An “historic” meeting of Rim Country, tribal and federal officials on Thursday cleared away a critical hurdle blocking construction of a water pipeline from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.
The agreement to back a single pipeline carrying water for Payson, a dozen housing developments, Star Valley and the Tonto Apache Tribe drew about 28 public officials to an intensive negotiation, which cleared the way for the U.S. Forest Service to start the 18-month process of approving the pipeline route.
“It was historic because we had everyone at the same table,” said Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin.”
Tonto National Forest Supervisor Gene Blankenbaker said Payson’s agreement to build a pipeline big enough to carry water for other communities means the Forest Service can now act on an application to build the pipeline across federal land.
“We made significant progress in understanding the relationships” of the various agencies entitled to a share of more than 3,500 acre feet available in the Blue Ridge Reservoir.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said the agreement gives Payson the freedom to complete the engineering and planning for an 18-inch pipeline in the next 12 months.
“That door had been locked” by the Forest Service, “now it’s been unlocked,” said Evans.
The agreement ensures that Payson will build a larger pipeline than it needs for its 3,000 acre feet. The pipe that will run from Washington Park along Houston Mesa Road all the way to pipes near Highway 87 that will connect to the town’s water system. Payson only needs a 16-inch pipeline to carry as much water as it can take from the Blue Ridge Reservoir under the terms of the town’s contact with the Salt River Project.
The agreement reached Thursday ensures the town will build an 18-inch pipe, which can carry up to 5,000 acre feet annually. Payson’s agreement with SRP allows it to take a maximum of 3,500 acre feet in one year. The other water users in the area could take more than 600 acre feet above that.
Gila County’s agreement to front about $4 million to pay for the added costs of a larger pipe made the larger agreement possible. Now Payson can proceed with planning the larger pipe while smaller water agencies negotiate with SRP for their share of the water. In addition, the agreement means the pipeline can also carry water for the Tonto Apache Tribe in the event the tribe works out a water swap for its entitlement to 128 acre feet of water from the Colorado River.
The Tonto Apache Tribe could find itself with water to sell or use in new developments on several hundred acres of reservation land. Currently, the tribe buys about 40 acre feet annually from Payson. The potential swap of 128 acre feet would give the tribe nearly three times as much as it currently uses. The tribe would have to pay only its percentage share of the construction and the operations and maintenance for the water — which works out to about 4 percent.
A host of small other communities can now make their own deal with SRP for a share of 500 acre feet reserved for them by law, without holding up the pipeline plan. A chain of unincorporated communities along the East Verde including Beaver Valley, Whispering Pines, Mesa Del Cabrillo, East Verde Estates and others can now strike a deal for water from the pipeline. In addition, several Tonto Basin communities whose well levels have dropped in recent years could get in on the deal later.
The county’s action earlier this month to advance the project up to $4 million made it possible to move forward, even though none of the water users or the tribe have yet started negotiating with SRP for their share. The county’s agreement with the town will cover a proportionate share of the estimated $22 to $30-million construction cost. The county’s contribution is meant to front the costs for the 500 acre-feet still unallocated, but reserved by federal law for residents of Northern Gila County. That 500 acre-feet will represent about 17 percent of the water delivered by the pipeline. In theory, the communities that actually contract for the water would then eventually pay the county back for whatever money it advanced.
Star Valley Mayor Chuck Heron attended the meeting, although Star Valley has not negotiated with SRP for its share of that 500 acre feet. Star Valley had launched plans to condemn and buy the local water company operated by Brooke Utilities, which would have given it the legal standing to negotiate for a share of the pipeline’s water. But the council recently dropped that bid, when new estimates upped the potential cost.
Payson Water Services Director Buzz Walker said that Brooke Utilities has expressed interest in contracting for that 500 acre-feet of water, but the privately owned utility company wasn’t represented at the meeting.
The Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District has also expressed interest in water from Blue Ridge. The district is currently trying to buy two water companies from Brooke Utilities, which would then give it the standing to negotiate with SRP for a share of the Blue Ridge water. However, the need to build a spur pipeline with pumps to get the water up over two hills could make water from Blue Ridge too expensive for Pine-Strawberry.