Payson stands on the banks of water history, with the pumps now sending a gush of water from the C.C. Cragin Reservoir down the East Verde River.
The Salt River Project (SRP) turned on the pumps April 4, releasing 9 to 12 cubic feet per second into the East Verde River at Washington Park.
Payson has to get its brand new $54 million pipeline and water treatment working before it can take its allotment of 5 cubic feet per second from the reservoir. That’s enough to provide about 3,000 acre-feet in the next nine months — and ultimately supply the water needs of a build-out population of 38,000.
Customers likely won’t start getting the reservoir water out of their taps until sometime in June.
Payson this week is flushing out the last of its just-completed pipeline with reservoir water, said Payson Water Department Director Tanner Henry.
Tests of the new system and obtaining state water quality permits will keep the water department busy on into June, he said.
At full tilt, SRP’s six big pumps can put 30 cubic feet per second (cfs) into the pipeline, with just 5 cfs going to Payson. The rest flows down the East Verde to Phoenix.
Last week, the East Verde’s flow was 38 cfs at the stream gauge at Crackerjack, which would include the water released from C.C. Cragin.
The far-from-record snowfall this winter filled the reservoir to overflowing, after a year without enough water to turn on those pumps, said SRP Water Rights Manager Greg Kornrumph.
Last year, the reservoir received no winter and spring runoff and SRP never switched on the pumps.
This year, the reservoir has already received 23,000 acre-feet of runoff.
As a result, the 15,000-acre-foot lake filled to the brim and another 14,000 acre-feet went over the spillway into East Clear Creek, which runs down to the Little Colorado River. Snowmelt is still flowing into the reservoir at a rate of 50 cfs, so water’s still going over the spillway.
“What’s remarkable is that this winter wasn’t anywhere close to a record,” said Kornrumph.
This winter ranked 17th for runoff in records dating back to 1963.
In 1980, the watershed produced a record 108,000 acre-feet of runoff. The watershed has gotten 16 inches of precipitation since Jan. 1.
“So really, this is just kind of a normal year,” said Kornrumph, although it comes amidst 20 years of intermittent drought.
Last year’s lack of runoff spooked some observers, given Payson’s massive investment in a pipeline to deliver enough water to double or triple the town’s long-term water supply. Reservoir levels have only reached such low levels three times since 1963.
However, this year the 64,000-acre watershed reclaimed its reputation as one of the most productive in the state.
So, the pumps should run all summer, mostly moving water down the East Verde to SRP’s reservoirs on the Verde River — Bartlett and Horseshoe.
Is that good news for hikers, fishermen and swimming hole lovers on the East Verde?
SRP manages the reservoir to maximize the amount of water it can move to Phoenix. Good stream flows along the popular East Verde River are just a side benefit and not a factor in the water management decisions, said Kornrumph.
And here’s the complication: Bartlett and Horseshoe reservoirs are also full up and sending excess water down the Verde to the Gila River and on toward Yuma.
Moreover, SRP has an agreement with the federal government not to keep Horseshoe full, since that would drown the vegetation along the river channel leading into the reservoir. That vegetation provides critical habitat for the endangered willow flycatcher.
So if there’s no room in Bartlett for water from C.C. Cragin, there’s not much point in running it downstream, from SRP’s point of view.
The reservoir holds about 15,000 acre-feet, but 3,000 acre-feet lies below the pumps.
If Payson takes 3,000 acre-fee that leaves about 9,000 acre-feet for SRP. However, SRP normally only takes about 6,000 acre-feet.
This year for the first time, Payson’s share of water will come out at Washington Park, instead of flowing down the East Verde.
And the full-up condition of the reservoirs downstream may prompt SRP to take less water than normal — leaving only modest flows for the East Verde.
“We’ll have to see how things shape up over the next month,” before deciding how much water to release into the East Verde over the summer months, said Kornrumph.
SRP’s overall water storage system fared well this year. Roosevelt Lake has risen to 73 percent full and still rising. The other three reservoirs on the Salt River are full, along with the reservoirs on the Verde River.
Overall, the SRP system is 80 percent full compared to 60 percent a year ago at this time. Total inflow to the system remains at 2,500 cfs. However, 1,120 cfs continues to spill running out of Granite Reef, the last storage on the system. That water will run down the normally dry Gila River toward its merger with the Colorado River at Yuma.
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Go sit by a stream and consider this: Water-based recreation lures 170,000 folks into the out-of-doors every year in Gila County. Make a note: Gila County only has 52,000 residents.
How about this: Water-based recreation generates 3,400 jobs in Gila County and has an economic impact of $387 million annually. Mostly people like to picnic, fish, hike and watch birds and wildlife. A study released by Audubon Arizona included both streams and lakes, including the massive Roosevelt Lake in the Tonto Basin.
