Gila County, on Tuesday, barely joined Payson's efforts to build a pipeline that will carry the Rim Country's future drinking water.
Payson will pay roughly $30 million for the pipeline and a water treatment plant to deliver water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir. Gila County will contribute about $4 million to super size the pipe to carry extra water, according to the agreement signed Tuesday.
Supervisors Tommie Martin and Jose Sanchez voted for the measure. Supervisor Shirley Dawson said she opposed passing any agreement until Star Valley and the Tonto Apache Tribe were included in the negotiations. Star Valley falls in Dawson's district.
Payson officials, along with Martin, said those communities are already involved.
The proposed pipeline will extend 14.5 miles along East Houston Mesa Road to deliver the 3,000 acre-feet of water annually that Payson recently acquired from the Salt River Project's C.C. Cragin (Blue Ridge) Reservoir.
Another 500 acre-feet of water is available to other parts of northern Gila County, including Star Valley. Star Valley doesn't yet know if it has enough water to serve it long-term, but a soon-to-be completed water study will tell.
Proponents want to build a pipeline big enough to deliver all the water available to Gila County -- not just to Payson. The agreement says that Gila County will pay its share to super size the pipe, and then recoup expenses from water users.
The agreement also appeases the Forest Service, signaling to them that the county intends to build only one pipeline, Martin said. Payson must apply for a permit to build in the Tonto National Forest.
Dawson said that unless Star Valley and the Tonto Apache Tribe stay involved in the conversation, asking Gila County taxpayers to contribute $4 million is "unfair."
"unfair." Recently elected District 2 Supervisor Mike Pastor, who will replace Sanchez in January, echoed Dawson's concerns. He also questioned the legality of voting on a measure to provide $4 million in funding without a dollar amount listed on the meeting agenda.
A county attorney told Pastor that he can only provide legal advice to sitting supervisors.
Later, Pastor said he is still learning about water issues and the pipeline. "Am I against it? Not totally. Am I for it? Not totally," Pastor said. "Am I going to fight it? I don't know. I will be more educated on it next time."
Sanchez disagreed with Dawson that using taxpayer dollars would be unfair.
"Let's not forget that the people we're talking about benefiting here are taxpayers of Gila County and they would benefit greatly."
Martin called Dawson's objections "rhetoric," and said both Star Valley and the tribe have been included in talks.
"It would be easy to make this a political posturing issue," said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans. "Have we talked to every person that lives in Star Valley? No."
However, he added that Star Valley residents were present at a recent Christopher Creek meeting and that the town has talked with the Tonto Apache Tribe, which has its own promise of water unrelated to the 3,500 acre-feet available to Gila County and Payson.
Dawson said, "I think this is not a bad resolution if you have everybody at the table. We don't have everybody at the table." Dawson also said she thought it imprudent to commit the county to $4 million in the midst of a financial crisis.
"This is not $4 million this year, this week, this month," Evans said, urging the county to consider similarities instead of differences. At one point, in perhaps a Freudian slip, Evans suggested that the county act as an "adversary -- I mean advocate in this process."
Martin said the pipeline helps promise continued economic development in the northern half of the county, where most of the tax base lies.
The pipeline is "feeding the goose that lays the golden egg in a real, real way," Martin said. "I feel like what we're doing here is allowing everything we've discussed up to this point to happen."
Buzz Walker, the head of Payson's water department, agreed. "It's important for us to continue the relationship with the county," he said.
With the agreement, the county and Payson can begin environmental studies and examine funding possibilities, Walker said.