Pipeline Delivers Dilemmas

Developments closest to pipeline could claim most of the Blue Ridge water

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Ready or not — the future has come knocking for a string of small communities along the East Verde River.

So now the residents of these remote, idyllic, laid-back subdivisions have to decide whether to answer the door — or let the hammock sway and hope for the best.

The choice seems particularly acute for four communities lying closest to Payson’s proposed Blue Ridge pipeline, which will probably run from Washington Park to near the Shoofly Ruins along Houston Mesa Road.

Mesa del Caballo, Beaver Valley, Rim Trail and Whispering Pines all lie close enough to the proposed pipeline route that they could tap into the system for less than $3 per 1,000 gallons, according to an estimate by Tetra Tech included in a report on the pipeline commissioned by Gila County. All three communities will likely need at least twice as much water as they use now by 2040, and all have a limited ability to drill new wells to meet that need. Together, they could lay claim to 300 acre-feet to provide for future growth, although only 500 acre-feet has been allocated for all of Northern Gila County.

However, each faces economic and political complications in jumping the formidable hurdles needed to negotiate with the Salt River Project for a water right and then raise the money to finance the cost of connecting to Payson’s pipeline.

Although Payson locked in its rights to 3,000 acre-feet a year ago and warned the communities along the pipeline to get in line for a connection to the pipeline, most have done very little

Mostly, that’s because they either rely on Brooke Utilities to provide water or have tiny homeowner-owned water companies with volunteer boards. But so far Brooke Utilities has merely sent a letter to the Salt River Project indicating an interest in acquiring the right to as much of the 500 acre-feet available as possible. SRP officials have said they have not received any letter of interest sent in March, and Brooke officials acknowledge they’ve received no response.

That leaves most of those small communities in limbo, as Payson continues to firm up plans for a $30-million pipeline running along Houston Mesa Road. In this second installment in a series on the pipeline, we’ll look at the prospects for the four communities closest to the pipeline. Additional installments will examine prospects for Star Valley and other communities that might have to take delivery of their water in the river itself.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said the town stands ready to help any of those communities qualify for a water right and figure out how to hook into the town’s pipeline, which will carry not only the town’s 3,000 acre-foot share but another 500 acre-feet reserved for other Northern Gila County communities.

“We have made an unconditional offer of support to help them do whatever needs to be done,” said Evans.

“We did that in a good faith effort because what helps those little communities helps the entire area.”

However, he said none of those communities had made a formal approach. Each community must first secure a water right from SRP and then figure out how to connect to the Payson pipeline.

SRP spokesman Jeffrey Lane refused repeated requests to arrange interviews with company officials to discuss how any of the 15 Northern Gila County communities lying roughly along the route of the proposed pipeline could qualify for a water right. Lane said any such community would have to qualify as a “water provider” under the terms of the federal legislation that allocated water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir, but declined to discuss any individual negotiations.

“We don’t discuss our negotiations,” said Lane. He also said he has no information about any requests for a water right made by Brooke Utilities.

Mesa del Caballo, Whispering Pines, Beaver Valley and Rim Trials each have a vital stake in obtaining rights to Blue Ridge water, since the pipeline represents an affordable way to meet their potentially substantial additional needs. However, each faces different complications, depending on their present water supply.

Beaver Valley has its own water company, with several wells that right now rarely run short. Whispering Pines and Rim Trials each have formed water improvement districts, but each actually get water through Brooke Utilities. And finally, Mesa del Caballo also gets its water from Brooke Utilities, but suffers frequent rationing during peak summer usage.

So for the communities most likely to benefit from the pipeline, Brooke Utilities seems likely to play a critical role.

And that has complicated the whole situation, since Brooke has a long, problematic history in its relationship to its customers. Moreover, many water customers have expressed reservations about the prospects of a private company obtaining public water rights worth millions of dollars.

Worse yet, by some estimates the 15 communities closest to the pipeline now use only about 420 acre-feet, but could need up to 1,200 acre-feet by 2040 when all the now empty lots are developed. So the potential need is nearly twice what the federal legislation has allotted those communities.

The Tetra Tech estimates represent a worst case scenario, says water consultant Harry Jones, who helped prepare the report. Those estimates assume every lot gets a home occupied by a full-time resident.

Brooke Utilities has also come up with estimates for the water need in the communities along the pipeline route, according to company spokesman Myndi Brogdon. That estimate suggests that the 500 acre-feet available will satisfy all the future needs of the pipeline communities.

She said the company hopes to negotiate with SRP to secure the water right to make sure each of the communities along the pipeline gets its fair share. “One of the things that’s very clear about the SRP water right — it stays with the community. Payson can’t sell them. But you have to get that water right to the community, or it stays with SRP and SRP gets to do whatever they want with it. We wanted to make sure we claimed the water right for the community, so it’s easier to figure out for everybody. If those communities say, ‘we don’t have a water provider — will you help us,’ we’ll say, ‘yeah, we’ll become the water provider,’ or they can install their own system.”

Mayor Evans noted that the 500 acre-feet of water up for grabs will cost roughly $15,000 per acre-foot to deliver, which includes a proportionate share of SRP’s existing 11-mile-long pipeline atop the Rim and Payson’s 14-mile-long pipeline along Houston Mesa Road. The water itself is “free,” but any users will have to pay their share of the cost of building and operating the system needed to get the water to their faucets.

Still, the Blue Ridge water’s a bargain. Evans estimated that the cost for that same water on the open market would come to more like $35,000 per acre-foot — or about $17.5 million annually for the 500 acre-feet.

“This isn’t cheap water,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, “but given the market value of water, anyone buying into the Payson system immediately doubles the value of their investment.”

Tuesday: A detailed look at what it would cost Mesa del Caballo, Beaver Valley, Rim Trails and Whispering Pines to connect to the pipeline.

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