Mesa Del Strikes Water Deal

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An end to Mesa del Caballo’s chronic water shortages is nearing.

Recently, the Salt River Project’s board of governors approved an agreement to allow delivery of water from the C.C. Cragin Reservoir to the small community northeast of Payson.

The water cannot come soon enough for residents already under strict water restrictions for the summer as Brooke Utilities/ Payson Water Company resorts to hauling water to meet demand, which will dramatically increase water bills.

The community has faced a vicious cycle for years: wells don’t produce so Brooke hauls water from Payson, doubling and tripling water bills and leaving residents with barely enough water to flush their toilets.

The new agreement will provide an average of 70 acre-feet annually, with a maximum delivery of 82 acre-feet. Projections suggest that supply could end water hauling indefinitely.

However, the solution comes at a substantial cost — perhaps $1 million, which is enough to more than double average water bills. The company will pass the cost of the project onto the customers, said Bob Hardcastle, president of Brooke Utilities Inc., the parent company of Payson Water Company.

The cost of buying into the pipeline plus annual operation and maintenance fees will increase bills by an average of 130 percent, Hardcastle said at a community meeting last year.

Randy Norman, a community member and treasurer of the El Caballo Club, which is working with Brooke on the deal, said they hope to get financing through the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona to cover the buy-in costs.

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.

The deal is also the first agreement SRP has made with a smaller Rim Country community.

Payson secured rights to 3,000 acre-feet of Cragin water in 2008 from SRP.

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.

That includes 500 acre-feet of water for smaller Rim communities. Mesa del is the first to secure a deal. Star Valley recently passed on the opportunity.

The agreement sets the framework for other small water companies to collaborate with SRP.

Mesa del will get water via Payson’s pipeline with the reservoir. The water will be treated in a treatment plant adjacent to the community.

SRP has been working with a number of water providers and community water systems since 2005 to identify opportunities to establish agreements for C.C. Cragin water, said Steve Westwood, a water rights and contracts senior analyst.

“SRP has also been very concerned that continued well pumping on the Verde and Salt watersheds to meet growing water demand is negatively affecting the water supply of SRP shareholders,” he said. “The opportunity to protect our shareholders’ water rights, supplement water supplies in the northern Gila County region and achieve water settlements to provide certainty for a long-term, sustainable water supply and resolve water-rights claims has been a major focus of our efforts.”

Northern Gila County is located within the Salt and Verde watersheds.

The region, which includes Payson, is a future growth area where surface water is fully appropriated and groundwater is overused, Westwood said.

“This agreement clears the way for a reliable, long-term water supply for Mesa del Caballo, which for many years has had repeated water-shortage issues due to unsupportive geology and underperforming wells,” Hardcastle said. “This agreement also provides the community certainty by resolving any water-right conflicts with SRP.”

Payson Water Company’s agreement with SRP covers the allocation and access of water from Cragin Reservoir. Brooke still needs to settle an agreement with Payson for the delivery and treatment of the Cragin water.

Hardcastle has been working with Payson for more than a year on the agreement, said Buzz Walker, water superintendent/assistant public works director with the Payson Water Department.

The agreement is close to finalization and will be on an upcoming town council agenda, he said.

The Arizona Corporation Commission must also approve the water purchase agreement between Payson Water Company and the town.

In the meantime, Brooke is also dealing with a number of complaints filed by residents of Mesa del Caballo.

Resident Steve Gehring’s complaint focuses on whether Brooke properly assessed water-hauling charges last summer. He believes the company did not deliver thousands of gallons of water for which it charged Mesa del residents.

Last week, Gehring testified in front of a judge along with Hardcastle and several more residents and supporters. The judge has not made a ruling.

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