People like to do all sorts of things along the shores of lakes and streams. Among the 169,000 people in Gila County, 52 percent said they like to just picnic and relax, 38 percent said they go to watch wildlife, 27 percent said they like to fish.
Spending by visitors to riparian areas in Gila County generates $23 million in local tax revenue and $29 million in federal tax revenue. Ironically, the study comes in the midst of a federal effort to roll back environmental protections for the sometimes-dry tributaries like Pine Creek that feed into the state’s network of riparian areas.
These mind blowing figures come from a statewide study released last week. The study tallied up the impact of waterways on recreation in Arizona, with funding by the Audubon Society, the Arizona Department of Tourism and a host of other partners.
Statewide, water-based recreation supports a $13.5 billion industry and 114,000 jobs, according to the study prepared by the economic research firm Southwick Associates. The state’s waterways attract 1.5 million visitors annually, whose spending generates $1.8 billion in tax revenue. This exceeds the economic impact of the mining industry to the state’s economy.
The study offered counties, cities and the state fresh incentive to not only tap into the flow of dollars down riparian areas like Tonto Creek and the East Verde River, but to protect those beleaguered resources.
Previous studies demonstrated that some 80 percent of the state’s wildlife species rely on riparian areas for some critical phase of their life cycle, but account for just 2 percent of the state’s land area.
Only about 10 percent of the state’s riparian areas remain in their natural, fully functioning state. The rest have been destroyed or degraded by water diversions, dams, groundwater pumping or environmental impacts like cattle grazing. This could explain why 70 percent of endangered species in the state depend on riparian habitat, according to a report by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.
The research comes just as Payson prepares to take delivery of 3,000 acre-feet annually from the C.C. Cragin Reservoir — diverted from water that would otherwise flow down the East Verde. Payson plans to put much of that water into its underground water table. However, the town council is also considering some bold ideas that would create a leafy, tourist-friendly riparian feature along the now-dry American Gulch, which runs alongside Main Street. The proposal would create what amounts to a stream lined with hiking and running trails along Main Street, as part of the effort to recharge the underground water table.
That could offer a major tourist draw, according to the latest research.
In fact, water-based recreation already forms one of the foundations of Rim Country’s crucial tourism industry, the single biggest economic driver in the region, the researchers concluded.
“The rivers, lakes and streams of Arizona are an economic powerhouse for our state — these results prove that,” said Audubon Arizona’s Policy Manager Haley Paul. “The fate of birds and people are deeply connected. Our waterways need to be protected, not only for the vital bird, fish and wildlife habitat they provide, but also to sustain Arizona’s economy today and into the future.”
One of the major flyways for songbirds moving from the tropics to North America goes through Arizona, thanks to a network of north-south running rivers, including the Salt, the Verde, the San Pedro, the Colorado, Tonto Creek and the East Verde and their tributaries. Birds move along these corridors in the spring, relying on their shelter and resources. One study found the Verde River had the greatest density of nesting birds in North America. The East Verde River has one of the few, intact, cottonwood-willow ecosystems in the state.
Clarkdale Mayor Doug Von Gausia commented, “We have always known that the Verde River is the economic backbone of the Verde Valley. Now we can quantify that the waterways of Yavapai County contribute $1 billion in economic output and support 9,400 jobs and that protecting these special places helps our local economies and communities. I am grateful our community has this data — it will be invaluable to many across the state.”
Southwick Associates based the estimates on a 2018 survey of Arizona residents. Researchers combined those results with a 2016 survey of recreation patterns among out-of-state visitors. The study looked at nine outdoor-recreational activities that take place near water, including bicycling, camping, fishing, hunting, relaxing, snow sports, trail sports, water sports and wildlife watching.
“Why didn’t I get a tag?”
The question prompted chuckles from several of the Arizona Game & Fish Department personnel and audience members.
Getting drawn for a tag can be a lengthy and frustrating process for hunters, but one officials don’t have much control over individually.
That question was among many discussed during a AZGFD-sponsored public meeting on game management in the Tonto National Forest at Chasin’ A Dream Outfitters April 9.
Eight area residents attended and all got a chance to ask AZGFD employees questions.
Taking part in the informal discussion from AZGFD were: Region 6 Game Specialist Dustin Darveau, Wildlife Manager Dave Daniels and Wildlife Manager Supervisor Jarrod McFarlin.
Payson’s James Goughnour, who recently started his term as an AZGFD commissioner, attended as well.
