Water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir inched closer to Payson and northern Gila County with the completion of a historic water rights agreement between Salt River Project and the Phelps Dodge Corp.
The agreement, signed earlier this month, allows for the transfer of Blue Ridge Reservoir water from Phelps Dodge to SRP. It is the first major step in the process since the Arizona Water Settlement Act was passed by Congress late last year.
"We are very pleased to have the opportunity to acquire Blue Ridge Reservoir," William Schrader, SRP president said. "In addition to satisfying obligations to the Gila River Indian Community, Blue Ridge will be used to supplement our shareholders' water supply and to assist in improving the water supply situation in northern Gila County in accordance with the Arizona Water Settlements Act."
The agreement between the copper mining giant and SRP fulfills the company's obligations under a 1962 water agreement between the two entities to offer the reservoir to SRP.
"(Blue Ridge water) has not been used (by Phelps Dodge) for two to three years," David Roberts, manager of water rights and contracts for SRP, said. "Under the (1962) agreement, if they don't need it, it comes back to us."
SRP will now transfer ownership of Blue Ridge to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, according to Roberts.
"We would operate that facility much like the rest of the reservoirs in the whole system under the Salt River Federal Reclamation Project," he said. "(The BOR) owns the reservoirs and we operate them under contract."
Blue Ridge Reservoir is in the Coconino National Forest near Clint's Well about 25 miles north of Payson. A popular recreational facility, it was built by Phelps Dodge and completed in 1965 to provide exchange water for its mining operations.
"The water was 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.
According to Payson, Gila County and SRP officials, SRP will sell 3,000 acre-feet of Blue Ridge water to Payson and 500 to Gila County for use in the Rim country. The remainder of the reservoir's annual average yield of 11,000 acre-feet will be used in the Valley.
"It's a pretty productive watershed," Roberts said. "The last three years (the reservoir) has filled and spilled -- even in a drought."
Roberts said no decision has been made on allocation prioritization, but that northern Gila County can expect to get a "good supply of water."
"We still need to work out the details," Roberts said. "It's probably going to end up being a pro- rata thing."
The question is when. SRP officials have said it could take as long as 10 years, while Payson Public Works Director Buzz Walker recently told the town council he hoped it happened a lot sooner.
"It's hard to say," Roberts admitted. "Sometimes these things can be done quicker (but it depends) on what environmental issues pop up, and how the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) work goes, and what the requirements will be to make sure the little fish in East Clear Creek are happy -- they've been happy so far and we hope they'll stay happy.
"We have to work with the Forest Service, the bureau, and their government agencies. Water things take a while to get themselves worked out."
Roberts said SRP is already talking to the town of Payson.
"We're working with the town to develop an agreement on how we're going to deliver the water to them," he said. There are some technical issues, too -- they've got to figure out the size of the pipeline, and where they're going to connect it.
"They're going to have to go through a whole NEPA process too because they're going to be going across Forest Service land. Those things are going to take time, but to me they're all doable things."
Roberts is less optimistic about Gila County's share of Blue Ridge water.
"The county is going to be a tough one," he said. "There's pockets of private land where there's potential for development. Some of those folks are fed with groundwater, some are where groundwater is depleted, some are near live streams that could be used as an exchange source.
"There's lots of different ways to serve the various pieces of the county, but it's expensive (to build) pipelines here and there," Roberts said. Pine and Strawberry could be even more difficult.
"You've got the private water company, you've got the county involved, you've got the improvement district, so you've got all three of the players there, and how they work together or not work together, I don't know," Roberts said.