Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline will likely end up carrying close to 4,000 acre-feet annually — enough water to resolve century-old legal tangles and perhaps prevent small communities along the pipeline from running out of water as they grow.
And in the face of continued confusion about how to claim a share of the Blue Ridge water, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans says the town will build in connections for any communities making a serious effort to qualify for water.
The pipeline could carry not only the 500 acre-feet allocated for northern Gila County communities, but perhaps another 500 acre-feet to help settle other outstanding claims that have gotten as tangled as the roots of a flood-scarred cottonwood.
Evans said Salt River Project (SRP) has already warned the town that the pipe may have to accommodate more than the original 3,500 acre-feet anticipated — 3,000 acre-feet for Payson and 500 acre-feet for any of the 15 communities along the pipeline that can qualify for a water right.
“The total could top 3,900 acre-feet if you add up all the little pieces,” said Evans.
He said Gila County had pledged some $2 million to cover the cost of upsizing the pipeline and ensure it can ultimately deliver water to a host of unincorporated communities along the route of the pipeline. The county could recover that pledged investment from the communities once they actually plug into the pipeline.
Evans said that the town would design the $30 million pipeline running along Houston Mesa Road so it could handle not only the original 3,500 acre-feet, but extra water as well.
SRP will consider using the pipeline water for water swaps to resolve other outstanding issues, including the output of disputed wells along the East Verde and Tonto Creek, an allotment of more than 160 acre-feet of Colorado River water owned by a defunct Pine water company and another allotment of about 128 acre-feet of Colorado River water due to the Tonto Apache Tribe.
“We’re designing to that standard as we go,” said Evans.
Moreover, he said the town hopes to get commitments from all those communities that want to participate soon — even if they still haven’t finished the confusing and time-consuming process of getting set up as “water purveyors” and negotiating with SRP for their share of Blue Ridge water.
“There’s pressure to make the decision — it’s not an open-ended offer,” said Evans.
“If they want to stall and wait until the system is in and then decide to jump on the bandwagon, it will cost them substantially more — but if we have a firm commitment, then we’ll work with them.”
Evans’ pledge represents a lifeline for a host of small communities with their whole futures on the line, most of whom have made little progress toward securing a water right in the past year as Payson has moved inexorably forward with engineering for the pipeline.
Gila County initially bought time for those communities by promising to provide the up-front money to make the pipe big enough to carry water for the region — since all of those communities were approved by the county planning department and remain dependent on the county for key services.
The county used to also maintain a contract with Harry Jones to provide advice and technical support for any community seeking to solve water supply problems. However, after Jones became embroiled in the bitter struggle between Brooke Utilities and the Pine/Strawberry Water Improvement District, Supervisor Shirley Dawson, with the support of Supervisor Mike Pastor, voted to end the ongoing contract over the objections of Supervisor Tommie Martin.
That left many small communities without much help when it comes to meeting the complicated rules for the establishment of a water improvement district or a community facilities district. The problem has proven especially complicated for communities served by Brooke Utilities, including Whispering Pines, East Verde Estates, Mesa del Caballo and Star Valley.
Supervisor’s hands tied
Martin said her hands are tied when it comes to helping communities approved by the county now facing water shortages that could ultimately prevent many vacant lots from ever being developed. She said the county had done what it could by promising to advance the money to upsize the pipeline and that the county couldn’t get into the water business or become a “water purveyor” to claim the water right on behalf of the scattering of unincorporated settlements.
So Evans’ recent pledge to engineer the pipeline to include connections for interested communities gives them each more time to figure out the bureaucratic puzzle and cut a deal with SRP. Payson has already awarded preliminary engineering contracts on both the pipeline and the treatment plant and hopes to finalize plans in the next year. Current schedules call for the arrival of the water from the pipe in 2014 or 2015.
“We’ve offered the assistance of the town, held forums and tried to help them understand the process they have to go through,” said Evans.
