Vital Blue Ridge Pipeline Staggers Back On Schedule

After seven-month slip, Payson hopes to have crucial environmental assessment done by March

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After a seven-month slip, the schedule for the Blue Ridge pipeline has solidified — just in time to avoid problems with financing.

Payson now hopes the Forest Service will approve an environmental review of the pipeline route by March so it can start construction in early 2012 and take delivery of water in 2014 or 2015, said Payson Water Resources Manager Mike Ploughe.

The town’s original schedule called for finishing the still ongoing environmental assessment last September, but the U.S. Forest Service raised a host of technical questions that knocked the schedule off track.

The mounting delays alarmed town officials, mostly because of a looming deadline to start spending big chunks of a $10.5 million federal stimulus grant. The town had earmarked stimulus money to buy pipe, but couldn’t commit the federal money until its consultant completed the engineering plans.

After repeated meetings with the Forest Service, the project got back on track on a schedule that avoid going over the federal deadline, which could force the town to return the $10.5 million.

3,000 acre-feet of water for Payson

The Blue Ridge pipeline will eventually deliver some 3,000 acre-feet annually, including 2,500 for Payson and 500 for other Northern Gila County communities. That flood of new water will roughly double the town’s sustainable supply. Currently, the town uses about 1,800 acre-feet annually and estimates the sustainable capacity of its groundwater wells at about 2,500 acre-feet annually.

“On the original schedule, the EA (environmental assessment) was supposed to be done in September of 2010,” said Ploughe, “and because of a lot of questions raised by the Forest Service regarding construction and engineering design, we weren’t able to answer those questions until we finished a lot of the engineering work. So we delayed to Dec. 31. Obviously, we’ve slipped on that one due to a number of issues — but in any case hopefully we’ll have everything (on the EA) done by March.”

Fortunately, the environmental studies have so far revealed no big problems.

Moreover, preliminary engineering work has solidified the route of the pipeline and the location of the water treatment plant.

“It’s pretty darn settled,” said Ploughe. “There’s really only one reasonable route.”

The pipe will mostly be buried five feet or more beneath the right of way of Houston Mesa Road, from Washington Park to a five-acre piece of Forest Service land near Mesa del Caballo, on the mesa near Shoo Fly Ruins. The buried pipe will cross the East Verde River three times at each of the existing road crossings. In each case, construction crews will bury the pipe beneath the stream upstream from the road crossing.

“Fortunately, because of the small size of the crossings — the total amount of land to be disturbed is pretty small. We’re hoping to avoid any major issues with the river itself,” said Ploughe.

The cost of alternative routes to shift the pipe and perhaps the road as well up onto the hillside and away from the creek have been rejected due to the much higher cost, said Ploughe.

Scoping process is time consuming

The time-consuming environmental review started with a “scoping” process, which invited anyone interested to raise questions for the consultants to include in their study. No one raised serious negative issues in that scoping process, which sharply limits the objections that can be raised once the EA is finished and opened to public comment. Ploughe said he hopes the consultants will release the EA in the next month so that the comment period will conclude by March.

The consultants did find some archeological sites along the pipeline path and made note of assorted endangered species that might utilize the river corridor, including the Verde Trout and the Chiricahua Leopard Frog, among others.

However, the preliminary study suggests that the pipe construction will not affect any endangered plants or animals, since it will remain largely within the area already disturbed by the roadway.

“I think they did find one frog up there, but it’s not a problem,” said Ploughe. “We’ve managed to have an alignment that avoids all the critters — so there’s no fatal flaw on the biology.”

Ploughe noted that consultants did locate some archeological sites along the stream, but small shifts in the alignment of the pipe will minimize any possible impact. The town also decided to shift the location of the treatment plant to keep the facility as far away from the Shoo Fly Ruins as possible.

The engineering consultants have almost finished the rough draft of their drawings, the so-called “30 percent” plans. Once the team of consulting engineers finishes those calculations, the town can refine the current $30 million cost estimate.

Once the Forest Service approves the Environmental Assessment, things should go much more smoothly, predicted Ploughe.

With the preliminary engineering plans in hand, the town can place an order for pipe — which will avoid any problem with spending the federal stimulus money before the deadline.

Construction could start March 2012

Consultants will spend several months completing the engineering plans. However, construction on the main part of the pipeline probably won’t start until March of 2012 or even 2013.

However, perhaps as early as September of this year, water managers will start running experiments on the water coming out of the existing pipeline at Washington Park to figure out how to safely blend the nearly mineral-free Blue Ridge water with the calcium-laden water in the existing system.

Above all, they want to avoid a repeat of the public relations disaster Tucson suffered some years ago when it added low-mineral Colorado River water to its mineral laden groundwater. The Colorado River water effectively dissolved deposits coating the inside of thousands of miles of pipes, sending a gush of dark, foul-smelling water through the faucets of horrified homeowners.

The Blue Ridge water contains about three times as much calcium as Payson’s groundwater, posing the threat of a repeat of Tucson’s experience, said Ploughe.

So the town this fall will run a series of experiments with the Blue Ridge water to figure out how much calcium and other minerals to add to the water before letting it flow into the existing distribution system.

Initial plans contemplate using mostly Blue Ridge water during the nine months the pipeline flows, to let the town’s depleted water table recover. Excess Blue Ridge water will likely be injected into some of the existing wells, to hasten the recovery of the water table.

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