Water Over The Rim

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Photos courtesy of Stan Brown

The Blue Ridge Reservoir, as it appeared in 1971 (now named C.C. Cragin, after a forester).

The news of a water pipe bringing that “liquid gold” to Payson recalls the time when “the big water” first came over the Rim from, then called, the Blue Ridge Reservoir. It was 1963, and we were enjoying a late spring at our family cabin on the East Verde River. The antique apple trees on our acre, planted 80 years earlier by Mercedes Belluzzi, were in full bloom, foretelling of pies and applesauce. The waters of the river in front of our house were running twice their usual volume as the last snows melted and renewed the springs that gushed from the canyon sides.

We hiked up the river and then sat in silence on a fallen tree, listening as birds darted about and a water ouzel bobbed his little dance. The tassel eared squirrels scurried up and down the old-growth ponderosa pines, waving their long, full tails. We whispered to each other about the awesome beauty of this place, when suddenly our meditation was broken by the roar of a diesel engine. Rousing, we crossed the river and followed a deer trail to an opening where a giant Caterpillar tractor was widening the old pioneer wagon road. We were hypnotized by this intrusion into nature’s sanctuary. As we watched there was a sharp “crack” that echoed against the forested walls of the canyon. We saw a giant Douglas fir tree snap wildly into a severe lean where the “Cat” had clipped it with the deadly blade. A look of power crossed the face the of the driver as he finished off his mistake. One push of a gear by the forester and the great tree came down, torn up at the roots and felling two lesser trees in its descent. We felt as if we had witnessed an execution.

This was a result of the Phelps-Dodge Mining Company’s design to bring water over the edge of the Rim from a reservoir they were building on East Clear Creek some miles to the north. The mining company had lost a lawsuit to the Salt River Project requiring the replacement of water taken from the Salt River drainage for the operation at Clifton-Morenci. The water was to come over the divide from the Little Colorado drainage into the Salt River by way of the East Verde River. It was needed to make green grass, fill swimming pools, water golf courses and cotton fields in the Phoenix metro area.

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Photo courtesy of Stan Brown

Phelps Dodge attempted to tunnel through the Rim in 1963-4 and failed. The tunnel was closed up just yards from the East Verde River’s upper waters. Stan Brown stands on rocks.

Throughout that summer and autumn of 1963 the company plowed their way through the forest and along the river, making a road viable for the heavy equipment needed to drill a tunnel under the mountain. The idea was to tap into the reservoir formed by the dam on East Clear Creek, and allow gravity to bring the water down into the East Verde. It was a rather ingenious plan. The tunnel was also begun from the topside of the mountain. Huge rock-drilling equipment took up residence where they planned for the water to exit into the East Verde canyon. A narrow gauge railroad was built to carry the drills in and the rocks out. During the next months a debris of broken rock piled up in the open area that had been cleared along the river bed.

What happened next brought back memories of another venture into the side of the Rim. Local residents know the legend of New York businessman James Eddy. He and his capital venture friends had a vision of bringing a train down this canyon. That was in 1883. Their dream was to construct the Mineral Belt Railroad across the state from north to south. This segment would connect the vast timber resources of the Mogollon Rim to the mines in Globe. A 3,200-foot tunnel would allow steam engines to traverse the top of the Rim where the drop off was severe. Forty-two men lived and labored here throughout the summer, but the lack of funding brought the project to an end.[1] They had penetrated the mountain to 100 feet, and today that dramatic scar on the Rim is a destination for hikers and historians.

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Photo courtesy of Stan Brown

This sign, now rotting, posted by Phelps Dodge near the generating station to explain the project.

The failure of Phelps-Dodge to drill their nine-mile water conduit has left no such remnant worthy of the steep hike, other than a pile of rocks that only those of us who were there know its meaning. Costs together with the faults and springs they encountered brought an end to this 20th century tunnel. A backup plan was called for, and apparently one was in place because work immediately began on the alterative. The tunnel at the reservoir end had gone in one mile. They would at that point pump the water up and into a pipeline. That pipe line would follow the river route down to a chosen place on the East Verde where it would deposit its cargo. They built an electric generating plant where the nine-mile tunnel would exit, just above our cabin. As the water rushed down this length, it had power to turn the dynamos that created electricity. That electricity would be sent in power lines back up the mountain to operate the pumps. It was a neatly planned “closed system.” Excess electricity could be sold.

The following autumn, 1964, a gushing flow of Little Colorado River water was racing down the East Verde, at the least, quadrupling the normal spring-fed flow. We loved it, as did all others living along the river. The increased water acted like a giant evaporation cooler lowering the summer temperature. The Fish and Game rangers found the new, colder water perfect for trout and every week during the season they stocked the stream with large numbers of the fish. This was to the delight of everyone’s children and grandchildren who were almost guaranteed their limit fishing.

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Photo courtesy of Stan Brown

The end of the nine-mile pipeline where water flowed over the Rim through the generators and into the East Verde. The natural flow of the river is seen on the right. This picture was taken after the contract with Phelps Dodge expired and SRP halted the flow of water.

Then came the time when the contract ordered by the courts between Phelps Dodge and SRP expired. The required water had been replaced, and the rapids cease to flow past our house. The little generating plant stood idle for years, its machinery becoming unusable. Now the happy news for residents along the East Verde drainage, and the developers in Payson, is that SRP and Payson and the government have entered an agreement to restore that precious flow. Another pipeline will be installed to carry the water on down to Payson and other participants in the agreement. This, of course, means more tearing up of the forest. We who are lovers of nature can hardly overlook the clash of values between the unspoiled wilderness and the needs (or desires) of modern life. It’s an age-old clash, from the time we European-Americans, who live by dominating the earth, displaced the Native people, who lived by blending with the earth. But before we philosophize much about the inevitable, we rejoice in the benefits of technology. After the dust settles, we can still spend the day climbing the mountain along the beautiful East Verde and drop our line into unsuspecting pools.

[1] To this day a hiker can find the remnants of stone houses in which the workers lived during the construction. These house ruins are on the west side of the river canyon. The workers could walk up a side canyon to the tunnel project.

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