“But we’re at the two-year mark and they’re just starting to get it. There’s pressure to make the decision — it’s not an open-ended offer saying ‘you all come back in 15 years and we’ll be here.’ But if we have a firm commitment that they’re working in that direction and it’s just the obstacle of time and government — then we’ll work with them.”
The stakes are substantial, both for communities that could obtain the water relatively cheaply and for communities far from the pipeline but struggling to protect murky water rights.
For starters, the extra water flowing through the Blue Ridge pipeline could prevent the region from getting entangled in a massive legal action that’s been staggering along for 35 years already — with no quick end in sight.
The Gila River Settlement action could ultimately determine water rights throughout the state — creating a host of winners and losers.
The unwieldy mess of lawsuits and negotiations under court supervision will ultimately settle complicated questions that seek to define the difference between groundwater and surface water and settle a tangle of conflicting legal claims on almost every watershed in the southern half of the state.
Many of the Rim Country communities along Tonto Creek and the East Verde River depend on either water diversions from the creek or shallow wells. Some communities like Beaver Valley have established rights to a certain amount of surface water, but most could face a potential legal challenge from SRP, which has rights to surface runoff throughout the Tonto National Forest.
For instance, people living in the Tonto Basin along Tonto Creek pump water from shallow wells that rise and fall with flows in the creek. Some even divert water directly from the creek. SRP has long maintained all such uses impinge on its water right.
Claiming Blue Ridge water
Those communities in theory can claim a share of the Blue Ridge water that will flow through Payson’s pipeline. However, they could never afford the cost of an extra pipeline to get the water from Payson down into the Tonto Basin. Even if they negotiated a right to the water and asked SRP to release the water directly into the creek near Washington Park, it would end up flowing down the East Verde and into the Verde River.
Now, the arrival of the Blue Ridge water could provide the key to resolving some of those claims.
“They’ve been using that water for a very long time,” said Evans, “but it is deemed by every credible water entity that they’re pumping directly out of Tonto Creek, which means it is a longstanding violation of SRP’s ownership. So SRP could go back through the adjudication process and try to get some judge to pick on grandma who is pumping 13 gallons from the river. But the real desire on the part of SRP is to quantify all those households and say ‘you have a right to use this water’ — but put a limit on it.”
Payson struck just such a deal with SRP in negotiating for its 3,000 acre-feet in Blue Ridge water by promising to drill no new wells and drop efforts to seek supplemental water elsewhere.
Evans noted that water users in the Tonto Basin could ultimately strike a deal in which they would give up any right to Blue Ridge water in return for SRP’s recognition of their right to take a certain amount of water out of the creek.
The Tonto Apache Tribe could find itself with a similar opportunity. The tribe has the right to about 128 acre-feet of Colorado River water. That water right stems from a massive water settlement connected to the construction of the multi-billion-dollar Central Arizona Project pipeline from the Colorado River to Tucson by way of Phoenix settled a host of water claims by Indian tribes.
The Tonto Apache Tribe hasn’t yet settled, partly because the tribe had no way to get Colorado River Water. But now SRP could in theory swap Blue Ridge water for the tribe’s CAP allotment.
Such side deals could not only provide enough water to nurture development for many of these scattered islands of private land in the sea of Forest Service land, it could also keep the region from getting entangled in the legal confrontation over water rights that has embroiled half the state.
Currently, SRP is engaged in a long, high-stakes struggle with Prescott and Prescott Valley and other water users on the upper Verde River watershed. SRP maintains that wells steal surface water from the Verde River, where flows have dwindled as well pumping has increased. Several court decisions so far have favored the well diggers, but the legal dispute could go on for decades to come.
“The whole process will work its way through statewide,” said Dave Roberts, SRP’s manager of water rights and contracts.
“This is a piece of litigation that started back in the ’70s to determine everyone’s water right in the Gila River System (into which the Salt and Verde rivers flow).”
But SRP would rather work out friendly agreements now, than spend decades in court, said Roberts.
“If there’s a way to work things out — we’re interested in working them out,” said Roberts.
“SRP has used water rights to help people solve problems for many years — this is just another opportunity to do that.”