Communities Drowning In Water Delay

Those who would gain most from Blue Ridge water have tried every approach — but made little progress

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

The East Verde River flows through Whispering Pines, one of the four communities that could most cheaply connect to Payson’s pipeline.

The four small communities with the most to gain from Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline at the moment have tried almost every possible approach.

Whispering Pines has formed a Water Improvement District — that probably can’t actually win a water right.

Rim Trail already has a water improvement district and is waiting to see what happens.

Beaver Valley has its own water company, but apparently hasn’t yet sought its water right.

And Mesa del Caballo has organized and protested — but then subsided and left its fate in the hands of Brooke Utilities, the private water company that now provides service to the chronically water-short community.

The halting, fragmented, so far largely ineffectual effort of each of those small communities to win a share of some 500 acre-feet reserved for all of northern Gila County therefore offers something of a cautionary tale and a primer in the complexities of water politics in a drought-stricken West.

Harry Jones, a consultant to several of the small water improvement districts that may have to vie for limited water rights said that even communities that currently have an adequate supply from existing wells might need to secure Blue Ridge water as insurance against a future, catastrophic well failure.

“If they cannot participate now and the water rights get given away, then other people may just get left out,” said Jones. “Some of these communities have a single well and if that one well goes dry, they’re pretty well sunk.”

Myndi Brogdon, a spokesperson for Brooke Utilities, said the company sought to protect the water rights of pipeline communities by sending a letter to the Salt River Project back in March seeking rights to the Blue Ridge Water, which will come gurgling down a not-yet-built $30 million pipeline along Houston Mesa Road sometime in 2014 or 2015.

“We sent a letter initiating discussion — but so far there’s no official work and nothing is there yet.”

The pipeline will carry 3,000 acre-feet for Payson, effectively doubling that water-short town’s long-term supply. Thanks to an early commitment from Gila County, the pipe will also carry 500 acre-feet of water that federal legislation earmarked for the rest of Northern Gila County. That could include some 48 small communities in the region, but only 15 of those communities sit along the pipeline route. And of those, only Beaver Valley, Whispering Pines, Mesa del Caballo and Rim Trail lie close enough to the pipeline to get water for less than $3 per 1,000 gallons, according to a study commissioned by Gila County.

That study estimated that the 15 communities along the pipeline will need 1,200 acre-feet when they’re all built out — some 800 acre-feet more than they now use. A separate study by Brooke Utilities estimated that the communities most likely to connect with the pipeline will only need about 500 acre-feet at buildout.

Either way, none of the affected communities have made significant progress in the past year negotiating an agreement. Each would have to qualify as a “water provider” then come up with a way to finance the infrastructure to put a spigot into the Payson pipeline.

Spokespersons for SRP have refused to discuss any talks with any of the affected communities and will not even acknowledge having received a letter from Brooke Utilities.

That leaves each of the four most directly affected communities to fend largely for themselves, with time growing short.

The Blue Ridge water also represents a bargain compared to the cost of hauling water, as Pine, Strawberry and Mesa del Caballo residents have discovered in recent drought-plagued summers.

Moreover, Pine and Strawberry labored under a total building moratorium for years, until homeowners formed a water improvement district, bought out Brooke Utilities and set themselves to developing new, deeper wells. Homeowners complained for years that water provider Brooke Utilities hadn’t done enough to obtain new water supplies.

Jones said the Blue Ridge water would be a bargain for any community that can keep the price below about $3 per 1,000 gallons. “And if they’re in real bad shape, you’re going to be willing to pay $5 per 1,000 gallons.”

Moreover, Jones said the federal government’s Water Infrastructure Finance Authority provides low-cost grants and loans that might so reduce the cost that the Blue Ridge water would make sense even up to $10 per 1,000 gallons. Jones recently landed a WIFA grant that provided more than $500,000 for a handful of homeowners in Portal IV to drill their own deep well.

Such a grant could finance the cost of hooking into the pipeline and perhaps pay for a treatment plant for any of the four closest communities, providing they take the steps necessary to qualify as a water provider both to negotiate with SRP and to apply for the WIFA grants.

So the four communities closest to the pipeline stand to gain a huge benefit. Here’s a summary of the cost of a pipeline hookup for each community, based largely on figures from the Tetra Tech report commissioned by Gila County.

Mesa del Caballo

This 409-home subdivision sits close by Payson’s proposed treatment plant on Houston Mesa Road, near the Shoofly Ruins.

The development in 2002 used 66 acre-feet, according to a report by Tetra Tech commissioned by Gila County. Surrounded by Forest Service land, the community is nearly built out already. By 2040, Mesa del Caballo should need 455 connections. However, a projected sharp increase in year-round residents could drive use up to 159 acre-feet annually — a 125 acre-foot increase.

But Mesa del Caballo residents don’t have to wonder if they’ll run out of water — they already did this summer. An increase in use, coupled with a decline in the output of the community’s existing wells, resulted in repeated rationing and water hauling. Despite the expensive effort to truck water in from Gisela, some taps went dry.

