Blue Ridge Water: A Lifeline For Communities

“In the west, whisky’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’” - Mark Twain

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Water from Blue Ridge Reservoir will be used in the Rim Country once Payson’s pipeline is finished by 2015.

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Buzz Walker Payson assistant public works director

In the flush of spring after a rare, wet winter, you can paddle all the way from Washington Park to Phoenix down the placid East Verde River.

But pick the wrong year or the wrong month and it’s a long, hard walk with lots of dry stretches.

Not a bad metaphor for the position thousands of property owners may find themselves in by the time the dust of confusion settles over Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline.

Those who launch their kayak at the right moment could have enough water to grow and prosper — but those who miss the political flood may find their futures dry and shrunken.

Some 500 acre-feet of available water from the reservoir atop the Rim could assure a long-term supply for most of those small, disorganized, isolated communities — many already subject to routine water rationing in the summer.

But while the stakes are high, the time is short, as Payson and the Salt River Project continue making key decisions. This special series will look at the issues, controversies, politics and economics of getting Blue Ridge water to those communities between now and when Payson turns on the spigot — probably before 2015.

Unfortunately, most of those communities have so far done nothing to protect their water rights.

“I don’t know what they’re doing,” said Buzz Walker, Payson’s virtual water czar, who spent 20 years working tenaciously to secure that town’s water right.

“I hate to speculate on why people do not do something — we haven’t pushed for an answer on whether people are in or out of wanting to utilize the pipeline.”

The potential scramble for a water right that could determine the future of many unincorporated communities has already complicated the already intricate politics of water in Northern Gila County, where shallow wells are prone to drying up in a drought.

Myndi Brogdon, a spokesperson for Brooke Utilities — which supplies water to many of those communities — said the private utility back in March sent a letter to SRP asking for rights to almost the whole 500 acre-feet.

“We want to take care of everyone’s water right now. We don’t want to come back 10 years from now — we want to try to fix this for the long term,” she said.

However, SRP spokesmen say they know nothing about such a letter from Brooke Utilities and refused to talk about any potential negotiation with individual communities for a water right.

SRP representatives refused repeated re-quests for an interview on the issue. Observers say the Blue Ridge water rights could connect to much larger questions. Most of the communities along the East Verde River rely on water drawn from shallow wells.

Elsewhere, notably in the Prescott area, SRP has waged a fierce legal battle to prevent the use of water from shallow wells, saying a turn-of-the-century act of Congress gives the giant utility first call on the surface water flowing into the Salt and Verde rivers. When SRP negotiated Payson’s Blue Ridge rights, the utility extracted a promise from the town not to drill any more wells or seek any other water.

Whispering Pines forms water district

Meanwhile, the mere thought that Brooke might end up with a water right worth millions of dollars was enough to provoke the formation of a water improvement district in Whispering Pines, where homeowners hope to negotiate with SRP.

Payson spent 20 years working with federal lawmakers and water agencies to win rights to some 3,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Blue Ridge Reservoir. Congress ordered the Salt River Project to negotiate with Payson to deliver enough water to more than double the town’s long-term water supply.

That same federal legislation earmarked 500 acre-feet for other communities.

The rest of the water in the 15,000-acre-foot reservoir goes to SRP, to slack the insatiable thirst of water users in the Valley.

In theory, some 15 communities along the route of Payson’s pipeline could negotiate rights to some or all of that 500 acre-feet of unclaimed water. Stress: “In theory.”

Payson is moving rapidly toward drawing up the engineering specifications for the $30 million, 15-mile-long pipeline between Washington Park and the proposed treatment plant — probably located between Mesa del Caballo and the Shoofly Ruins.

Decisions made now on the route of the pipeline could have a big impact on the cost of the water for the 15 downstream communities if they ever do negotiate a water right. Moreover, communities that wait too long might find all the water claimed by those better organized with more clout.

Stakes enormous

The stakes could be enormous for many communities in unincorporated areas — and perhaps for Star Valley.

