Already nine months behind schedule, the crucial environmental study on the Blue Ridge pipeline has hit another snag.
The U.S. Forest Service has warned Payson that biologists may want to do additional studies on the impact of the 15-mile-long pipeline on several wildlife species that aren’t yet listed — but might make it onto the list by the time the pipeline gets built.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans expressed frustration with the lack of clear guidelines from Tonto National Forest officials that now seemed focused on whether to expand the environmental studies to include species that might make it onto the list.
Evans said negotiations continued this week with both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service.
Payson Ranger District head ranger Angie Elam said the Forest Service biologists want to make sure the project doesn’t have a major problem winning the approval of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Evans said that Forest Service officials initially told him that the Fish and Wildlife Service had insisted the environmental assessment consider the impact on additional species that might end up on the list eventually. However, Fish and Wildlife officials told him that they had made no such request.
Tonto National Forest officials then explained that their own biologist had made the suggestion to make sure the assessment made it through the Fish and Wildlife Service review.
Payson faces tight deadlines on spending a $10.5 million federal stimulus grant that will cover part of the cost of the $33 million project.
Earlier this year, Payson ordered the bulk of the pipe for the project, based on the lack of problems revealed by the draft of the environmental assessment. However, the lengthening delay has forced the town to store the pipe in Phoenix at substantial cost.
Payson officials have exchanged a flurry of e-mails in a desperate effort to convince the Forest Service to complete the environmental assessment.
However, a wholesale change of top officials in both the Tonto National Forest and the Payson Ranger District has spawned months of additional delay.
Payson has signed contract
Payson had signed a contract with the Forest Service that called for completion of the environmental assessment in October of last year.
Payson is paying for the consultants doing the study and also paid the Forest Service an extra $160,000 so the Forest Service could hire people to supervise the consultants.
Payson agreed to let that original schedule slip by several months as additional questions came up during the study.
A draft of the study released in February uncovered no major environmental problems, despite the three creek crossings envisioned in the project designed to deliver 3,500 acre-feet of water annually to a $7 million water treatment plant.
The project will double Payson’s water supply, making it one of the few towns in Arizona with an assured, long-term water supply.
At that time, both Forest Service and Payson officials predicted quick action on the environmental assessment and predicted construction on the pipeline would start in January or February of 2012. On that schedule, the Blue Ridge water would probably arrive in about 2014, which was just about when backers hoped to complete construction on the first phase of a four-year ASU campus.
That preliminary assessment provoked criticism from the residents of the unincorporated community of Mesa del Caballo, upset about the proposed location of the seven-acre water treatment plant. Payson had originally favored a site off Houston Mesa Road near the Shoofly Ruins.
However, that site was surrounded by Forest Service land on four sides, so it would have created an in-holding of private land.
As a result, Forest Service reviewers said they would prefer a different site adjoining the subdivision. In several hearings, homeowners near that proposed site vigorously protested.
As a result, Forest Service officials reportedly said they would accept a different site on the opposite side of the subdivision. That site did not create an in-holding, but also didn’t adjoin existing homes.
New treatment site in limbo
However, Evans said despite repeated requests, the Forest Service hasn’t yet put its preference for the new site in writing, so the town doesn’t know whether to direct its consultants to do a full-fledged environmental assessment of that new site.
The new, last-minute questions about whether to add potentially threatened species to the assessment could impose even greater delays.
The East Verde River represents one of the few remaining intact cottonwood-willow riparian habitats in the state. Biologist say this mix of vegetation harbors the greatest density and diversity of species in North America, but dams and diversions have destroyed or degraded 90 percent of the cottonwood-willow habitat in the state.
The East Verde provides potential critical habitat for a number of listed species, including Mexican Garter Snakes, Black Hawks, Verde Trout, Spotted Owls, Willow Flycatchers and others.
However, the Fish and Wildlife Service has fallen far behind when it comes to studying potentially endangered species and designating habitat crucial to the survival of those species.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has relegated hundreds of species to the strange category of “warranted but precluded.” This means preliminary studies show that the species is probably dwindling toward extinction, but Fish and Wildlife doesn’t have enough money to do a definitive study and designate critical habitat.