Brooke Utilities says it has requested water from the pipeline for Mesa del, which should provide a long-term fix for the water shortage providing residents can win more than 20 percent of the available water.

In the meantime, Brooke says it is also doing a survey to determine whether to drill a new well. Results from that survey are expected in about a month.

Another short-term fix could involve connecting the community to Payson’s existing water supply. Reportedly, Payson has also signaled a willingness to extend a pipeline to the community as a short-term solution, while arrangements are finalized to hook the community into the pipeline when it arrives. That pipe could follow the route of any eventual connection to the Blue Ridge pipeline. However, SRP would have to sanction the arrangement. Payson’s agreement with SRP, by which it secured rights to the 3,000 acre-feet from the Blue Ridge Reservoir, prevent it from re-selling any of that water and prevent the town from drilling any new wells.

Homeowners in Mesa del Caballo this summer organized in the wake of repeated water hauling, shortages and moves by Brooke Utilities to cut off water to homeowners using too much water despite the restrictions. The homeowners’ group discussed moving to establish a water improvement district to pressure Brooke into improving the water supply, but have since put that effort on hold awaiting the outcome of Brooke’s water survey.

The community would need to spend about $473,000 to hook up to the pipeline, according to the Tetra Tech estimates — about the cost of a deep well. The annual operating costs would amount to about $85,000. At that price, water from the pipeline would cost residents about $2 per 1,000 gallons, which is a measure of both the cost of the hardware and the number of users in the system.

Whispering Pines

At the moment, this small development nestled in the woods along an intermittently dry stretch of the East Verde River rarely suffers a water shortage. The 171 water users in 2002 used about 18 acre-feet — while the well-based system has the capacity to produce about 32 acre-feet annually, assuming the wells don’t go dry. The Tetra Tech report estimates that by 2040 the number of water users will rise to 228 and the community could need up to 66 additional acre-feet annually — about 13 percent of the water available in the pipeline.

The development could hook up to the nearby pipeline for a modest price — less than $300,000. Annual operating costs would total about $28,000, according to the Tetra Tech estimates. The capital costs would therefore total about $2,500 per connection. Water would cost an estimated $2.90 per 1,000 gallons.

Brooke Utilities currently serves the subdivision, but homeowners recently formed a water improvement district to ride herd on the private utility. A similar situation in Pine and Strawberry led to years of conflict between the district and the company, culminating in the multi-million-dollar buyout of the company this summer.

Brooke has requested the pipeline water right for Whispering Pines. At the moment, it’s unclear what SRP would do if both the company and the district seek the water right for the same land. SRP spokesmen refuse to discuss the possibility. The federal legislation suggests the water right attaches to the land, but only a “purveyor” of water can negotiate for the right to deliver that water. Currently, the Whispering Pines Water Improvement District has no distribution system and no customers, so it’s not a “water purveyor.” Brooke has both a system and customers, but SRP’s lack of response to the company so far has left the situation as murky as summer runoff.

Whispering Pines may also face complications in its negotiations with SRP because it currently relies mostly on shallow wells that are visibly affected by changes in runoff in the river. SRP has long claimed rights to the surface water in the Tonto National Forest, under the terms of federal legislation that both established the Tonto National Forest and laid the legal groundwork for a series of reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers that serve Phoenix.

Beaver Valley

This idyllic, rural community has its own water company, which serves about 165 water users who consume about 22 acre-feet annually. The number of connections could rise to 205 by 2040 and the community could need an additional 86 acre-feet annually, according to the Tetra Tech estimates. That’s about 17 percent of the water available in the pipeline.

Residents there would have to come up with $358,000 to build a treatment plant and connect to the pipeline. Any community upstream from Payson’s treatment plant at Houston Mesa would likely have to build its own small treatment plant, although five smaller strategically situated treatment plants could serve all the communities, according to the Tetra Tech report.

The operating costs would total about $2,170 per connection for Beaver Valley and the cost of the water would likely come in at about $3 per 1,000 gallons.

Rim Trail

The 93 water users in Rim Trail used 11 acre-feet in 2002, although the system could have delivered some 14 acre-feet. However, by 2040 the area could have 137 connections and consume as much as 88 acre-feet, an increase of 51 acre-feet or roughly 10 percent of the water available for all of Northern Gila County, according to the Tetra Tech estimates.

Brooke Utilities provides water now and the company has requested water rights from SRP to serve the area in the future. Brooke has requested allocation of nearly the entire available 500 acre-feet, arguing it can hold the water right until some of the smaller communities either sign on for service from Brooke or establish their own water company.

It would cost Rim Trail DWID about $268,000 to hook up to the pipeline, which works out to about $2,900 per connection. Annually operating costs would total about $25,000, which would result in a water cost of $2.50 per 1,000 gallons.

Friday: Part four of the series will look at the position of other communities, including communities that might take delivery of their water in the river itself.

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