For more than 20 years, the Town of Payson has been working on a project to bring surface water from the C.C. Cragin Reservoir -- formerly Blue Ridge -- to Payson. But the most significant progress has been made in the past three years as the result of two key events: The decision by Phelps Dodge to sell its interest in the reservoir to Salt River Project (SRP) and the passage of the Arizona Water Settlements Act.
Here's a little history.
In the early 1960s, Phelps Dodge built the dam, along with a 9-mile pipeline from the reservoir to an outlet on the upper East Verde River near a subdivision called Washington Park. The purpose of the project was to provide water for trade with Salt River Project, so Phelps Dodge could use some of SRP's water elsewhere for mining operations. In the early years of this century, Phelps Dodge decided it no longer needed the water for trade and offered to sell its interest to SRP, who readily accepted the concept.
For the past several years, SRP has been making preparations to assume control of the reservoir. Beyond evaluating the condition of all the facilities and developing a plan for improvements and repairs, the Project was required to conduct an environmental assessment in order to obtain an operating permit from the Coconino National Forest for the pipeline, which is constructed entirely on Forest Service property. SRP has also begun the process of transferring the water rights from Phelps Dodge. Neither of these steps are yet complete and we're not sure when they will be. "Sometime soon" is our best guess.
In December 2004, Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlements Act. Although the law was more than 100 pages in length, only one section was really important to us -- the allocation of 3,500 acre feet of water annually to Northern Gila County from the C.C. Cragin Reservoir. Coupling that event with SRP's takeover of the reservoir and pipeline means the stars may be aligning for us to achieve our long-awaited goal of securing a source of surface water.
Just what do we have to accomplish to complete what we now call the C.C. Cragin Water Resource Development Project? Well, if you'll permit a bad pun, a lot of water will have to flow under the bridge before we get there.
Here are some of the steps:
- Transfer of Water Right from SRP to the Town of Payson. Though Congress has allocated water to Northern Gila County, state law requires that we get the water right legally transferred from SRP to the Town. The process is known as a severance and transfer agreement. As mentioned above, SRP is still in the process of getting Phelps Dodge's right transferred, and we can't start our severance and transfer process until the Project completes its transfer.
- Agreement with Salt River Project. Through the severance and transfer process, the Town will end up with a right to water from the C.C. Cragin Reservoir. However, SRP owns and will operate the pipeline from the reservoir to the East Verde River, which means the Town will need to reach agreement with SRP. A variety of issues are under discussion, such as months of operation, changes in configuration at the Washington Park outlet, sharing of excess and shortage water and, of course, cost. SRP is drafting the agreement. So far, we have discussed with the Project a list of principles and issues but we have yet to receive a draft of the entire agreement. That is expected to happen shortly.
- Environmental Assessment. The council has authorized staff to develop an agreement to conduct the environmental assessment for the C.C. Cragin project. A variety of potential delivery methods and routes are available to get C.C. Cragin water from Washington Park to Payson, but all of them will pass along or under public lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service. The National Environmental Policy Act sets forth the procedure for conducting an EA, which will actually be the responsibility of the Town of Payson with study activities directed by the U.S. Forest Service. The EA contract is expected to appear on a council agenda for action in March. USFS has estimated that about one year will be required for the environmental assessment.
- C.C. Cragin Project Delivery Methods. The Arizona Legislature has authorized the Town to utilize a variety of methods for public works project construction, including design-build, design-bid-build and construction manager at risk. Rather than go through the esoteric details of each of these methods, suffice it to say that the Town Council will be requested to select the approach within the next few months. The delay will enable the environmental assessment to narrow the routing options and hence better define the scope of the construction project. At a special meeting on Feb. 8, Town staff members LaRon Garrett and Buzz Walker outlined the delivery methods and history of the project in detail. That meeting is available online at the Town's Web site at paysonaz.us.
Wherever I speak about the C.C. Cragin Reservoir project, the question of timing is on everyone's mind. Shortly after passage of the Arizona Water Settlements Act, I was giving the range of five to 10 years for water to start flowing to Payson. That was two years ago. So, you might think I'd now be saying three to eight years. But the project has been moving more slowly than anticipated, due to a variety of factors beyond our control. So, my answer to questions about timing is now seven to 10 years. I hope it can happen sooner, but my experience with this project counsels conservatism.
Another question that often arises is how can the rest of Northern Gila County participate? If you live in a community along the pipeline, it may be possible to receive water directly from the pipeline by installing a tap and a small treatment plant. This concept is still being explored.
Feel free to contact town staff with further questions.