The schedule for building the Blue Ridge pipeline has slipped by several months, but the project remains on track after a major summit meeting involving officials from Payson, the Salt River Project, the U.S. Forest Service and the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
The hours-long, high-level session involved 18 engineers and officials to talk through Payson’s urgent effort to accelerate the Forest Service’s environmental assessment of the pipeline route along Houston Mesa Road.
The timing is now critical because the clock is ticking on the town’s $10.5 million federal stimulus grant, which will cover a large share of the cost of the $30 million to $50 million project.
Tonto National Forest Supervisor Gene
Blankenbaker said, “the schedule has slipped a few months for a variety of reasons, but I don’t see that as a huge issue in getting a decision out — the timing is more an issue for the town now in terms of funding streams.”
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said, “I think we’re in good shape. I would characterize it as one of the best meetings I’ve attended in terms of people working together.”
Blankenbaker said the consulting firm hired by the Forest Service with money from Payson would complete its report on the proposed pipeline route in January and a required 30-day comment period will end in February.
If no one appeals the findings, the consultants would complete the assessment in March, at which point the town could begin construction on the pipeline running from Washington Park to a proposed treatment and filtration plant near the Shoofly Ruins off Houston Mesa Road.
Evans said consulting engineers are already working on the designs for the pipeline, which means that construction could start almost immediately.
More importantly, the town could quickly place an order for the pipe. The town got its federal stimulus grant largely on the strength of the estimated 150 jobs manufacturing the pipe will create.
The town will have to return the stimulus grant if it does not spend the money within three years — with 18 months already gone, said Evans. So if the town can actually start work on the pipe in March, it should have no trouble meeting the stimulus grant deadlines, said Evans.
If the town loses the stimulus grant, it would likely mean another big jump in the town’s water rates, since the collapse of the housing market has dried up the impact fees the town once hoped would pay most of the costs of the pipeline.
Evans said that the town’s contract with the Forest Service originally set a September 2010 deadline for finishing the draft of the environmental assessment.
The town is not only paying for the consultants doing the report, but also paid the Forest Service enough money to hire people to review the consultant’s report. That helped move the project to the front of the line for the Tonto National Forest, which remains months — sometimes years — behind on other massive required planning efforts required by Congress.
Before the meeting, Forest Service officials had said they didn’t think they could actually get the environmental assessment approved until next June. But after the meeting, all sides agreed on the January completion, said Evans.
“With all the bosses in the room, all the obstacles washed away and we got to a point where everyone agreed that this timeline is the one we’re going to stick to,” he said.
Blankenbaker said that so far the environmental assessment hasn’t uncovered any big problems with building the pipeline alongside Houston Mesa Road.
The complicated assessment process includes a “scoping” phase during which the consultants gathered any comments and potential objections, which they must then address in the study.
That study will consider whether the pipeline will have serious impacts on endangered species, archaeological sites, recreation or other values. Only people who raised a concern during the scoping phase can appeal the findings of the environmental assessment. However, all of the comments made during the scoping process were supportive of the pipeline, which makes it unlikely anyone will appeal the consultant’s findings, said Evans.
“I don’t see any big issues,” said Blankenbaker.
He said he thinks the consultants will likely conclude the project has “no significant impact” on the environment. He said any impact on the creek or archaeological sites could be handled through the design of the pipeline itself.
“At this point, I’d say that based on the comments received in the scoping, there does not appear to be any significant issues that would generate an appeal — but then you never know,” said Blankenbaker.
Evans said the town is poised to move forward quickly the moment the Forest Service approves the proposed pipeline route. The most tricky element of the route involves several potential crossings of the East Verde River. In addition, some officials have pushed for an alternative that would reroute both Houston Mesa Road and the pipeline to reduce the number of river crossings.
Evans said the town can’t go ahead and order the pipe until the Forest Service approves the route, since different routes would generate different pressures on the pipes and therefore require different grades of pipe.
He said the town has so far spent a chunk of the stimulus money on the engineering studies — enough to generate about 30 jobs. An engineering firm is already working on a preliminary design, which means construction can start immediately if the Forest Service gives the go-ahead in March.
“We can order a significant part of the pipe based on the preliminary engineering,” said Evans.
However, another portion of the pipe order will have to wait on final engineering designs — especially the specifications of the pipe at the base of the steepest slopes, which have to handle much higher pressures.
Blankenbaker said, “our folks have been committed to getting this done from the get-go and continue to be on track to do that. Whatever the town’s arrangements are for how they secured funding, that’s not really an issue I have any control over. So we’re doing our best to stay on track and not create any issues for them on that.” The latest update of the timeline means Payson remains on schedule to take delivery of some 3,000 acre-feet annually from the Blue Ridge Reservoir in 2013. The delivery of that water will more than double the town’s sustainable supply, providing enough water for its anticipated build-out population of about 38,000.