The Salt River Project this week shut off the spigots that sent 8,000 acre-feet of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir gushing down the East Verde River this summer.
SRP shut down the pumps a little early this year to make additional repairs on the electronic leads of the motors, which will require the intermittent use of the pumps for the next couple of weeks.
Normally, SRP doesn’t shut down the big pumps until the first snowfalls up on the Rim shut off access to the pipeline and pumps taking MONEY(?) out of the deep, narrow 15,000-acre-foot reservoir.
Residents along the East Verde should see the flow of water drop dramatically this week, since the 30 cubic feet per second released from the end of the pipe at Washington Park doubles or quadruples the normal flow. Some portions of the East Verde actually go underground during low-flow months without the supplemental Blue Ridge water.
Six months ago, the reservoir was overflowing as a result of a deeper than normal snowfall. Now, it’s about half full — containing about 7,300 acre-feet.
At most, SRP can pump about 11,000 acre-feet annually from the reservoir, since the Forest Service requires the utility to leave more than 3,000 acre feet in the reservoir for fish and wildlife.
The Blue Ridge water provided was crucial to the East Verde during this summer, with a fitful monsoon season following an unusually dry spring.
So far this year, Payson has gotten just 13 inches of rainfall. Normally, the area gets about 24 inches annually. Several heavy winter storms left an unusually deep snowpack, but a hot, dry, spring quickly melted the high country.
Roosevelt Lake started the season brimming with snowmelt, but has now declined to 66 percent of its capacity. The giant reservoir holds far more water than all the other reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers combined. The whole system is now 66 percent full, compared to 86 percent a year ago.
Tonto Creek vanishes before it even reaches Roosevelt Lake at the moment. The Salt River is carrying 129 cubic feet per second, compared to a normal flow of 232 cfs. The Verde, however, still has a nearly normal flow of 211 csf.
The U.S. Weather Service says that drought has returned to most of Arizona, after two near-normal winters that offered a refreshing gulp of relief after a decade of severe drought.
The U.S. Drought Monitor puts all of Gila County in “moderate” drought conditions. By contrast, both southeast Arizona and northeast Arizona have slipped back into exceptional or extreme drought. Maricopa County and other low-desert areas have fallen into “severe” drought.
The return of drought to the Southwest after the sparse relief of the past two winters underscores the value of the Blue Ridge water gurgling down the East Verde.
Most of the communities along the East Verde River like Whispering Pines, East Verde Estates, Flowing Springs and others rely on relatively shallow wells. The much more consistent flow of the East Verde sustains underground water tables all along its length.
Payson plans to build a $34 million pipeline along Houston Mesa Road to divert 3,000 acre-feet annually from the Blue Ridge Reservoir, starting in about two or three years.
Until then, SRP remains free by contract to put Payson’s share of the Blue Ridge water into the East Verde, where it will run down into the Verde River and end up in an SRP reservoir near Phoenix.
SRP had shut down the pumps for a week or more at a stretch several times this summer, which reduced the amount of water it could divert. As a result, this summer offers a glimpse of the average flows in the East Verde once Payson starts diverting its 3,000 acre-feet. SRP managed to move only 8,000 acre-feet down the river this summer, instead of the roughly 11,000 acre-feet it could have moved without the pump control problems.
Once Payson starts taking its share of water, SRP will probably only run 8,000 to 9,000 acre-feet annually down the river, even if it runs the pumps continuously.