Blue Ridge Pipe Snarled In Bureaucratic Red Tape

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Local officials flew to Washington, D.C. this week to plead with Congress to hack through confusing bureaucratic snarls that threaten Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans and Salt River Project Associate General Manager John Sullivan testified at a congressional subcommittee hearing Thursday on HR 1853 introduced by First District Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick to put the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation securely in charge of the project.

A confusing turf struggle between the Coconino National Forest and the Bureau of Reclamation has imposed months of delay on efforts to build a pipeline that will secure Rim Country’s water supply.

The wrangling has slowed repairs on existing stretches of pipe atop the Mogollon Rim and could threaten Payson’s $10.5 million federal stimulus.

“We have 36 months to get that money spent,” said Evans, “and we’re sitting here 18 months into that process dilly dallying around. It is simply too big of an issue monetarily and physically for us not to put the pressure on and make this happen.”

The bill would essentially put the Blue Ridge/C.C. Cragin pipeline project on the same footing as other projects in the SRP system — all built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Forest Service land.

Kirkpatrick said “politicians in Washington need to understand how important the C.C. Cragin water supply is to greater Arizona communities. We can’t allow bureaucratic red tape to tie up up the work necessary to keep it flowing.”

Forest Service representatives suggested several minor changes in the bill, but said they would not oppose it so long as it didn’t set a national precedent for other projects.

Arizona Sen. John McCain has already pushed a companion bill through the Senate. the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, chaired by Tucson Democrat Rep. Raul Grijalva, did not vote on the measure this week. Backers hope to get an early vote and move the bill onto the House floor quickly.

The bill would give the Bureau of Reclamation authority over about 515 acres of Forest Service land, which would include all of the pipes and pumps needed to get water out of the 15,000 acre-foot reservoir created by a 147-foot-high dam and then pipe it some 20 miles down off the Mogollon Rim to Payson.

About 10 miles of that pipeline already exists and has undergone millions of dollars in repair work in the past two years.

Kirkpatrick vowed to push the bill through as quickly as possible.

“This hearing was an important step toward making them listen to us and we’re not going to stop working here. I am going to redouble my efforts to push Congress to move forward with this common-sense solution for folks in Rim Country.”

Evans detailed the frustrating delays caused by the need to get approval from both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation for even routine maintenance operations along the pipeline. An accumulation of such delays could lead to a bureaucratic disaster if the town can’t spend its $10.5 million federal stimulus grant quickly enough.

The town had originally planned to beat the deadline by pre-buying pipe, but has been stalled by the need to finish an environmental impact report that will determine the pipeline route and perhaps the size of the pipe. That report is supposed to be finished in December.

Evans said that in his testimony “I shared about a dozen experiences we’ve had that each held up the pipeline from 15 to 90 days. It’s not like they’re protecting some endangered species: It’s just one federal agency getting permission from another federal agency to go through a gate.”

Evans testified: “For the past four years, SRP and the Bureau have unsuccessfully attempted to resolve this jurisdictional dispute with the Forest Service.

“The Forest Service has insisted on having ultimate approval authority for the project, even though these facilities are components of the Salt River Federal Reclamation Project. Meanwhile, the resulting bureaucratic wrangling over approval requirements have delayed and created uncertainty in planning much needed repairs to the Cragin facilities, increased repair costs, and placed a portion of the Town of Payson’s $10.6 million stimulus grant at risk.”

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