Blue Ridge Pipeline Clears Key Hurdle

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The long-awaited environmental assessment of the Blue Ridge pipeline has uncovered no major problems with the $30 million project down which Payson’s future will soon gurgle.

However, the study skipped over crucial questions about how small communities along the route can ultimately connect to the pipe — including fire departments hoping the pipeline would provide water to protect a dozen small subdivisions.

That means those communities may have to undertake their own expensive, time-consuming, piecemeal studies when they’re ready to connect.

The U.S. Forest Service this month released a consultant’s study of the 15-mile-long, 18-inch-diameter pipeline that will be buried beneath Houston Mesa Road. The release of the Environmental Assessment set the clock running on a public comment period that ends on March 4.

The assessment puts the town on schedule to start the 18- to 24-month construction process perhaps a year from now. That means the 3,000 acre-feet of water annually for Payson will arrive more or less on schedule in 2013 or 2014. The pipe can carry an additional 500 acre-feet annually, which is reserved for the host of unincorporated communities along the way as well as Star Valley. None of those communities have yet struck a deal with the Salt River Project to secure their share.

Payson officials have said they would design the pipeline to make it easy for those communities to eventually connect. However, the environmental consultants did not consider such connections and said the high pressures in the pipeline will make it hard to easily connect fire hydrants along the route. Many small fire departments had suggested such hydrants might prove invaluable for filling tanker trucks during major forest fires.

The consultants found 14 archaeological sites along the route and noted the area includes potentially critical habitat for five endangered species. However, the consultants concluded the construction crews who will bury the big water pipe 5 to 10 feet beneath the surface won’t have a major environmental impact despite the four creek crossings.

The assessment focuses on a pipeline route that hugs Houston Mesa Road and largely rejects several minor alternative routes, including a 7,500-foot alignment strongly favored by Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin that would eliminate two creek crossings at the cost of building 1.5 miles of new road.

The assessment also considered five different possible locations for a water filtration and treatment plant to treat the water and make it chemically compatible with the existing Payson water system.

Payson’s existing wells pump water with a much higher mineral content than the rainwater and snowmelt from the Blue Ridge Reservoir high atop the Rim.

The preferred site for the treatment plant lies alongside the Mesa del Caballo subdivision off Houston Mesa Road, which appears to be almost the only one of the smaller communities along the pipeline route poised to immediately get water from the pipe.

The report concluded that construction will generate between 50 and 75 jobs for up to two years. The crews will need to develop nine, one-acre staging grounds. All told, the project will disturb about 350 acres along a 200-foot-wide project area running all the way from Washington Park to the treatment plant near Mesa del.

The release of the environmental assessment some five months behind the original schedule still leaves Payson time to start the project before the deadline runs out on a $10.5 million federal stimulus grant the town received.

The arrival of the water in 2013 or 2014 should also come well before the town has a critical need for the water. The pipeline will deliver up to 4.5 million gallons annually, which will more than double the town’s long-term, sustainable water supply. The pipeline should give Payson enough water to grow to a population of nearly 40,000, making it one of the few cities in Arizona with an assured, long-term water supply. The water from the pipeline figures heavily in all the town’s planning, from the recent repeal of growth limits to plans for an ASU campus.

The environmental assessment revealed a wealth of new details about the project, without turning up any of the environmental or geological wild cards that might have caused major delays.

The study said Phelps Dodge and then SRP have been releasing water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir into the East Verde River for decades. Releases have averaged 9,500 acre-feet annually — which amounts to nearly half of the stream’s normal flow.

The pipeline will ultimately divert 3,500 acre-feet annually from the river into the pipeline, which will reduce flows on average by about 10 or 15 percent — not enough to cause serious environmental problems, the report concluded.

Overall, the release of Blue Ridge water into the East Verde has provided big benefits. For instance, several stretches of the creek suffer from serious water quality problems. A stretch below Ellison Creek at very low flows has too much selenium, a threat to wildlife. Stretches of the river from the Highway 87 bridge to the America Gulch have sometimes tested high for arsenic and boron, but that problem also emerges only at very low flows. By significantly increasing the flows, the Blue Ridge water has largely minimized water quality problems in the East Verde.

The Blue Ridge water will require treatment for algae and bacteria. The pipeline water will have very low mineral content, with total dissolved solid content of about 40 to 60 mg/L and no unusual compounds.

However, the treatment plant will include filters to remove the sediment, algae and bacteria from the relatively pristine water. It will also include a 2-million-gallon storage tank and another 1- to 2-million gallon tank in which the plant managers can “buffer” the ice-cold reservoir water before letting it flow into the town’s 200-mile-long network of pipes. That buffering will prevent the low-mineral pipeline water from dissolving the minerals that have built up on the inside of the town’s pipes.

The consultants concluded the pipeline will have only modest impacts on stream flows, sedimentation and water quality — mostly during construction. The construction crews will blast out a groove for the pipe in the bedrock at each of the spots where Houston Mesa Road crosses the creek. They’ll then lay the pipe down and fill in with concrete, to protect the pipe from the effects of floods and to avoid affecting stream flows.

The report included a discussion of the alternative preferred by Gila County, which would have built a new stretch of road cut into the hillside between Second and Third Crossings, with the pipe buried in the new roadway. That route would have gotten traffic up out of the creek bed and would have avoided two crossings, which sometimes cut off access to Whispering Pines during floods. However, it would also involve substantial additional expense and could increase runoff and sedimentation in the stream, the consultants observed.

The consultants also set aside any detailed study of how the many communities along the way might connect to the pipeline — as well as the request by several fire departments for hydrants along the pipe.

The consultants noted that none of the fire departments that made that request operate in communities that currently have a water right to Blue Ridge water. Therefore, their requests were “too speculative” to analyze. Moreover, the consultants observed that fire hydrants typically operate at a pressure of 50 to 90 pounds per square inch. However, the big, 18-inch pipes will have pressures of 200 to 400 pounds per square inch, which would complicate any hookup.

Finally, the consultants concluded that the above ground connections for fire trucks and the communities along the way would be subject to vandalism and maintenance problems, which would cost Payson extra money.

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