The Payson Town Council on Thursday should finalize a deal to connect the water-starved community of Mesa del Caballo to the C.C. Cragin Pipeline, slated to reach the unincorporated neighborhood sometime in 2014.
The agreement would allow the private water company owned by Brooke Utilities to connect to the town’s $40 million pipeline for an unspecified monthly delivery and treatment charge.
Earlier estimates put the cost of the connection at about $1 million — a cost that will likely more than double average water bills. The agreement would provide 70 to 82 acre-feet annually.
That ought to provide enough water to permanently end the small community’s chronic water shortages. Brooke Utilities has imposed water rationing throughout most of the past four summers.
Moreover, several years ago, Brooke received approval from the Arizona Corporation Commission to impose water-hauling charges when it has to truck in water from other wells it owns to keep the community’s storage tanks from running dry. Those water-hauling charges increase summer bills by 300-400 percent, while still banning the use of water for things like outdoor watering of yards.
Several residents have filed complaints with the ACC about those water-hauling charges, claiming the water company double-billed for the water it hauled. Other complaints have claimed that the water company arbitrarily cut off people’s water for supposedly violating water use restrictions and imposed excessive fees to get the water turned back on.
Several residents continue to circulate petitions in hopes of forming a water improvement district that could buy out Brooke Utilities and establish a public water company. Water users in Pine and Strawberry provided a model of that approach. The water improvement district there raised the money to buy out Brooke, then quickly acquired several new wells, which made it possible to lift a decade-long building moratorium.
The connection to the Blue Ridge pipeline should provide Mesa del with a permanent water supply for roughly the cost of drilling three deep wells, although the community would have no guarantee such a deep well would hit a useable supply of water. Mesa del sits on a plateau overlooking the East Verde River.
The agreement with Payson will make Mesa del Caballo the first of the unincorporated communities along the path of the pipeline to actually take advantage of federal legislation that reserves 500 acre-feet of Blue Ridge water for northern Gila County communities other than Payson — which has rights to 3,000 acre-feet.
The residents of Mesa del Caballo are actually entitled to a share of the Blue Ridge water for free. But the $1 million will provide the money to buy into the pipeline. The Salt River Project already owns the reservoir and a roughly 15-mile-long pipeline atop the Rim. SRP had said that any communities wanting a share of the water must pay a proportionate share of the construction and operating costs of that pipeline. In addition, Payson is building a $40 million pipeline to take the water from Washington Park to Payson. Payson will also charge a proportionate share of the construction and operation of that pipeline for any communities along the line that want to hook up.
The resulting charges will likely boost the average water bill in Mesa del Caballo by about 130 percent, according to estimates released by Bob Hardcastle, president of Brooke Utilities Inc., the parent company of Payson Water Company, in an earlier series of public meetings in the community.
The water won’t flow until perhaps the spring of 2015 and most residents are excited to see an end to water rationing and exorbitant water hauling fees.
So far, none of the other communities along the pipeline route have secured a share of the 500 acre-feet set aside for other communities besides Payson. The deal came after the passage of the Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act of 2004, which set aside up to 3,500 acre-feet of water from the Cragin Reservoir for northern Gila County.
Star Valley recently concluded that it doesn’t actually need the Blue Ridge water, although concerns about future water supplies originally spurred the incorporation of the town. Star Valley actually bought out the Brooke Utilities system that served a portion of the town. Originally, the council decided to buy the water company so it could become a water purveyor and gain a legal right to a share of the Blue Ridge water. However, after reviewing long-term water supply projections, the council decided not to pay the steep cost of hooking into the Blue Ridge system.
The arrival of the Blue Ridge water will nonetheless improve Star Valley’s water supply situation. Payson intends to inject water from the pipeline back into its water table, which had dropped between 100 and 200 feet before the imposition of water conservation measures and the collapse of the housing construction market stabilized well levels. If Payson brings the water table back up, Star Valley’s water table will also probably rise — since the community lies downhill from Payson.
Other communities along the pipeline have expressed an interest in Blue Ridge water, but generally shied away from the price tag.
Whispering Pines formed a Water Improvement District to get a seat at the table in the potential negotiations between Brooke and SRP about water for that community. Whispering Pines would likely take water directly from the East Verde, which means it needs its own filtration plant to substantially increase its supply.
The water rights for communities like Whispering Pines remain complicated, since Congress essentially gave SRP rights to the surface water for all of the Tonto National Forest when it approved the construction of Roosevelt Dam a century ago. That means SRP technically owns the surface water that flows down the East Verde, unless a community has a right that dates back to before the Tonto National Forest.