Blue Ridge Pipeline Plan Clears Hurdle

Forest Service accepts Payson’s proposal, federal loan now possible

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Payson received good news on two fronts this week in its effort to build a $30-million pipeline from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.

The first victory came with the decision by the U.S. Forest Service to accept the town’s application to build a pipeline along Houston Mesa Road, the pipeline will carry 3,500 acre-feet of water — enough when coupled with groundwater to sustain more than double the town’s current population.

The second bit of cheer came with word on a federal loan guarantee program that would provide much of the construction money through a low-cost, 50-year loan.

“We’ve gotten over a major hurdle,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans of the action by the Forest Service. “This is a major step because it starts the clock on the project.”

The acceptance of the town’s application after a year of pondering and a multi-agency summit meeting clears the way for the year-long, $175,000 process of finding ways to minimize the environmental impact of the proposed pipeline.

Evans also hailed the publication of proposed rules for a federal Bureau of Reclamation loan guarantee program specifically targeted for small, western towns and districts seeking money to assure a long-term water supply — especially if the project would also help Indian tribes with outstanding claims.

“It reads like it was written to benefit Payson,” said Evans of the new program, now in a 60-day comment period and not yet funded by Congress.

Assistant Public Works Director Buzz Walker said that the town has been working closely with the Bureau of Reclamation for several years, to make sure the Blue Ridge Project would fit perfectly into the criteria for funding of the long-anticipated program to help rural communities assure a water supply.

“If you are allied with the Bureau of Reclamation, as Payson has been for five years, then you have a leg up because it is anticipated that the vetting process for successful projects are those that have already been under the tutelage of the Bureau,” said Walker.

The new program could let the town finance the roughly $30-million project over a 50-year span, instead of the more conventional 30-year limit on many utility bonds. That could reduce the annual cost of bond payments by 40 percent — although the longer term means the town would put out more money overall.

Such federal loan programs often carry interest rates half a percent or more below prime.

Congress must still put money into the program once the rules are approved, which could pose a problem in the current financial climate.

Ready-to-go project

However, Walker said the program could also benefit from any Congressional desire to stimulate the economy by injecting money into ready-to-go infrastructure programs.

“Of course, it’s not going to put as many people to work as building a section of I-40,” said Walker. “But you would think it might get a boost from legislation that’s looking for dollars that target public works projects.”

That means the town will push to get the environmental studies done, now that the Forest Service has cleared the way by accepting the town’s application for a pipeline.

The town earlier this year signed an agreement with the Salt River Project to take a rolling average of 3,000 acre-feet per year out of the Blue Ridge Reservoir. Currently, the 16,000 Payson residents use 1,700 acre-feet annually, much less than the roughly 2,500 acre-feet of water that soaks into the water table as a result of rain, snow and runoff in an average year. The additional 3,000 acre-feet would sharply reduce the use of well water and still provide enough water to sustain a population of up to about 44,000.

Currently, SRP operates a pipeline that pumps water out of the Blue Ridge Reservoir and puts it into the East Verde River at Washington Park. The reservoir usually holds about 11,000 acre-feet of useable water. SRP’s agreement would allow Payson to take 3,000 acre-feet of that water and instead put it into a pipeline that would run to a treatment facility before being released into the town’s water system.

Town Hydrologist Mike Ploughe said the town has an agreement with SWCA Environmental Consultants to prepare an environmental assessment of the pipeline route, in cooperation with the Forest Service. That $175,000 study will take about a year, he estimated.

Proposed pipeline will run along Houston Mesa Road

The proposed pipeline route will run along Houston Mesa Road or a Forest Service road that parallels Houston Mesa in key stretches. The environmental study will consider the impact of the pipeline on the East Verde River, archaeological sites and wildlife — particularly any endangered species.

The two places where the road now crosses the East Verde could pose engineering challenges for the proposed underground pipe, said Ploughe.

He noted that the environmental study will help set the exact pipeline route and identify key problems for the engineers to solve when they come up with a detailed design.

The acceptance of the application this week “is the big step — now we can keep the dialogue open between the town and the consultant and get things done. We have to solve any environmental issues before we get to the engineering — that’s why we have to get these studies done.”

The recent approvals mean the town remains on track for completing the pipeline sometime by 2015, said Ploughe.

That still leaves time for other towns, districts and communities to become partners, thanks in large measure to a Gila County decision to provide enough money to build a bigger pipe.

Payson’s agreement with SRP provides for 3,000 acre-feet of water. However, the federal law that authorized that deal included provisions for another 500 acre-feet for other northern Gila County communities —like Star Valley and the string of communities along the East Verde with their own private water companies. In addition, the Tonto Apache Tribe could swap Colorado River water rights to more than 130 acre-feet for a share in the Blue Ridge water. The Gila County money means Payson will design the pipeline to hold at least 3,500 acre-feet.

Ploughe said the town is now developing partnership agreements that will spell out shared costs and overhead for any of the towns, tribes or communities that want to get a share of the water from the eventual pipeline.

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