Blue Ridge Water May End Conflict

Salt River Project vows to not only dole out 500 acre-feet to communities along the pipeline, but to resolve tangle of issues

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Go on out into the rain.

Stand with your face upturned, the sky running like tears across your face.

Just remember — that’s not your water.

Mostly, it belongs to the Salt River Project and the group of Valley towns, ranchers and other water users who banded together a century ago to cajole the federal government into creating the network of dams and reservoirs that made it possible for Phoenix to grow, weedlike, into the nation’s fifth largest city.

After a long silence, SRP officials this week said they hope negotiations with the small communities along the pipeline will not only deliver at least 500 acre-feet of water, but settle century-old disputes including old water claims that could increase the water available by some 300 acre-feet.

“We’re interested in working things out,” said Dave Roberts, SRP’s manager of water rights and contracts after reading the first three parts in the Roundup’s water series. SRP has previously refused comment on these issues.

“We don’t want to have any conflict. We’ve had a lot of conflict over the years and this is a chance to resolve those conflicts,” Roberts said.

Roberts said SRP hopes to have discussions with Payson and the other key communities in the next month. He said SRP had also located a misdirected e-mail from Brooke Utilities attempting to open negotiations referred to in the Roundup’s water series and would now respond to that misaddressed e-mail in the next few weeks.

Moreover, 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, an allotment of more than 160 acre-feet of Colorado River water owned by a defunct Pine water company and another allotment of about 120 acre-feet of Colorado River water due to the Tonto Apache Tribe.

In addition, Roberts said SRP will start talks with Payson to investigate whether the town can include hookups for communities along the route of its proposed pipeline from Washington Park to Houston Mesa Road as negotiations continue.

“It may be a situation where Buzz (Walker, Payson’s water czar) makes a little spigot on the pipeline, but the spigot doesn’t get turned on until we have an arrangement,” said Roberts.

Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

The arrival of the Blue Ridge pipeline offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to solve a host of water arguments that will affect the future of many communities along the East Verde River and its tributaries. Payson has already struck a deal for 3,000 acre-feet of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir, but an additional 500 acre-feet earmarked for other Northern Gila County communities is still up for grabs.

Those small communities have lived in the shadow of SRP’s right to surface water for a century, like flowers sprouting in the cracks of the law’s ambiguity.

“We want to work through all these issues now,” said Roberts. “We’re not interested in having the engineering and construction going on and then saying ‘oops, we forgot about these people.’”

SRP this week broke a long silence on the complications of potential negotiations with the roughly 15 communities that might receive water either from the Payson pipeline or directly from the East Verde River as part of the Blue Ridge allocation.

So far, few of those communities have been able to negotiate their right to the water.

Brooke Utilities, which serves many of those communities, back in March sent SRP an e-mail, expressing an interest in acquiring that water right on behalf of the communities it serves. The private water company runs small systems in Mesa del Caballo, Whispering Pines, East Verde Estates and Star Valley, all communities with a vital stake and a claim to a big chunk of the 500 acre-feet.

Brooke estimates the 500 acre-feet available will satisfy the future needs of all those communities along the river, most enclaves of private land on old homesteads surrounded by the national forest. A Gila County study estimated that those communities might actually need 800 acre-feet in coming decades.

SRP officials interviewed for the first three parts of this series steadfastly said they’d received no such letter from Brooke Utilities. However, a recent search discovered an e-mail written by Brooke officials in March that was sent to the wrong e-mail address, said Roberts.

E-mail sent to wrong address

“Over the Christmas break, we figured it out,” said Roberts. Brooke officials “sent it to the wrong e-mail so we never got the letter. We have since gotten the letter, so we kind of understand what they are talking about.”

Roberts said SRP will negotiate with Brooke or any other partner with the funding, legal right and administrative ability to accept the water right and deliver it to users.

“What we’d be looking for is an entity that could serve the entire area, an entity that had the fiscal wherewithal to work with SRP to pay the bills they’d have to pay.”

Although SRP wouldn’t charge the communities for the water itself, each community would have to pay its share of the capital and operating costs of both SRP’s existing pipeline atop the Rim and Payson’s proposed $30 million pipeline along Houston Mesa Road. For communities close to the pipe like Mesa del Caballo, that cost could be as little as $2 per 1,000 gallons. For communities further from the pipe, the cost could prove prohibitive.

Shut out of the process

Many of those small communities have been until now largely shut out of the process by conditions in the federal authorizing legislation that allocates the water to “water purveyors,” which means someone that delivers water to customers.

