Hundreds of desperately needed jobs and the timeline for both Blue Ridge pipeline and a proposed 6,000-student college campus in Payson all now hinge on a seemingly unending flurry of questions raised by a Forest Service biologist about the environmental assessment of the $34 million pipeline.
The Forest Service had agreed by contract to approve the environmental assessment by last October, in return for a $169,000 payment by Payson to allow the Tonto National Forest to hire anyone it needed to quickly review the $500,000 study finished a year ago by a consulting firm hired by Payson.
However, the Forest Service apparently never hired anyone to keep the project moving and has not yet approved the draft report despite 10 revisions in the past nine months. The report is now 11 months overdue under the original contract signed by the Forest Service.
Payson agreed to extend the deadline to Dec. 31 and has spent the past nine months desperately trying to get the Forest Service approval needed to start construction on the project, which will double the town’s long-term water supply, provide enough water to build a college campus and various support facilities and hopefully jump-start the long-dead construction industry.
The town is paying rent to store thousands of sections of 36-inch pipe it had hoped to be putting in the ground by now. The town bought the pipe with a federal stimulus grant it won two years ago on the condition that it start work quickly — which it can’t do as a result of delays by the Forest Service.
The delay has come down to a seemingly endless string of questions generated by a Tonto National Forest biologist based in Phoenix, who has so far rejected as many as 10 drafts, according to Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
The questions center on two federally listed endangered species not actually found along the creek and one native fish that’s a “candidate” for protected status but is not actually yet federally listed.
“I don’t think I can possibly communicate to you or anyone else the level of frustration I feel. I’m hoping beyond hope that we can get through this — miracles happen. We’ve had our engineering firms working for the past month — all weekend — day and night — responding back and then wait, wait, wait. Then he comes back with a question like ‘what are you going to put in the sandbags?’”
But Forest Service biologist Fred Wong said the town’s consultants have not provided enough detail on questions like how they’ll limit erosion and silting in the creek. As a result, he has no way to determine what impact the project might have on plants and wildlife in the East Verde River.
“To analyze the impacts, whether it involves an endangered species or not, we need to know the details of the proposed action. A lot of the time what they’ve provided is very broad and general,” said Wong.
Nonetheless, he said the delays on the project aren’t unusual and that he remains “optimistic” that the town’s environmental consultants will answer the roughly 56 comments and questions he had on the latest draft of the biological portion of the assessment.
Once Wong approves the assessment, it goes to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a consultation. If Wong determines the project won’t harm the three listed and candidate species and the Fish and Wildlife Service concurs, construction could start quickly. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service could also ask for a formal Environmental Impact Report — which could result in an additional delay of a year or more.
The Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce meanwhile this week issued a “call to action,” urging residents to appeal to Rep. Paul Gosar and Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl to keep the pipeline and college projects from getting strangled by snarls of red tape.
“The blatant disregard for the good of the people is disgusting,” wrote chamber manager John Stanton in an e-mail. “It’s time to hold our legislators’ feet to the fire and fill up their e-box with our indignation.”
The key questions center on whether building 15 miles of pipe along the existing Houston Mesa Road, burying the 36-inch water pipe beneath three crossings of the Verde River and building a 5- to 7-acre water treatment plant will have an impact on any endangered species.
Most of the questions still outstanding center on two endangered species — the Mexican spotted owl and the Chiricahua leopard frog. In addition, the Forest Service has raised questions about whether the project might harm headwater chub, a native fish found in the East Verde River. No Mexican spotted owls have been sighted along the river corridor. The Fish and Wildlife Service has designated as critical habitat a patch of thick forest about a mile away from the river — although no owls are currently known to nest in that patch of forest.
Likewise, no Chiricahua leopard frogs currently live in the stream, which is so full of non-native predators like trout and crayfish that the stream wasn’t listed as critical habitat for the frog. A small population of the native frog lives in Pipe Springs. Scientific reports indicate that the frogs can hop for a mile between streams — or move downstream for up to five miles. As a result, it’s at least possible that individual frogs could make their way from Pipe Springs to the East Verde, although biologists don’t think they could then set up a self-sustaining breeding population.
The final species of concern actually does live in the East Verde, but the headwater chub is presently only a “candidate species” — which means it’s fading fast but the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t yet done the necessary studies to designate critical habitat or decide whether it qualifies for the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Wong said he asked the town’s consultants to provide information to determine whether the headwater chubs in the East Verde would be negatively impacted by the $34 million pipeline project. However, he said he didn’t at this point have any reason to think the plan to put the pipeline along the road and bury the pipe in the creekbed at the three river crossings would hurt the headwater chub.
The town has proposed using sandbags to shift the river from one side of its channel to the other during low-flow winter months, to avoid interrupting the flow of the water through the crossings.
The headwater chub actually do better in silty water than their non-native competitors like rainbow trout, with which the Arizona Game and Fish Department stocks the East Verde River all summer long.
“Potentially, they could travel into the action area,” said Wong. “But because the city agreed not to work during the monsoon season — that won’t be an issue. Because there are a lot of non-native fish there already, the chances of the frogs establishing a breeding population are close to zero.”
Wong said the consultants have to fill in detailed accounts of things like the measures the contractors will use to avoid letting dirt and silt wash into the stream before he can determine whether the project will have no significant impact on the fish.
“A lot of the details have been missed,” said Wong of the repeated round of questions and responses. “I don’t think it’s unusual. At the same time, we should be pretty close after the second draft or so. I’m not sure how many versions I’ve seen. It’s been pretty informal.”
He said he didn’t know that the town had a contract with the Forest Service requiring action on the environmental assessment by Dec. 31. He also said that he didn’t know of any extra staff hired with the town’s $169,000 payment, although he said that approval of the pipeline remains a top priority for the Tonto National Forest.
He said he is working on many other projects as well. That includes the massive Travel Management Plan, an effort to evaluate more than 5,000 miles of dirt roads in the Tonto National Forest to determine which ones the Forest Service should close in conjunction with a ban on cross-country vehicle travel.
Mayor Evans said the town has consulted an attorney about how it can enforce its contract, which set deadlines for approval of the environmental assessment. However, he said the town has directed its engineers to make one more try to answer Wong’s questions.
Evans said newly appointed Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Angie Elam has worked hard to win approval of the pipeline’s environmental assessment. She has also helped facilitate the sale of 300 acres of land for an Arizona State University campus in Payson.
However, he said if Payson doesn’t soon win approval of the environmental assessment on the pipeline, he will put off the timeline for building a college campus in Payson by at least a year — which means the campus won’t open until 2015. In that case, the region would for the next year lose the economic boost of hundreds of pipeline construction jobs and hundreds of additional jobs that would come with the college — both short-term construction jobs and long-term teaching and staff jobs. The college project includes things like an industrial park and a 500-room conference hotel.
Evans said Payson needs the Blue Ridge water to supply the needs of the college and the various spin-off businesses. “It is a violation of a public promise I’ve been making for three years” to go forward with the college without assurance the Forest Service will approve the pipeline.
“I have said we will not start this project and be in a bind where we can be held hostage by the Fish and Wildlife Service or anybody else,” said Evans.
“I don’t think the delay will kill the campus. I think the campus will go forward. But the great anxiety I feel is my empathy for people that need work in Rim Country and for whom this project is a game-changer. It won’t just affect the workers on the campus and on the pipeline, it will affect the whole community.”
He said he hopes the consultants will answer all the questions, but can’t predict when the report might actually win approval.