The U.S. Senate’s Natural Resources Committee this week approved a “momentous” bill to smooth the bureau waters that have rocked Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline construction.
The bill sponsored by Arizona Sen. John McCain would make the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation responsible for supervising the pipeline, instead of the U.S. Forest Service.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said that objections to various aspects of the pipeline, mostly by Coconino National Forest administrators, have repeatedly delayed and frustrated project backers.
Evans said the confusion about which federal agency should play the leading role has delayed the pipeline already “for at least a year.”
The normally tough-to-pass committee’s unanimous vote was “a momentous occasion,” he said.
McCain pushed the bill, requested by the town, through the senate process quickly, he added.
Meanwhile, Arizona First District Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, who represents Rim Country, is pushing a companion bill through a House committee.
Once out of committees, SB 1080 should pass through quickly on the congressional equivalent of a consent calendar.
The town hopes the bill making the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation the lead federal agency will speed the construction process. A consultant hired by the U.S. Forest Service, but paid for by Payson, is currently finishing up an environmental impact statement on the construction of a roughly 15-mile, $30 million pipeline from Washington Park along Houston Mesa Road to a proposed treatment plant near the Shoofly Ruins. The pipeline would deliver 3,000 acre-feet annually, more than doubling the town’s assured water supply.
However, the pipeline route from the Blue Ridge Reservoir to Payson passes across public lands in both the Tonto and Coconino forests, leading to delays and confusion about who makes decisions.
“We have a situation where staff people and one particular player in the bureaucracy think they have a better widget and they want to create dual oversight,” said Evans.
For example, Evans said the town recently faced a bureaucratic Catch 22 trying to replace an existing section of pipe on top of the Rim.
The Bureau of Reclamation approved the project, but the Coconino National Forest refused to approve access for months. By the time the administrators in the Forest Service approved access, the permit from the Bureau to do the work had expired — forcing the town and Salt River Project to start all over.
Evans said the legislation simply makes it clear who has the final oversight.
“It does not cut the Forest Service out, they’re simply not the gatekeeper. And they don’t like that. They want to be the gatekeeper: I give you the permission, not the other guy. The fact that they’re consulted with and can block the decision if it violates the Endangered Species Act apparently isn’t good enough.”
Evans said the legislation could pass next month, clearing the way to the approval of the pipeline’s environmental impact statement in December.
After that, the town can get the final engineering contracts and then start construction.
Payson hopes to start taking delivery of water from Blue Ridge Reservoir in perhaps 2013 or 2014.