The long-delayed Blue Ridge pipeline this week took several decisive steps forward, including the unanimous approval of a new law by the U.S. Senate and approval of a site for a $7.5 million water treatment plant less likely to upset homeowners in Mesa del Caballo.
In addition, the Payson Ranger District continued to work with Payson to approve construction permits in an effort to get the $34 million project back on schedule to begin delivering 3,000 acre-feet of water annually to Payson in late 2014 or early 2015, according to Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
The rare, unanimous Senate vote this week capped more than two years of effort to cut through thickets of red tape by making the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation responsible for overseeing the construction and maintenance of the pipeline, relegating the Forest Service to a secondary role.
Evans said the Senate measure echoed a bill already pushed through the House by First District Rep. Paul Gosar. Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl teamed up to move the companion bill through the Senate.
Evans said that “literally hundreds of bills that have general support are still being held up by this contentious leadership, so you cannot minimize the accomplishment involved in getting these bills through.”
Evans said the measure will greatly simplify long-term maintenance of the pipeline, which passes through two national forests. “Instead of dealing with a two-headed monster, we can go to just one agency whose whole purpose is to be a bureau of reclamation.”
In addition, the town council on Thursday voted to approve the final site for the water treatment plant.
Town officials have met with Payson Head Ranger Angie Elam to lay out the timetable for getting a final construction permit approved in the coming weeks.
The town and the Forest Service have agreed to put the proposed hydropower generator and treatment plant at the end of the 15-mile run from Washington Park to Mesa del Caballo, where the water will enter the town’s existing water system.
After some Mesa del Caballo homeowners objected to a seven-acre site that cut off their access to the forest, the Forest Service agreed to consider a different site for the water treatment plant near the entrance to the unincorporated subdivision. The Forest Service directed the town to expand its environmental study to include the new site, on a rocky, treeless knoll near the small store that sits at the entrance to the 400-home subdivision off Houston Mesa Road.
The new site won’t adjoin any existing homes, but will also not create an “in-holding” surrounded by public land.
In the meantime, Elam has promised to work out a detailed schedule so that the town can obtain construction permits for the pipeline as quickly as possible.
“It looks like a matter of weeks from here,” said Evans. “We’ve broken it into multiple steps. The next step is to get the approval to issue the construction contract — so we don’t get into the kind of mess that we’ve been in here where you have people sitting around speculating on why we didn’t consider this and this and this. That will take a little longer up front, but makes sure that when we have all that done — we won’t have any bumps in the road.”
A nearly year-long delay by the Tonto National Forest in reviewing an environmental assessment of the project had threatened to upend the schedule — not only for the pipeline but for plans to build a college campus here.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service quickly signed off on the assessment, which concluded that burying the 36-inch water pipe in Houston Mesa Road won’t harm any endangered species.
“We should have wet water in Payson in 2014 or 2015,” said Evans.
“We’re in good shape. We’ve had some great meetings with the Forest Service. We’re trying to put together a matrix as we speak to identify those things that can be done parallel.”
Evans credited Elam with getting things organized on several fronts, including the pipeline and sale of 260 acres of Forest Service land for a university site.
“Angie is an extremely organized person — and that allows her to do some things we weren’t able to do before in terms of being able to lay out steps and figure out how to articulate.”