A bill designed to cut through red tape entangling Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline project last week easily passed out of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power.
Freshman Rep. Paul Gosar sponsored H.R. 489 that would designate the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as the lead agency in overseeing the $30 million project — thereby limiting the role of the Forest Service.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans flew to Washington, D.C. to testify on the need for the bill, which closely resembled a bill sponsored last year by Gosar’s predecessor.
Then-Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s bill made it through all the committees, but Congress adjourned before the bill could come to the floor.
Evans said the Forest Service this time around decided to actively support the bill.
“In the politics of bureaucracies — that’s a really big deal for the Forest Service to go from not opposing it to actively supporting it,” said Evans.
Payson pushed for the bill after mid-level officials from the Coconino National Forest repeatedly denied or delayed access to the pipeline that runs from the Blue Ridge Reservoir to Washington Park.
Those tangles came when the Salt River Project was working on the old stretch of pipeline atop the Rim to repair leaks and upgrade the line.
Rep. Gosar, a former Flagstaff dentist, touted his support for the bill and testified at the hearing.
“This legislation is a common-sense solution to the bureaucratic wrangling that has occurred between the Department of Interior and Agriculture that compromises routine maintenance of critical water infrastructure.”
Gosar said the Forest Service had insisted that the Bureau of Reclamation would need a special use permit to maintain and repair the pipeline, which runs almost entirely across Forest Service land.
“This simply isn’t a tenable situation for short-term or long-term management of the project,” he said.
“The bureaucratic wrangling has delayed much-needed repairs, increased repair costs and placed the economic development project of the town of Payson at risk.”
Gosar won election to the sprawling First Congressional District seat last year, running mostly on a pledge to cut federal spending and repeal recently enacted federal health reforms, which extended coverage to about 30 million people and required everyone to buy health insurance or pay a fine.
Sponsorship of H.R. 489 gave Gosar a chance to focus on local issues in a district that’s largely owned by the federal government.
Payson officials hope that Gosar’s bill will move smoothly through the process, now that the Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation have agreed on wording that spells out their different roles.
Payson hopes to start construction next year on the 15-mile-long pipeline from Washington Park to Mesa del Caballo, where the pipe will inject at least 3,000 acre-feet per year into the town’s water system.
The Blue Ridge water will essentially double the town’s sustainable water supply.
Payson has recently completed an environmental assessment of the proposed route of the pipeline along Houston Mesa Road.
The town is still awaiting a Forest Service decision on the location of a $7 million water-treatment plant.
Most of the proposed sites lie on Forest Service land. Payson prefers a five-acre site alongside Houston Mesa Road near the Shoofly Ruins. The Forest Service apparently prefers a 10-acre site right next to Mesa del Caballo, which several homeowners there have protested.
Evans said the Forest Service is considering the environmental assessment of the proposed pipeline route and water-treatment plant sites, which took a consultant paid by the town nearly a year to complete.
The assessment found no major environmental problems involving archaeological sites, endangered species or water quality. The pipe will run alongside or under Houston Mesa Road and will cross the East Verde River three times.
“The hearing went very well,” said Evans after his testimony.
“I think everybody’s finally on board.”