Rim Country passed a major milestone this week, with the release of the environmental assessment of the 15-mile-long route of the Blue Ridge pipeline.
The report came five months late, but still in plenty of time to complete the project on schedule.
Unfortunately, the report completely sidestepped the crucial assessment of how communities and fire districts along the route can also benefit from the pipeline.
Mostly, the release of the environmental assessment provided unalloyed good news.
Payson paid the tab for the consultants who spent nearly a year pondering the likely impacts of burying an 18-inch-diameter pipe 5 to 10 feet beneath the surface of Houston Mesa Road, all the way from Washington Park to Mesa del Caballo.
They concluded the pipeline won’t do much damage and could do enormous good.
Putting the pipeline beneath the existing road will minimize potential impacts. Certainly, the $30 million construction project will cause some fleeting harm — raising dust and washing sediment into the creek.
But the consultants found no vulnerable or important archaeological sites along the pipeline route, although human beings have likely been using that river corridor for at least 10,000 years.
They also predicted no significant impact on any endangered critters, although they noted the stream provides potentially important habitat for Chiricahua leopard frogs, Mexican spotted owls, bald eagles, Gila chub and headwater chub. Neither the 24-month construction process nor the operations of the buried pipe will likely affect the odds any of those species may eventually make use of the East Verde, the consultants concluded.
The likely chief impact that emerges from the report lies in the diversion of some 3,500 acre-feet annually from the East Verde to Payson’s pipeline, which will reduce the East Verde’s flow by 15 percent to 20 percent in a normal year. However, the Salt River Project will still be releasing some 7,000 acre-feet annually into the stream — boosting natural flows by maybe 50 percent.
The chief deficiency of the assessment lies in the perhaps understandable decision to simply set aside questions raised by the need to connect perhaps a dozen communities and fire districts along the route to the pipeline. The pipeline will carry 500 acre-feet annually designated for those communities, but none of them have yet secured a right to the water from SRP.
We had hoped Payson would include the potential impact of connections along the pipe and necessary spur lines to reach those communities, even if its neighbors are still all tangled up in the red tape involved.
Moreover, several fire departments along the route had hoped they could have a way to fill fire tanker trucks from the pipeline. Such hydrants could prove invaluable the next time a wildfire stages a repeat of the terrifying run the Water Wheel Fire made on Whispering Pines and Beaver Valley.
The consultants pointed out that such a hydrant hookup could pose a technical challenge, since pressures in the pipeline will likely be far greater than normal hydrants can handle.
As a result of the decision to sidestep those questions, those communities will face a more expensive and time-consuming task when it comes time to claim their share of the water.
We hope that Payson and the Forest Service will compensate for that decision by making it as easy as possible on those communities once they qualify for their share of the water.
In the meantime, we congratulate the visionaries who made this day possible.