When it comes to winning a right to Blue Ridge water, even communities that have done everything right can find themselves lost in limbo.
Worse yet — even communities with plenty of water right now may find themselves with a critical need for that water, not just for drinking, but for fighting fires as well.
And that makes the inaction of Gila County all the more dangerous for communities whose whole water future hangs in the balance — from avoiding rationing, to developing vacant lots to filling up fire department tanker trucks and staving off brushfires.
None of the small, unincorporated settlements along the East Verde River that might qualify for Blue Ridge water currently have fire hydrants to protect homes and refill firefighting tanker trucks trying to stave off a brushfire.
Chuck Jacobs, the retired Payson fire chief, who now heads the volunteer fire department in Mesa del Caballo, said every one of the communities along the pipeline needs access to the pipeline to fill tanker trucks and perhaps establish hydrants.
Local firefighters last summer formed the first line of defense for Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines, when the ravenous Water Wheel Fire forced the evacuation of both communities. Beaver Valley has a pond next to the fire station, but in most of the other communities, fire tanker trucks would have to race all the way back to Payson for a refill, said Jacobs.
Fortunately, winds turned the fire at the last minute and the tanker trucks standing by to protect the houses weren’t tested. The lack of a hydrant system could have proved fatal to the community but for a whim of the wind.
He said the fire departments need hydrants along the pipeline. In addition, those communities that raise the money to build spur pipelines to bring Blue Ridge water into individual settlements could easily install storage tanks and hydrants that would dramatically improve fire protection, said Jacobs.
“No one has contacted us back,” said Jacobs. “That pipeline goes right down Houston Mesa Road and we need about seven connections at Shoofly and every other intersection,” for fire trucks to fill up. “That pipeline could have a big impact on fire protection for every community along the way.”
But even communities that don’t currently have a water shortage want Blue Ridge water as their last, best chance to obtain a backup water supply in case of drought.
Consider the plight of Beaver Valley, where residents have been working hard all year to at least get Payson and the Salt River Project to save their share of some 500 acre-feet up for grabs by the 15 communities laying along, or just beyond, Payson’s proposed pipeline.
Beaver Valley residents began organizing in late 2008, even before Payson secured its rights to 3,000 acre-feet of Blue Ridge water.
Fortunately, the 205-home subdivision just off Houston Mesa Road is served by a small, private water company owned by local resident Mike Davoren, who in September 2008, expressed an interest in selling his company to the homeowners association.
Moreover, Beaver Valley has a unique advantage — rights to almost 24 acre-feet of surface water dating back to the 1800s — a water right that pre-dates even the Salt River Project’s (SRP) claim to surface waters throughout the Tonto National Forest.
Last summer, Beaver Valley homeowners presented petitions to Gila County to allow them to form a water improvement district.
Once the homeowners have formed a district and raise the money to buy out Davoren’s water company, the district can negotiate for a share of the Blue Ridge water, said Bing Brown, chairman of the board of the Beaver Valley Domestic Water Improvement District.
“The board of supervisors said ‘are you sure you want to do this?’” said Brown. “And we said, ‘well, I’m not too bright — so we’ll give it a try.’”
Brown, who spent 22 years as a public information officer for SRP, figured things would go smoothly. Davoren wanted to sell, so no one expected any of the bitterness and strife that accompanied the purchase of a Brooke Utilities water company by the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District.
One little problem.
SRP wouldn’t even talk to the district until it was an official “purveyor of water,” which means the district had to first buy the system.
Suddenly, the water district found itself trapped between the bureaucratic definition of a water purveyor and the national financial meltdown. In short, the district can’t seem to find a bank willing to lend it the roughly $400,000 to $800,000 as a long-term loan needed to buy the water company.
Armed now with two letters of rejection, the water board voted to approach the federal government this weekend for a loan to buy the company.
Brown said some of the homeowners want to secure the water right mostly to provide a backup water supply, since at present the community rarely runs low on water.
Beaver Valley has one well, but pumps most of its water directly from the river. For that nearly 24 acre-feet annually, homeowners can thank the ranch family that obtained a water right to the East Verde River back in the 1880s. At that time, Beaver Valley was part of Yavapai County — since Gila County hadn’t yet been formed. The county recorder who assigned the water right was none other than the legendary Bucky O’Neill — a frontiersman, lawman, gunfighter and finally one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
Almost none of the other communities along the river have a similar, senior water right. That means that in theory SRP could one day contest their existing water supply. In Payson’s case, the town agreed to stop drilling wells and seeking other water sources to secure its Blue Ridge water right.
