The paperwork snags that had backed up the Blue Ridge Reservoir pipeline project gave way with a rush this week, as the Tonto National Forest gave Payson the go-ahead for the next step.
The Forest Service approved a cost-sharing agreement so that Payson can go ahead and hire a contractor to study ways to minimize the environmental impact of a pipeline running from the Blue Ridge Reservoir to the outskirts of Payson.
Payson officials had previously expressed frustration with an additional, months-long delay in getting the crucial approval from the Phoenix office of the Tonto National Forest. The town has been building up to the project for more than two years.
“We don’t want to point fingers, we just want to thank them very much,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
The council on Thursday night rushed to approve the cost-sharing agreement.
“I think (Payson Ranger District Head Ranger) Ed Armenta has been very helpful in continuing to keep this on the front burner,” he added.
Armenta said that the delay had been caused by the complexity of the project, as the understaffed Forest Service tried to calculate all of the costs the project would add so it could come up with the cost-sharing agreement proposed this week.
The agreement requires Payson to give the Forest Service about $170,000 to pay the consultant and enough money to hire a full-time person to oversee the contract and project.
In addition, the town will spend about $150,000 on other costs associated with the studies required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The environmental studies of the $30- to $40-million project should take one to two years, said Evans.
Evans. The pipeline will deliver 3,500 acre-feet of water annually, which will more than double Payson’s water supply and provide enough water for a build-out population of 38,000.
“The consultant is already hired and has been chomping at the bit for months and months,” said Evans.
“Normally the start-from-scratch NEPA process takes two years, but this one will be shorter since we’ve got the contractor ready to roll. Actually, it’s more like they’ve got the engine running and the clutch held down.”
The approval by the Forest Service comes on the heels of a bill introduced by First District Congresswoman Anne Kirkpatrick to give the federal Bureau of Reclamation primary authority over the pipeline project, although Payson will still need key Forest Service approvals.
Evans noted that the Kirkpatrick bill didn’t touch on the Forest Service’s approval of the cost-sharing agreement, but will have an effect on the actual construction and operation of the pipeline.
The environmental study will focus heavily on proposed routes for a new pipeline that will start near the existing pumping station at Washington Park and run down along Houston Mesa Road to a not-yet-built water treatment plant on the outskirts of Payson.
The pipe will run mostly along federal land, close to the banks of the East Verde River. The project might include a whole sequence of mini-treatment facilities, mostly to filter sediment and bacteria from the water. Several communities along the route could then get water from the pipeline, which would also reduce the size of the treatment plant at the end. Out of the 3,500 acre-feet in the pipe, 500 acre-feet will go to other Northern Gila County communities.
Riparian areas like the East Verde remain among the most vital and easily disrupted of ecosystems. The project will affect a host of wildlife species, water quality, and water supply for a string of communities along the river.
Word of the Forest Service approval was just the latest good news for a project that has started to gush after years of drilling dry, bureaucratic wells.
Several weeks ago, Payson received word it had landed a $10.5 million federal stimulus grant to finish repairs on the existing pipeline from the Blue Ridge Reservoir to Washington Park. The money will also do some preliminary work on the remaining stretch of the pipeline, including purchase of the pipe itself.
Federal grant review auditors recently sorted through more than 1,000 pages of documentation on the project and said that Payson might well be the first community in Arizona to get the go-ahead on a stimulus project.
Payson will also soon start in on about $800,000 in engineering, although much of that work can’t be completed until the environmental study helps determine the precise route of the pipeline and measures designed to minimize the environmental impacts.
The town has already accumulated about $4.5 million for the project from the $7,500-per-unit fee imposed on new construction before the construction collapse. Now the stimulus grant will pay about a third of the total cost. The town is hoping to also get a long-term, low-cost federal loan to pay for much of the balance of the costs.
The infusion of some 3,000 acre-feet annually from a single pipeline will have a major impact on the town’s overall water delivery system, said Evans.
Currently, all the town’s water comes from a network of 43 wells, each of which feeds water into the larger system.
“Those wells are plumbed together to provide water to tanks all over town,” said Evans.
Once the Blue Ridge water arrives, the bulk of the water in the system will come in from a single source.
“So we’ll not only need to engineer how we get water to the treatment plant, but how it can be then distributed through the various town water tanks — with recharge wells for the water we don’t need at a given time in the system,” said Evans.