Small communities along the East Verde have been bouncing in and out of water rationing for the past several weeks, irritating some residents and underscoring the stake many such developments could have in Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline.
Residents of Mesa del Caballo have been the hardest hit by spot shortages in the past month, several times running so low on water that Brooke Utilities had to fill water trucks elsewhere to replenish empty storage tanks.
Mesa del Caballo hit conservation level 5 again over the weekend, before dropping back down to level 2 this week. East Verde Estates, Pine and Strawberry all dropped to level 2 on Thursday as well, which means outdoor watering is discouraged, but not forbidden.
Some residents of Mesa del in particular bitterly complained about Brooke Utilities’ well output and storage capacity, as residents of that 400-home subdivision off Houston Mesa Road found themselves running out of water for the first time in several years.
“The monsoons will help us a lot, by lowering the demand for outside watering,” said Brooke spokesperson Myndi Brogdon. She blamed the shortage mostly on an increase in year-round population and a jump in water use.
She said if the monsoons settle in, it could prevent serious water shortages and restrictions and perhaps avert costly water hauling in Pine and Strawberry.
The company imposes restrictions whenever residents use more water in the course of a day than the well pumps can replace overnight in the storage tanks. She said the clustering of so many septic tanks and the surrounding Forest Service land has left few places to drill new wells in the community. Drinking water wells can’t be placed within 100 feet of a septic tank. Moreover, the the 400 residents could likely not absorb the cost of a $100,000 to $300,000 well to bring in more water.
However, she said Mesa del Caballo is ideally placed to perhaps get water from Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline, which would solve any future water supply problems.
In fact, about 14 communities lying along the route of the $30-million pipeline could get a share of that water, but only if someone cuts a deal in the next year or so.
Unfortunately, many residents in those communities fear they’ll get lost in the shuffle — since they’re either supplied by what amounts to a homeowners association or by Brooke Utilities, which some say has proven unwilling to invest in improving its facilities.
Brooke Utilities serves Star Valley, Mesa del Caballo, East Verde Estates and other communities that could get in line for a cut of some 500 acre-feet of unallocated water.
Payson Water Department manager Buzz Walker said although Brooke Utilities has expressed an interest in getting water from the pipeline, customers of that sometimes-controversial, privately owned company have said privately to him that they don’t trust Brooke to negotiate a water right in the one- to two-year window of opportunity.
“They’re in a dance of the dead with Brooke,” said Walker during a recent speech in reference to the tug and pull between Brooke and those small communities.
However, Brogdon said the company sees the available 500 acre-feet of Blue Ridge water as a viable solution to chronic water shortages that often trigger mandatory conservation requirements and sometimes water hauling.
“It’s a fairly good solution,” said Brogdon, “so we’re working on the numbers to see how much each community would take out of how many acre-feet.”
Unfortunately, the Blue Ridge water will probably provide no help for Pine, the most water-thirsty community in Rim Country. Between now and 2015, Blue Ridge water will go into a new, $30-million pipeline at Washington Park, for a 14.5-mile-long journey to Payson. But a ridge lies between Washington Park and Pine, which means the engineers would have to pump the water uphill to reach Pine. Estimates suggest getting Blue Ridge water to Pine and Strawberry could cost $17 million — about $3,400 for each water user.
“Seventeen million for 5,000 property owner is a bit too much,” said Brogdon.
However, many of the other communities strung out along the East Verde River could get a share of the unallocated water.
Payson labored for more than 20 years to lock up a long-term water supply. Those efforts resulted in a federal law that required the Salt River Project to provide Northern Gila County with 3,500 acre-feet of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir atop the Rim. Payson has already negotiated rights to 3,000 acre-feet — which will more than double its existing water supply. That leaves just 500 acre-feet to divide up with other Rim Country communities.
Gila County has already promised to put up several million dollars to make sure Payson builds a pipeline big enough to deliver all 3,500 acre-feet. That gives the many small communities and water users more time to first seek a water right from the Salt River Project and then to strike a deal with Payson to divert the water they need from the pipeline.
However, only a district or company that sells water can negotiate for that water right. As a result, a town like Star Valley, where residents use wells or get their water from Brooke Utilities, can’t legally gain a Blue Ridge water right.
For most of the communities along the way, that just leaves Brooke Utilities, which many say they distrust.
However, Brogdon said the company will pursue the water rights.
“We’ll move ahead with what we need to do. It will obviously become an economic question, but it is our belief that it will be affordable. If you look at your household bills, your water bill is probably your cheapest utility — at some point in all of the state of Arizona, that’s going to change. Many customers have told me that if they don’t have to go into water restrictions they’d be willing to pay a little bit more.”
Getting Blue Ridge water to those downstream communities introduces a number of complications and expenses.
The chief expense lies in building a spur pipe to connect to the main Payson pipeline running along Houston Mesa Road. Brogdon said she has no estimates of those costs, with the exception of Pine and Strawberry.
Unfortunately, the privately owned, for-profit company was ruled ineligible for recent federal stimulus applications, which proved a boon to a number of Rim Country communities.
For instance, Payson won nearly $11 million in stimulus money to underwrite about one-third of the cost of the pipeline, In addition, two small, non-profit water companies snagged stimulus grants to drill a well and build a filtration system.
That means small developments like Mesa del and East Verde Estates would have to somehow raise the money to install a pipe bringing the water to their system.
Brogdon said the company could always borrow money and pay it back by increasing the water rates.
In addition, Walker said that Payson has had conversations with Gila County about whether the county could set up improvement districts or find some other way to issue bonds that water users could repay over a long time-frame at very low rates.
In addition, water users would have to find a way to filter the water. Although the Blue Ridge water will be relatively pure with few minerals, it must be filtered to remove bacteria and sediments before it can be used as drinking water.
If Payson put its filtration system somewhere near Washington Park, it would significantly reduce the water treatment costs for downstream users.
However, Walker said the filtration plant would probably end up much closer to Payson, which would make it easier to maintain and secure. If that’s how the final plan ends up, then the other communities would have to build their own filtration plants.