The hard costs of a secure, long-term water supply have started to emerge from a flurry of negotiations between the Salt River Project and half a dozen unincorporated communities for a share of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.
Many residents of Mesa del Caballo recently were unsettled to discover that while Blue Ridge water would end water rationing and allow the full development of the subdivision — it could also boost the average monthly water bill by 130 percent.
Other communities that take their water from the river and build their own, small filtration plants, on the other hand, could get water for about $1,400 per acre-foot annually.
That’s 3,250,000 gallons or enough water to cover an acre with a foot of water. One acre-foot would supply the annual needs of about 11 Payson residents or about five Phoenix residents.
Salt River Project Senior Water Rights Analyst Steve Westwood said that SRP has nearly completed negotiations with Brooke Utilities to supply 70 to 80 acre-feet annually to the 400 residents of Mesa del Caballo.
In addition, the Valley water utility is nearing a deal with two other, unnamed communities along the path of Payson’s proposed Blue Ridge pipeline.
Westwood said that SRP has opened talks with many other communities and hopes to use the arrival of the Blue Ridge water in perhaps 2014 to settle a host of vexing water rights issues in Rim Country.
“Our purpose is to create certainties and partnerships,” he said of the potentially complex, high-stakes negotiations for rights to Blue Ridge water that could for the first time give a dozen Rim Country communities enough water for all their future needs. The imminent arrival of some 3,500 acre-feet in the Blue Ridge pipeline could settle a century’s worth of bitter disputes about water rights.
The negotiations to purchase enough water for Mesa del Caballo’s needs could end water hauling charges in dry summers and has, for the first time, provided hard numbers of the potential cost of hooking up to Payson’s proposed $34 million pipeline along Houston Mesa Road or to draw water directly out of the East Verde River.
Congress authorized the diversion water from the 14,000-acre-foot Blue Ridge Reservoir into the East Verde River after nearly two decades of effort and earmarked 3,000 acre-feet for Payson and 500 acre-feet for other, undefined northern Gila County communities. SRP has claim to the rest of the water, which it releases into the East Verde River so it can run down to the Verde River and onto the Horseshoe Reservoir for use by Valley residents.
SRP has invested $13.7 million in upgrading the pumps, a hydropower generator and miles of pipeline between the reservoir and Washington Park, which sits at the base of the Mogollon Rim near headwaters of the East Verde River. Payson agreed to pay about 27 percent of the cost of those improvements, since it will get that same share of the 11,000 acre-feet annually that will flow through the pipeline.
SRP has worked out a complex formula to determine the maximum amount of the 500 acre-feet of unallocated water each community along the way will need by 2040. In the case of Mesa del, the formula estimated that the community will need between 70 and 80 acre-feet.
SRP then divided up the costs of the pipeline atop the Rim, which worked out to about $1,400 for each acre-foot of water delivered.
In addition, Payson has worked out a formula to figure out how to assign the costs of its roughly $34 million pipeline and treatment plant. It averaged those costs out over the 3,500 acre-feet the pipeline will carry on average. That works out to about $9,700 per acre-foot, although the town hasn’t released specific figures yet. That combination produced the big jump in average water bills for Mesa del Caballo, which would take the water directly from the water treatment plant.
Costs could differ sharply from one community to the next.
For instance, many communities along the river like Whispering Pines, Beaver Valley and East Verde Estates currently rely on wells close to the river. Those wells usually supply barely enough water for the community during dry summer months, when use rises as part-time residents flock to the high country. Many of those communities spent most of the summer on water restrictions, and still have many vacant lots.
SRP has long maintained that it actually has rights to all of the surface water runoff of the Tonto National Forest, which Congress specified when it established the forest nearly a century ago.
That water right includes water flowing through the silt and sand along the river. Technically, communities drawing water from shallow wells that rise and fall with changes in water levels in the river are using surface water that belongs to SRP, not groundwater that comes with the property right.
Westwood said studies have already shown that about 95 percent of the Blue Ridge water dumped into the East Verde makes it down past East Verde Estates, with relatively little loss to seepage or vegetation. By contrast, only about 40 percent of the water released at Washington Park makes it as far as Horseshoe Reservoir.
“We’ve done a lot of studies on this river,” said Westwood. “It moves like a pipeline — it’s a pretty efficient little stretch of river.”