The Payson Town Council this week will likely take the next key step in planning the Blue Ridge pipeline, setting the clock running for smaller, water-starved communities along the route.
The Payson council on Thursday will review engineering bids for the $30-million pipeline to bring water 14.7 miles from Washington Park to the outskirts of Payson.
Some 52 engineering firms from all over the country picked up packets and 15 submitted bids. Three firms with local connections came out on top.
The lead bid came in from Sunrise Engineering, which has just opened a Payson office, followed by Tetra Tech Engineering, a well-established local engineering firm. The third-rated bidder was HDR Engineering, teamed with the local Verde Engineering Inc. The town hired three independent reviewers to look over the 15 submitted engineering bids and all rated Sunrise No. 1.
Payson Public Works Director LaRon Garrett on Thursday will ask the council to authorize the town staff to enter into more detailed negotiations with Sunrise Engineering to fill in the details on a contract to draw up rough plans for the pipeline running along Houston Mesa Road that will deliver 3,500 acre-feet annually from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.
Those plans could either facilitate connections for 15 smaller communities along the route of the pipeline or make an eventual hookup more expensive and difficult. Those smaller communities could claim a share of some 500 acre-feet annually — which would double their present supply.
Garrett’s memo to the council notes that if the town staff can’t hash out all the final details satisfactorily with Sunrise, the negotiations would shift to the No. 2 bidder, Tetra Tech.
The preliminary plans will amount to about one-third of the total engineering cost, enough to determine the route of the pipeline and make it possible for the town to actually seek construction bids.
Currently, the Valley consulting firm of SWCA, Inc. is working on the environmental assessment of the pipeline necessary to settle on a route and win U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation approval of the project. Most of the pipeline will run across federal land. A $10.5-million federal stimulus grant will pay for some of these preliminary costs, in addition to actually buying the pipe.
Payson labored for 20 years seeking to secure an adequate future water supply. Plunging groundwater well levels several years ago had prompted the town to impose the state’s toughest growth limits.
However, the town then concluded a federally mandated agreement with the Salt River Project to get water from the Blue Ridge, or C.C. Cragin, Reservoir atop the Mogollon Rim. SRP retains rights to most of the 11,000 acre-feet of water stored in that reservoir, but Payson will get 3,000 acre-feet annually for the cost of building and maintaining the pipeline.
The newly received federal grants, a low-cost federal loan program and money collected from the town’s $7,500 — per-unit water impact fee will pay for the pipeline. The pipe will more than double the town’s long-term water supply.
When combined with the roughly 2,500 acre-feet that flows into the town’s water table in an average year, the Blue Ridge pipeline should provide enough water to support a population of some 40,000 without depleting the water table except during a severe drought. Payson’s current general plan calls for a build-out population of perhaps 32,000.
Awarding the engineering contract suggests that the pipeline train is about to leave the station as far as other communities along the route of the pipeline are concerned.
The federal law that authorized SRP to negotiate with Payson also required the Phoenix-based utility to make 500 acre-feet of water available to other Northern Gila County communities. Some 15 different communities lie along the route of the pipeline, including the 400 homes at chronically water-short Mesa del Caballo, the 3,000 residents of Star Valley and a dozen other smaller communities.
None of those communities have so far negotiated rights to any of that 500 acre-feet, which could alleviate chronic water shortages for many of those communities.
Mesa del, for instance, repeatedly ran out of water this summer. Residents now use 66 acre-feet annually, but projections suggest that by 2040 they’ll need roughly 125 acre-feet.
The Blue Ridge pipeline will be close by the development, but only a water seller can negotiate for rights to that available 500 acre-feet. Currently, the privately owned Brooke Utilities serves the community.
Meanwhile, other communities along the route like East Verde Estates could negotiate rights with SRP to put water into the East Verde River, where wells in the community could reach it without a costly pipeline spur connected to Payson’s big pipe. However, Brooke Utilities would also have to negotiate for that water, since it sells water in the community.
Brooke Utilities has expressed interest in negotiating with SRP for rights to that 500 acre-feet, but has often found itself in conflict with its own water users and with the Arizona Corporation Commission which regulates it.
Payson’s move toward awarding the engineering contract sets the timer for the efforts of those 15 still scattered and disorganized communities to negotiate for their share of the water. The preliminary engineering could settle key issues concerning the placement of the treatment plant and route of the pipeline that could affect the ability of those other communities to later connect to the pipe.