The Payson Town Council approved a draft of a response to the U.S. Forest Service's environmental assessment (EA) for the proposed Tonto Apache land exchange with two modifications:
- Obligating the Forest Service to provide water from their lands for the exchange, so the town's water supply is not negatively impacted.
- Recommending the state maintain jurisdiction over Highway 87 where it will intersect tribal lands if the exchange is accomplished. The additional land is on the west side of Highway 87, which would raise jurisdictional questions in the event of accidents and legal violations.
In 2001, the Tonto Apache Tribe applied to the Forest Service to exchange 405 acres of private land in various national forests for 273 acres of forest land adjacent to their reservation. The Payson town council met to consider its response in a special meeting on Thursday.
Town Attorney Sam Streichman said the tribe's attorneys called to ask him to convey the tribe's thoughts to the council, since they are troubled by perceived anti-tribe sentiments in the town's response to the EA.
But town manager Fred Carpenter told the town council that was not the case. "To clarify, I don't think that we have, as a corporate entity, any generic objection to the land exchange. What we have concerns about is what will be the water supply for the new property once the Tonto Apaches own it. Any comments that we make are not directed at the Tonto Apache Tribe. They are directed at the environmental assessment."
There is no, for lack of a better term, "old water" available for the 273 acres and "new water" must be found for this particular parcel, according to Carpenter.
The Forest Service suggested several means of supplying water to the 273 acres, speculating that groundwater might be found on the new land, on the existing reservation, from somewhere within the forest, and/or from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.
The town knows what a "rocky road" looking for water in the forest can be from their own experiences Carpenter said.
"It is our opinion that they could not find new water on the new land. We may be wrong, but that is the research we've done and shared with the tribe," public works director Buzz Walker said.
In 2004 the tribe requested that the 273 acres also be given trust status.
"If the exchange lands are awarded trust status, any attempt by the town to enforce its zoning restrictions or meaningful water conservation measures on the exchange lands could result in conflict," states the town's response.
Attorneys for the tribe, according to Streichman, wished to convey their willingness to work with the town on water issues. They have begun by installing low water consumption devices on the reservation.
"We have an agreement which we have negotiated with the tribe which sets forth what their water requirements will be and what we will provide for both the existing uses and the future uses, which would include usage on these lands ...." Streichman said.
The tribe's attorneys offered to make a joint statement which Streichman thought would have been "nice," but there simply was not time in the 30 days the Forest Service allowed for response to its environmental assessment. The EA should have reached the town on Oct. 5, but did not arrive until Oct. 21.
"The Forest Service has underestimated future water resources of the town and surrounding area ... and drawn unrealistic conclusions concerning potential sources of supply needed to meet added demand," reads the draft of a letter to the Forest Service written by Fennemore Craig, the law firm representing the Town of Payson."
The Nov. 4 response reiterates what was stated in the town's 2002 comments on the preliminary study: In the town's opinion, the Forest Service has incorrectly under-calculated current water usage by nearly 8,000 gallons per day.