Landowners generally automatically have the right to groundwater deep beneath the surface of their land, but may not have rights to water running across the surface. Back at the turn of the century, farmers in the Valley set up SRP to provide irrigation water and convinced the federal government to build Roosevelt Dam, the first of the giant reclamation projects that transformed the West. Roosevelt stores the waters of the Salt River, which drains the White Mountains. Another set of reservoirs on the Verde River hold the waters that drain off from the Rim Country. The federal government, in conjunction with the dam project, also created the Tonto National Forest and gave SRP broad rights to the runoff from a vast region.
SRP is currently engaged in a fierce legal struggle with Prescott and Prescott Valley for rights to water that flows into the upper Verde. SRP has been trying to block new wells, maintaining that the wells will dry up the upper Verde and capture surface waters to which SRP has the rights. The outcome of that struggle could one day affect users along the East Verde River and Tonto Creek, many of which rely on wells whose levels are affected by water levels in the adjacent streams.
Beaver Valley’s senior water right protects it from any such claim and gives it perhaps the most secure water right along the East Verde.
So, the community rarely suffers the use restrictions routine elsewhere along the Verde River, where most communities rely on a handful of shallow wells. A county-commissioned study by Tetra Tech estimated the community currently uses about 22 acre-feet. However, the study predicts that if property owners built on the remaining 40 vacant lots and the number of full-time residents rose from about 100 to about 245, the community could need an additional 52 acre-feet.
Brown remains skeptical of that figure, but agrees the community may need the Blue Ridge water as insurance against drought, disaster and well failure. Because the community depends on water taken directly from the creek, upstream contamination or mud slides generated by wildfires could also cut off the settlement’s supply — at least for a time.
More than one water source
“It’s prudent to have more than one source of water. If we run into an extended drought that affects the East Verde River, we need to have that additional water,” said Brown.
After the Water Wheel Fire, the creek ran black through the settlement.
Like many communities along the river, Beaver Valley could also consider asking SRP to release its share of the Blue Ridge water into the creek for delivery. That would reduce some or all of the $358,000 cost of hooking up to the pipeline.
In addition, it would help increase the flow in the East Verde — especially when combined with the roughly 11,000 acre-feet SRP intends to run down the river to supply its chain of Verde River reservoirs near Phoenix.
Currently, the East Verde often dwindles to a trickle in Beaver Valley and often goes underground immediately below the settlement. But the river is one of the main reasons most people bought their homes there and serves as a major recreational amenity for the entire region.
“That’s something worth looking at,” said Brown, although he said the potential for pollution and the cost of treatment of water taken from the river might make that option unpalatable to homeowners.
Still, for the moment, the big challenge is just qualifying for a seat at the table. Payson has already hired engineering firms to design the pipeline, treatment system and connection to the Payson water system. Those engineers will make recommendations that will have a big impact on the cost of connecting to the system for all the communities along the way — both for fire protection and for drinking water.
Brown said the district has been stymied by the contradictory requirements that may take a year or more to work out. By then, Payson may have made many of the key decisions about the design of the pipeline.
Moreover, Brooke Utilities, which serves most of the communities that could win a right to the Blue Ridge water, has also asked for rights to nearly the entire 500 acre-feet.
No one knows how SRP will divide up the water and whether the water could get parceled out on a first-come, first-serve basis. Brooke’s estimates suggest the pipeline communities will need about 500 acre-feet for future growth. The county study by Tetra Tech estimated future demand at 800 acre-feet.
So far, SRP has refused to discuss any negotiation and won’t say how it would allocate the water. Some users along the pipeline have questioned whether SRP would be in a position to absorb some or all of that water if none of the communities along the pipe manage to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops.
Brown says the residents of Beaver Valley will keep plugging along, hoping to qualify for a private or federal loan in time to buy the water company and secure a water right.
“But then, it’s always been that way,” said Brown philosophically. “When did you want your driver’s license: Bet it was before you turned 16. Let’s be real, a lot of folks have their druthers one way or another, but it doesn’t always happen the way they want.”