The planned arrival of the Blue Ridge water has actually reopened a host of complex legal issues that have hung over many water users in Rim Country for a century. SRP hopes to strike a series of deals that will resolve long-standing questions and perhaps even give small communities the legal right to water SRP has long claimed.

Just before the turn of the century, growers in the Valley began lobbying the federal government to build a series of dams on the Salt and Verde River to store water for irrigation.

A 1910 decree by Judge Edward Kent determined the relative water rights for that vast watershed, granting rights to five acre-feet to each acre in the 150,000-acre service area of what would become the Salt River Project.

Congress then approved both the construction of the dam that created Roosevelt Lake and the establishment of the vast Tonto National Forest. One of the fundamental purposes of the forest was to protect the watershed for the users in the Valley, which gave SRP an interest in making sure that as much of the runoff as possible ends up in its chain of reservoirs on the Salt and Verde Rivers.

Private property owners can still capture and use the rainfall that drops on their property. They can also drill wells that tap into groundwater. But they don’t have the right to the water that flows across their property and into streams and rivers, which SRP maintains is owned by water users in the Valley.

But the law leaves many vital areas unclear. For instance, if a water company drills a shallow well along the banks of the East Verde River, is it using underground water or “surface” water flowing along the lose sand and sediment deposited by the river itself?

That depends, say water experts.

Some legal precedent suggests that if well levels rise and fall with the flow in the river, then they’re pumping surface water, not groundwater. Wells that serve Whispering Pine, East Verde Estates, Rye and Gisela all do respond to the flow of water in the East Verde and in Tonto Creek. As a result, SRP says those shallow wells along the river are drawing on its surface water.

Few communities have clear water rights

Only a few communities have a clear right to such surface water. Most have no such reassuring so-called “senior water right” and so have been living in the shadow of SRP’s claim for decades.

Now, the arrival of the Blue Ridge water could help resolve some of those claims.

SRP essentially set the pattern in its negotiations with Payson for its 3,000 acre-foot share. In order to strike the deal, Payson agreed to limit the output of its network of wells to roughly the current capacity — an average of about 2,500 acre-feet annually, of which users use about 1,900 acre-feet. Moreover, the town agreed not to seek other water sources in the region — since the Blue Ridge water would provide more than enough for its planned build-out population.

SRP could strike similar deals with communities along the pipeline, legalizing their current use plus some water from the pipeline, in return for an agreement to limit future use.

“We’re working through that as part of our discussion about how to allocate the 500 acre-feet that’s coming from Craigin. We’re trying to figure out how to get additional water to help resolve the conflict.”

Roberts said he doubted that the SRP board would ever want to sell Rim Country users any of its share of some 11,000 acre-feet of Blue Ridge water the utility intends to run down the East Verde River to reservoirs near Phoenix.

However, he said the utility might use the Blue Ridge water to settle outstanding claims.

E and R Water Company of Pine

For instance, some records suggest that the E and R Water Company, which once served Pine and Strawberry, wound up with rights to 160 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River. Roberts said he didn’t know who controlled that water right now. It might be Brooke Utilities. It might be the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District. Either way, SRP could swap that right to water flowing in the Central Arizona Canal for water flowing in Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline.

The same possibility applies to a potential right to Colorado River water due to the Tonto Apache Tribe. A massive water settlement connected to 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 swap Blue Ridge water for the tribe’s CAP allotment.

Moreover, SRP also hopes that it can strike deals with Rim Country communities now to smooth the way for the eventual, global settlement of water rights across more than half the state that’s part of the Gila River Water Settlement action.

This massive set of lawsuits and negotiations has been unfolding for 35 years as ranchers, farmers, cities and counties struggle for water rights in a chronically water-short state. The various water users are trying to settle the legal distinction between surface water and groundwater and establish the priorities, which will determine which spigots go dry during a drought.

A friendly negotiation with the small communities along Tonto Creek and the East Verde could help avoid a protracted, series of lawsuits in that watershed, suggested Roberts.

Roberts said SRP is currently working on estimates of future water needs for all of those communities in an attempt to figure out how to divide up the 500 acre-feet — and perhaps hundreds acre-feet in additional claims.

“It’s a matter of us working with Payson and all these little interests up there and working through that. We’ve spent six months evaluating the different potential water providers up there and eventually we’ll work our way through that. But we noticed them all a long time ago — this is not a new revelation to us.”

Next: Can Blue Ridge water save the East Verde?

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