Blue Ridge Water Key To College Plans

Payson mayor explains link between pipeline and push to convince ASU to build a 1,500-student campus in town

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Sing along now: The hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone. The thigh bone’s connected to the shin bone.

And the Blue Ridge Reservoir’s connected to just about everything else. Payson Mayor Kenny Evans says he could only consider trying to convince Arizona State University to build a four-year campus in Payson because a generation of effort by previous councils resulted in the plan to build the Blue Ridge pipeline.

“I could never have moved forward in discussions with ASU about a campus here if we had not gotten real, concrete movement on the Blue Ridge water and they wouldn’t have wanted to be here,” said Evans.

Meanwhile, the week brought several new developments in the now accelerating effort to strike a deal with ASU.

On Thursday, the Payson Town Council met in executive session with representatives of ASU to come up with a schedule to resolve outstanding issues, now that the two sides have agreed to negotiate exclusively with one another to bring a campus to town. The current preliminary agreement gives both sides until March to settle on an official Memorandum of Understanding — which would set out specific details and time tables.

The Payson council had an additional executive session on Thursday after that meeting with the ASU negotiators to discuss legal issues relating to the potentially complex agreement between ASU and Payson.

$70 million in pledges will help build the college

Mayor Evans has rounded up more than $70 million in pledges to help build the proposed, 1,500-student campus on some 300 acres of Forest Service land at the east side of town across from Gila Community College. That pledge of private support leapfrogged Payson to the head of the line of a list of towns hoping to convince ASU to build a low-cost, four-year campus in a rural area of the state.

The donated money would cover the cost of buying the 300 acres from the Forest Service. The land has already been designated for sale by Congress. The donations would also cover the cost of building a “green” campus using “sustainable” design and materials, which could be a major focus for programs on the campus as well.

Evans stressed that the town’s progress in the past two years in bringing water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir to town underlay Payson’s bid for the ASU campus.

Which is one reason the town this week also increased its effort to convince members of the state’s congressional delegation to push through legislation making it clear that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will have authority over the pipeline project, with the U.S. Forest Service playing the secondary role.

Town officials back in July raised concerns about disagreements between the Forest Service and the Bureau about the pipeline, which must meet standards of the Bureau of Reclamation, but runs across Forest Service land.

Forest Service officials promised to work out the details in July, but Evans said not much has happened since then. So now the town is once again pushing for legislation to make it clear the Bureau of Reclamation will play the leading role, given its experience with supervising dam and pipeline construction.

A consulting firm hired by the town continues to work on preparing an environmental impact study on the proposed pipeline between Washington Park and Payson, which the town hopes will deliver about 3,000 acre-feet of water annually starting in about 2015.

Delivery of water critical to attracting ASU

The delivery of that water remains critical to the town’s future, starting with prospects for attracting ASU, said Evans.

“If we build the Blue Ridge pipeline, but don’t have growth — then we won’t have any way to pay for it,” said Evans. “The current population has their water — the growth is what we’re trying to provide for.”

In a normal year, rain and snow puts about 2,500 acre-feet of water into the underground water table that supplies Payson’s wells.

On average, Payson residents use about 1,800 acre-feet annually, which reflects the impact of the town’s substantial water conservation program.

As a result, natural rainfall delivers enough water to sustain the current population of about 16,000, although dry, drought years like this year can easily cut annual rainfall in half, which results in a drop in the water table as wells continue to pump.

The Blue Ridge pipeline will more than double the town’s sustainable water supply by delivering an extra 3,000 acre-feet annually. The water comes from the 11,000 acre-foot capacity Blue Ridge Reservoir, which would normally drain down into the Little Colorado River along an entirely different watershed.

Although an extended drought could also drain the deep, narrow Blue Ridge Reservoir, the pipeline should give Payson enough water to support a population of more than 40,000 — including a college campus.

The pipeline will cost an estimated $30 million. The water itself won’t cost the town anything thanks to federal legislation, although it would be worth millions on the open water market.

The town will have to pay only the cost of building and maintaining the pipeline, plus a share of the operating cost for the pipeline owned by the Salt River Project up on top of the Rim. SRP has the rights to the balance of the 11,000 acre-feet in Blue Ridge, which it plans to release into the East Verde River, which will carry it on down to the Verde River reservoirs near Phoenix.

College will bring good jobs

Evans said once the town knew it could count on the water from Blue Ridge, he pushed hard to come to terms with ASU. He said the college campus will not only bring hundreds of stable, relatively well-paid jobs to town, it will also interject a lot of money into the local economy.

Moreover, spending generated by a college campus will be steady and year-round. Currently, the town depends heavily on real estate, construction and tourism, all subject to big drops during recessions.

“We need an industry that will stabilize the ups and downs we’ve been experiencing” economically, said Evans.

But he said the town couldn’t consider bringing more businesses — and residents — to town until it had secured enough water.

“If we were to go out and build this college and bring those kinds of numbers into town, the impact on the current water system without Blue Ridge would be catastrophic,” said Evans. “We’d be throwing gasoline on the fire in terms of the water wars.”

Payson’s earlier efforts to secure additional water to support new development took the form of giving a developer water impact fee credits in return for drilling the Tower Well, in Star Valley. Fears that Payson would “steal” their groundwater by drawing down the water table with the Tower Well played a key role in provoking the incorporation of Star Valley.

Extra water for communities

Now, not only does Payson have enough water without even using the Tower Well, but the Blue Ridge pipeline will carry an extra 500 acre-feet available to communities along the pipeline — including, potentially, Star Valley.

So everything really is connected — since Blue Ridge provides the water to support the growth necessary to pay for the pipeline.

Payson plans to come up with the $30 million for the pipeline through a combination of low-cost federal grants and loans, repaid over time mostly with water impact fees imposed on new construction. Without the new construction, water users would be stuck with the cost of the pipeline.

“So we can afford to make this huge investment because we’ll have growth in the future,” said Evans.

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