Blue Ridge Pipe Snarled In Red Tape

Forest Service stalls approvals but bill would put Bureau of Reclamation in charge

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The congresswoman representing Rim Country hopes to cut a nasty snarl of red tape that has knotted up the Blue Ridge pipeline with a law that puts the federal Bureau of Reclamation in charge of the project.

Payson sought the bill because permission to even do the environmental studies has languished for some five months on the desk of officials in the Phoenix office of the Tonto National Forest.

Months ago, the Forest Service accepted with much fanfare Payson’s application to build a pipeline from Washington Park to the outskirts of town along Houston Mesa Road and the East Verde River. Payson has hired a consultant to do the necessary environmental studies on the pipeline construction, but the Forest Service has not yet given the consulting firm permission to start.

“We’ve got two federal agencies each thinking they have primacy,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, “but you have to have just one agency in charge.”

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a former Flagstaff prosecutor and state legislator elected to the First Congressional District seat in November, on Wednesday introduced the bill making it clear that the Bureau of Reclamation in the Department of the Interior will be responsible for lining up the various federal approvals. The bureau will still need permits and clearance from the Forest Service, which is lodged in the Department of the Interior.

Tonto National Forest Super-visor Gene Blankenbaker could not be reached for comment at press time.

Kirkpatrick said, “bureaucratic bickering in Washington can’t be allowed to hold up the repairs and improvements we need for our infrastructure here in Arizona. This bill is simple, common sense, and breaks through the federal barriers so that people in Gila County are guaranteed the water supply they they need in the years to come.”

Kirkpatrick’s bill underscores language in an earlier water settlement act sponsored by Sen. Jon Kyl. That act provided the authorization for the Salt River Project to give Payson and other water users in Northern Gila County rights to 3,500 acre-feet from the Blue Ridge, or C.C. Cragin Reservoir.

Payson’s 3,000-acre-foot allotment will provide enough water to support a population of some 38,000, making it one of the few rural communities in the state with enough water to support all of its ultimate development plans.

However, the town must build a $30 million pipeline and treatment plant to get access to the water.

The reservoir was originally constructed by Phelps Dodge, but SRP swapped other water rights to win control of the 11,000-acre-foot reservoir.

SRP plans to divert 3,500 acre-feet annually into the Payson pipeline and run the rest of its share down the East Verde to reservoirs near Phoenix.

Payson has tentatively received a $10.5 million federal stimulus grant to repair about 11 miles of the aging pipeline on top of the Rim and to buy the pipe and do preliminary work on the pipeline yet to be built.

However, Evans said the town’s concerns about bureaucratic delays mounted when the Forest Service refused to even give it permission to start on the environmental studies that will delay construction on the new section of pipeline for another year or two.

“The Forest Service was saying we don’t know whether we even want you patching the pipeline (up on top of the Rim),” said Evans. “It’s simply a power play.”

Evans said he sat in on one meeting in Washington, D.C. between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Forest Service trying to hack through the paperwork tangle. However, the Forest Service representative said that even if the Bureau had control of the project, they could still only get to the pipeline by going through a locked Forest Service gate, reported Evans.

“Right now we have a two-headed monster,” said Evans. If the bill passes, “we’ll know there’s a boss and we’ll know there’s a process.”

He said he had met with both Arizona senators and five of the seven congressmen trying to free up the project, before pushing for the bill to clarify the lines of authority.

“What more can (the Forest Service) do? Stonewall us some more?” said Evans.

The mayor said the Forest Service officials had said they were short staffed and coping with many other higher priority problems.

“We agreed to pay any costs so they could hire on the extra staff to get the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process going,” said Evans. “We have done everything we can legally do, without them saying ‘go for it.’”

Kirkpatrick said “We were very concerned that the bureaucratic wrangling going on 2,500 miles away in Washington, D.C. was going to delay or even put that sustainable and renewable supply at risk.”

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