A study by Tetra Tech commissioned by Gila County concluded that some 15 communities that could obtain a water right from Blue Ridge right now use about 447 acre-feet of water annually. However, if those communities by 2040 build on almost all of their vacant land, they could need 1,200 acre-feet annually. In that case, the 500 acre-feet would meet only about two-thirds of the additional demand.

As a result, some of the big, better-organized potential users like Star Valley, Mesa del and Whispering Pines could well lay claim to most of the water — closing the door on the smaller, less developed subdivisions.

Fortunately, Gila County agreed to put up several million dollars to ensure Payson builds a pipeline big enough to carry not only its 3,000 acre-feet, but the extra 500 acre-feet earmarked for other communities. That action bought all of those communities some time to launch the complicated process of talking SRP out of rights to that water.

However, an internal political feud on the Gila County Board of Supervisors then prompted the county to back away from the issue — leaving all those unincorporated communities to fend for themselves.

The county had been paying water consultant Harry Jones a retainer to help unincorporated communities provide for their water systems. However, Supervisor Shirley Dawson, whose Globe and Apache Reservation-centered district also includes Star Valley, objected to the open-ended contract with Jones, partly because he had become embroiled in disputes between Brooke and Pine and Strawberry water users. Over the objections of Supervisor Tommie Martin, the county ended Jones’ contract — which meant that each of the small communities along the route would have to slog through the political swamp of the water negotiations on its own.

As a result, little progress has been made in recent months as time has slipped away.

County report provides cost estimates

Fortunately, a county-funded study of the issue has laid out the basic costs of hooking up to the system and provided a rough estimate of future water needs for each community.

The costs often rely mostly on geography. For some communities close to the proposed pipeline route running down Houston Mesa Road, the Blue Ridge water could cost less than the electricity required to pump water out of existing wells. For other communities, the cost of a spur pipeline or pumps to move the water uphill could make the water too costly to use. But even in those cases, communities could get their water “delivered” by having it released into the East Verde River along with the estimated 11,000 acre-feet SRP will run down the East Verde to Phoenix.

Water experts say that as long as the cost of water for the pipeline stays below about $3 per 1,000 gallons, the water can compete with the cost of well water. Even much higher per-gallon costs may be worth it, if the alternative is hauling water or never developing the land.

The Tetra Tech report indicates that some of the biggest current water users — Star Valley, Mesa del Caballo, Whispering Pines and Rim Trails — would benefit from a direct connection to the Payson pipeline.

Star Valley by 2040 will need 125 acre-feet of additional water and could get water from the pipeline for just 8 cents per 1,000 gallons. Mesa del Caballo needs an additional 125 acre-feet and would have to spend $2.10 per 1,000 gallons. Whispering Pines would have to pay an estimated $2.90 per 1,000 gallons and will need 99 acre-feet, according to the Tetra Tech report. Rim Trails will need 66 acre-feet and would pay about $2.50 per 1,000 gallons.

So just the four communities closest to the pipeline could lay plausible claim to the entire 500 acre-feet, based on projected future needs — leaving the other 11 communities with potentially dry spigots.

Most of those communities are tiny, vacation-home enclaves with a few houses and lots of empty lots. But if property owners ever decide to build on those empty lots, those communities could require some 300 acre-feet. Their costs range from about $8 to $43 per 1,000 gallons. However, communities like Beaver Valley and East Verde Estates could in theory take delivery of their water in the river itself at a much lower cost.

However, the politics remain murky as monsoon runoff for most of those communities. Any community hoping to win a water right must first qualify as a “water provider” under the terms of the federal law — and then must have some way to pay for the pipeline connections and treatment plant.

So who will get the water — and at what cost? Stay tuned — since the answers to those questions may largely determine the future growth and development of large expanses of Northern Gila County.

Next: The big four: How can Star Valley, Whispering Pines, Mesa del Caballo and Rim Trails secure their water right — and what might it cost.

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