Slow On The Draw

Host of towns and communities that could get Blue Ridge water have not yet come to the table

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None of the welter of towns and subdivisions that could get a taste of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir have so far opened negotiations with either the Salt River Project (SRP), which controls the water, or Payson, which will build the pipeline.

Payson and SRP should "within several months" sign a deal to deliver at least 3,000 acre feet per year to Payson, said Greg Kornrumph, SRP's principle analyst in the water rights and contracts group.

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Buzz Walker/Town of Payson Public Works Director

The current delay is intended merely to give SRP time to tally up costs and finish some added construction work on its existing 11.5-mile-long pipeline, which runs from the Blue Ridge Reservoir to a site draining into the East Verde River. The agreement with Payson would require the town to pay about 27 percent of the cost of that existing pipeline.

In addition, the town would then also have to build an additional, 14.5-mile-long, pipeline to bring the water to Payson -- probably by about 2015.

Payson estimates total costs at about $30-million, but must complete updated studies to firm up that figure.

The federal law that set the whole arrangement in motion directed SRP to negotiate agreements to deliver 3,500 acre feet of Blue Ridge water to Northern Gila County. Payson has already locked up about 3,000 acre feet of that water in negotiations that have inched along for several years. Payson had estimated the 3,000 acre feet would provide enough water to supply all the town's needs without dipping into groundwater reserves -- even after it reaches a build-out population of 36,000 to 38,000 residents.

That agreement between Payson and SRP left just 500 acre feet unallocated.

But so far, none of the other Rim Country towns, water companies and subdivisions that might lay claim have taken the first step, noted Kornrumph.

Payson will draw up construction plans for its pipeline in the next 6-12 months, said Payson Public Works Director Buzz Walker. If that pipeline only has to carry Payson's 3,000 acre feet, the town could get by with a 16-inch pipe. Delivering another 500 acre feet will require at least an 18-inch pipe -- which would increase the cost of the pipeline by about $1.2 million, Walker estimated.

"I would say the window is closing fairly quickly to get in on the design of Payson's pipeline," said SRP's Kornrumph. "I think six months is probably about right. The threshold is really the difference between a 16- and an 18-inch pipe."

The Payson pipeline could deliver water to chronically water-short Pine and Strawberry, to water-conscious Star Valley, to the Tonto Apache Reservation and to about 14 different unincorporated subdivisions -- most of which currently use well water.

So far, only Brooke Utility, which runs a passel of small Rim Country water districts, has even had a conversation about access to the Blue Ridge water, said Walker.

"Brooke Utilities is the only one who has officially expressed interest in working with the town, but then, we haven't gone on the road show yet," said Walker.

He said Payson will contact all the groups that might want water before settling on a final design.

The Tonto Apache Tribe constitutes something of a special case, since the tribe gained an allocation of 128 acre feet of Colorado River water as part of the massive round of deals connected to the Central Arizona Project.

In theory, the tribe could perhaps swap that allocation for Blue Ridge water. Currently, the tribe buys its water from Payson -- about 48 acre feet annually, said Walker.

Star Valley has been feuding with Payson about water supplies for years, ever since a Payson developer drilled a well in Star Valley. Although Payson claims the well draws deep water and won't harm Star Valley's shallow wells, the two towns have fought for several years both in and out of court.

Star Valley officials have said they would approach SRP and Payson once the Blue Ridge deal between them is finalized, but have expressed skepticism about entering into a water partnership with Payson.

Pine and Strawberry suffer from such chronic water shortages that no new developments can hook up to the existing water company's system, which is run by Brooke Utilities. A deal between the elected water district board and the water company to drill a deep well spurred the recall of four board members. Those newly elected board members have reportedly expressed interest in buying out the water company and perhaps getting water from Blue Ridge.

Walker said the proposed Payson pipeline could divert water to Pine and Strawberry through a short spur that would need two pumping stations.

Walker said Payson has no say over the water rights SRP grants, but will control the pipeline that delivers that water. Walker said the town will be flexible about whether that means upfront money to get into the partnership or a water charge paid once the Blue Ridge water starts to flow.

"We'll make an outreach effort to every one of those communities. Before we get into design, we'll say ‘let's see your interest -- are you in or are you out?' And there may be a price attached to it. It could be within this year -- maybe three or four months after the signing of the agreement."

Meantime, other complications shimmer on the surface of an agreement.

The Blue Ridge Reservoir when full will store 11,000 acre feet beyond the roughly 3,000 acre feet needed to provide for downstream fish and wildlife. Phelps Dodge mining company originally built the reservoir so it would have something to trade for water in the Black River needed for its Morenci Mine. But in the wake of a complicated water swap with the San Carlos Apache Tribe, the company gave SRP its rights to the Blue Ridge water to SRP. So now SRP will end up with rights to 7,500 acre feet annually, much of which it plans to dump into the lawsuit-plagued Verde River drainage.

Walker noted that this gush of unallocated water could fuel all sorts of additional trades.

Moreover, Payson might be able to average out its use of Blue Ridge water so it might use 2,000 acre feet one year and 4,000 feet the next -- which could also complicate the design of the pipeline.

"We'll work it out one way or another," said Walker. "All this stuff has to be factored in," noted Walker.

Who could get Blue Ridge Water:

Town of Star Valley

Community of Pine

Community of Strawberry

Tonto Apache Reservation

Washington Park subdivision

Rim Trail subdivision

Shadow Rim Ranch girl scout camp

Verde Glen subdivision

Cowan Ranch Subdivision

Whispering Pines subdivision

Beaver Valley subdivision

Freedom Acres subdivision

Wonder Valley subdivision

Mesa Del Caballo subdivision

Flowing Springs subdivision

East Verde Estates

Round Valley subdivision

Oxbow Estates subdivision

Blue Ridge Water

"I would say the window is closing fairly quickly to get in on the design of Payson's pipeline."
Greg Kornrumph/SRP principle water analyst

"Brooke Utilities is the only one who has officially expressed interest in working with the town."
Buzz Walker/Town of Payson Public Works Director

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