The Salt River Project opened the valves on the Blue Ridge pipeline this week, sending a gush of water rushing down the East Verde.
The big pipe in Washington Park unleashed 26 cubic feet per second into the East Verde, which had gone underground in several downstream sections with the fading of the spring runoff.
SRP will run the pipe at a rate between 24 and 33 cubic feet per second from now until winter snows again cut off access to the Blue Ridge Reservoir and the pipeline that runs some 17 miles from the lake to Washington Park.
The water releases started at 1:30 p.m. on April 26, but for the first day the rush of new water mostly filled up pockets and hollows and fissures in the fractured, limestone rock layers beneath the East Verde.
The 15,000 acre-foot Blue Ridge Reservoir atop the Rim came within inches of filling up so high that dam managers would have to release excess water. By next fall, SRP hopes to move 12,000 acre-feet down the East Verde, which will likely lower the water level in the deep, narrow reservoir by 80 feet. But even when the reservoir shrinks to the minimum set by the Forest Service, the lake will stretch for some two miles in the bottom of a narrow canyon, said Jeffrey Lane, a spokesman for SRP.
The water released into the river now flows down past half a dozen communities to end up in the Verde River. From there, it flows into the SRP reservoir behind Horseshoe Dam near Phoenix. By 2015, Payson will build its $33 million Blue Ridge pipeline and start taking out 3,000 acre-feet annually at Washington Park.
Lane said SRP released the Blue Ridge water a few weeks later than last year, due to a late, heavy snowfall that delayed access to the pipeline atop the Rim and to continued work on the control systems for the pipeline.
SRP will likely shut off the flow of Blue Ridge water down the East Verde for a week in June to undertake additional work on electrical lines and computer upgrades.
Payson has shouldered about one-third of the cost of upgrading the leaky, decades-old pipeline atop the Rim, which had to meet tougher federal standards once it became a crucial link in a domestic water system.
Lane said SRP has met with representatives of six communities that hope to strike a deal to get a share of 500 acre-feet of water reserved for northern Gila County communities other than Payson.
Many of those communities now rely on well water, often from shallow wells that fluctuate with the flow of water down the East Verde. SRP has long contended that those shallow wells use surface water to which Congress gave SRP the rights a century ago in the legislation that led to the construction of Roosevelt Dam.
Some of those communities hope to trade their potential right to Blue Ridge water for an SRP acknowledgment of their rights to use that well water. Some of those communities hope to get water directly from the Blue Ridge pipeline. At minimum, that includes Mesa del Caballo, where the 400 property owners in the past two years have suffered from repeated water shortages.
Mesa del Caballo could take water from Blue Ridge after it passes through Payson’s proposed $7 million water treatment plant, ending its water shortages and potentially getting water more cheaply than it can be pumped out of the ground.
Lane said SRP and Payson are working on water sharing agreements with six communities and have started conversations with several more.