Whispering Pines Forms Water District

Legal rights unclear as county official warns board to brace for ‘heartache’ and controversy

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The 187 property owners in Whispering Pines have formed a water improvement district, in hopes of negotiating with the Salt River Project and Payson for water from the Blue Ridge Pipeline.

However, Brooke Utilities, which provides water service to the 147-acre enclave on the banks of an often-dry stretch of the East Verde River, has also asked SRP for the Blue Ridge water under the terms of federal legislation.

SRP officials were not available at press time to answer questions about which of the two claimants for Whispering Pines’ share of Blue Ridge water it would recognize.

County Manager Steve Besich predicted the new board members will have to deal with controversy and “heartache.”

“People who are your friends now, won’t be your friends when this is all over,” he warned. “Just keep your eyes on the ball, you have a great responsibility.”

Whispering Pines residents formed the district mostly to secure rights to Blue Ridge water and to make sure Brooke provides good service and enough water for future growth.

Board member Terry Bruner said “we don’t want to buy Brooke out. We want Brooke to behave. We set up the district on a shoestring and we hope to remain on a shoestring.”

However, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans has previously said he did not believe that a water district without any customers would qualify under the terms of the federal law that required SRP to provide 3,000 acre-feet of water annually to Payson and another 500 acre-feet to other Northern Gila County communities. He has advised communities seeking to finance a connection to the pipeline and negotiate for a water right to set up a Community Facilities District instead.

The water needs of the 15 small communities along the pipeline will potentially double or triple in the next 30 years. Most are already near the limits of their mostly shallow wells. Some, like Mesa del Caballo, already face chronic rationing.

At the low end of the estimates, the 500 acre-feet available would provide almost enough water for build out by doubling the current supply. However, at the high end of the use estimates, the Blue Ridge water would provide only half of the water needed to support planned growth — which could mean the first communities in line will use up the available supply.

The Gila County Board of Supervisors approved the formation of the district on Tuesday. Some 60 percent of the property owners in the subdivision approved the formation of the water improvement district. That makes Whispering Pines one of the few communities along the pipeline that has taken concrete steps to secure a portion of the 500 acre-feet of available water.

Brooke Utilities officials say that back in March they sent SRP a letter seeking almost all of the available 500 acre-feet, although SRP spokespeople have denied knowledge of such a letter. Brooke provides exclusive water service to Mesa del Caballo, East Verde Estates, Whispering Pines, Star Valley and several other communities that could lay claim to Blue Ridge water.

Mindful of the controversy that has dogged water districts like the one in Pine and Strawberry, Besich wished the fledgling Whispering Pines water district well.

“I hope you really understand what it means to get into the water business. I just felt I had to say something. We’ve been through this so many times and everyone always starts out with good intentions. I wish you all the best, but I just know the pitfalls.”

SRP did not return calls prior to press time for comment on the formation of the district, along with the potentially complicated issues raised by the efforts of small subdivisions without much organization beyond a homeowners association to secure their rights to Blue Ridge water.

The issue is additionally complicated because SRP has long maintained that communities with shallow wells that are affected by water levels in adjacent streams are actually using water to which it is entitled.

Technically, Congress created the Tonto National Forest in part to protect the watershed feeding into reservoirs the federal government built along the Salt and Verde rivers to benefit SRP and its customers in the Valley. As a result, SRP maintains it has a legal right to the surface runoff for a vast area.

However, individual property owners also have the right to water that has soaked into the water table. The question of whether communities like Whispering Pines and East Verde Estates are using groundwater or surface water remains legally unresolved.

When SRP struck a deal with Payson to deliver 3,000 acre-feet of water from Blue Ridge, the town agreed to seek no additional sources of water and drill no additional wells.

SRP officials have previously said they didn’t want to negotiate with small entities like homeowners associations, which lack the power to tax, sell bonds and raise money to pay for the facilities necessary to connect to the pipeline.

Gila County, which has responsibility to provide public services to the subdivisions it has approved in unincorporated territory, provided money up front to ensure that Payson builds a pipeline big enough to carry all 3,500 acre-feet.

In addition, the county had been offering to let small communities take advantage of the expertise of Harry Jones, a county water consultant who also manages several small community water companies.

He played a key role, for instance, in the formation of the Whispering Pines water district and in the Pine/Strawberry Water Improvement District’s takeover of the Brooke system.

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