the massive quantities of water allocated to tribes and communities that receive CAP water, the bill also clears the transfer of Blue Ridge water -- a critical step in the process of securing a new source of water for Payson and northern Gila County -- from the Salt River Project to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
"We would operate that facility much like the rest of the reservoirs in the whole system under the Salt River Federal Reclamation Project," Dave Roberts, manager of water rights and contracts for SRP, said. "(The BOR) owns the reservoirs and we operate them under contract."
Critical as the legislation was to the process, much needs to be done. In fact, some SRP officials believe it could take as long as 10 years before water from the reservoir near Clint's Well atop the Mogollon Rim makes its way to thirsty Rim country residents.
"There's a few things we need to go through," Roberts said. "The facility is operated under a license by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and we need to have that license transferred into our name from Phelps Dodge (Mining Company). So there's going to be a hearing on that."
Phelps Dodge built the reservoir in the late 1950s and early 1960s to provide water for its mining operations.
"The water is used under an old exchange agreement we entered into with Phelps Dodge back in the 60s that enables them to use this water as a replacement source for water they take from us out of the Black River in eastern Arizona for their mine in Morenci," Roberts said.
Assuming the license transfer is successful, the state then has to approve the severance and transfer of water rights from Morenci into SRP's reservoir district.
And while the BOR will own the land where the dam is located, the reservoir itself, the pumping plant and the pipeline system that currently brings water down to the East Verde River near Washington Park, is on U.S. Forest Service land. That creates another hurdle that must be cleared.
"(With the legislation passing) the facility is owned by the BOR, but it sets on top of Forest Service land, so there's going to need to be a memorandum of understanding between the BOR and the Forest Service," Roberts said. "That's going to take a little while -- probably next year some time, maybe a little longer."
And then SRP must finalize the agreements to sell water to Payson and northern Gila County.
Estimates of the total annual yield of the reservoir vary from 8,000 to 10,000 acre-feet. According to several town and county officials, SRP will sell 3,000 acre-feet to Payson and 500 to Gila County. The remainder will be used in the Valley.
Preliminary engineering work is already underway by the town, according to Walker. But the Forest Service still stands between the town and Blue Ridge water.
"They're going to have to get a specialse permit from the Forest Service because they're going to be crossing Forest Service land," Roberts said. "They'll have to do an environmental assessment of some sort."
The BOR and the Forest Service will also have to deal with the environmental issue, although Roberts doesn't see it as a major problem.
"There are endangered fish downstream, but from what we understand it's a fairly stable population," he said. "We're not going to change the operation of Blue Ridge. There's still going to be water flowing down East Clear Creek."
In fact, Roberts is optimistic that time is the only thing standing between northern Gila County and Blue Ridge water.
"It's going to take a while, but we're positive that things can be done so that Payson has a more assured, reliable water supply," he said.
SRP believes that a more diverse water supply for Payson is in the best interest of all parties, including SRP.
"Payson has had an interest in going outside the city limits to acquire water resources in the forest, and they haven't had much success in many areas they've gone to," Roberts said. "That Mayfield Canyon area is an area we've had a lot of concern about because there use to be perennial flow there. It's now gone because of the pumping by Chaparral Pines, and we just don't want to make the situation worse.
"Wherever Payson went they would end up de-watering that aquifer, and they'd have to go again someplace else.
"We think a much better solution would be to have a renewable surface water supply, and Blue Ridge is a pretty good source of water."
"Now we have two sources (groundwater and Blue Ridge)," Walker said. "If you have the Forest Service, we've got three sources. If you add waste water, that's four sources. Conservation is five sources.
"We understand conjunctive water use management. That's what I've been doing for 30 years, and it's all coming together."
Payson and northern Gila County are fortunate that Blue Ridge even exists, according to Roberts.
"I think the days of building dams like that one are gone," he said. "There may be a few spots within the state where you could do that, but there's quite a bit of environmental work that would have to be gone through, and the other issue is there's not water left to appropriate."