Among the topics: hunt recommendations; the change from two- to five-year hunt guidelines; hunting elk in Pine and a new rule that prohibits archery hunting within a quarter-mile of a structure. That law goes into effect in June.
Chasin’ A Dream Outfitters owner Jeremy Ulmer expressed concern about how a new law approved by Gov. Doug Ducey prohibits archery hunting within a quarter-mile of a structure, especially in Pine, an area overrun with elk that could hurt his bow and arrow sales.
“You can still hunt with permission of the land owner,” one AZGFD official said.
“That’s a pipe dream with more and more people moving in from California,” one resident said. “I invite you to try and get permission in Pine.”
But Daniels said hunters need to respect the feelings of others in this matter.
“Things need to go smoothly,” Daniels said. “We’re talking about an area that was completely closed that’s now open with permission.”
“It seems like there are going to be some ill effects,” Ulmer said. “I own an archery shop and that puts a damper on archery.”
One resident asked why it’s not illegal to feed wild animals like elk, which is part of the reason herds are so abundant in Pine.
“Some residents like to see deer and elk in their yards,” Daniels said. “I’ve seen bull elk eating out of kids’ hands. We talked to residents in one neighborhood and explained how feeding them is not a good idea and they stopped feeding them and within a couple of weeks the elk were out of there. They moved on.”
One hunter asked about the possibility of adding an urban hunting season to a place like Pine.
“It’s worked in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “What about doing that here?”
Darveau said they’ve talked to other officials where an urban hunting season was added.
“Public input plays a big role,” said Darveau. “Sometimes we make changes based on one or two recommendations.”
One resident said money is the reason behind many AZGFD rules and recommendations. Darveau disagreed.
“It’s not all about the money,” he said. “We always try and do the right thing for wildlife.”
Goughnour pointed out that no state tax money goes to fund the AZGFD. The money all comes from hunting and fishing fees.
Darveau said instituting new hunt guidelines every five years instead of two should be good for AZGFD personnel.
“It saves us a lot of time for changes that weren’t happening during the two-year cycle,” he said.
It’s an efficiency effort. We’re only one and a half years in this new method, so time will tell.”
Officials use helicopters, fixed wing planes and perform ground surveys to determine the number of animals in each unit. The ratio of males and juveniles to females, habitat conditions, and other information are also gathered during surveys.
One hunter asked why the state does not require hunters to report their hunt results to AZGFD, which could lead to more hunting tags issued.
“We’re going down that road,” Darveau said. “It’s coming.”
One resident asked about what could be done with wild horses eating vegetation.
“I don’t want to kill horses, but something has to be done,” said one resident.
Another brought up the Canada geese problem in California.
“I lived in California and we had a Canada geese problem that took five years of studying,” he said. “We have got to get the general public to understand that if wildlife have food, they’re going to breed. It’s going to lead to trouble eventually.”
Some residents said they are concerned about the travel management plan that will lead to a reduction in the number of motorized trails. Some worry they won’t be able to retrieve animals they’ve harvested.
“Tonto National Forest is pretty good at listening to our comments,” Darveau said. “They’ve been very receptive and very good to work with when it comes to the department’s expertise on managing wildlife for all recreational users.
Darveau said AZGFD plans a webinar for all Arizona residents sometime in July to further discuss game management.
The Payson Town Council might have to put Main Street front and center on its agenda as residents continue to bring up development dreams.
During the mayor’s open mic meeting last week, resident Barbara Buntin suggested going forward with a Main Street redevelopment plan recently proposed by architect Robert Hershberger.
“When I was getting signatures (for an election), 90 percent of the people at Green Valley Park were for developing Main Street,” she said.
She then told a story about how her grandfather did the appraisal for the land Walt Disney ultimately purchased to build Disneyland.
“He could not have imagined that it would work,” she said. “Now apparently, fun sells.”
The Roundup reported April 9 about Hershberger’s plan to create an Old Town Square next to the American Gulch on Main Street. The plan developed by the former University of Arizona dean of architecture envisions a river walk and shops in a now empty lot. The plan would connect Green Valley Park to the Main Street area.
Mayor Tom Morrissey agreed the town could help make Main Street happen, but he doesn’t see spending money.
“We would play a role in that,” he said. “We, the town, unless we were to buy an area and pave it, (but) the town can’t be overly involved in that.”
He said he’s researching grant possibilities.
“I am working with them to see what I could do as mayor. I wish I had a magic wand to see what would happen.”
Buntin says she has concerns about creating a water feature in the normally dry gulch.
“I don’t know of the feasibility of putting in a river walk type thing — or could we do it without water features?” she asked.
Town of Payson Water Manager Tanner Henry cautioned using drinking water for water features.
“There are the legalities of putting drinking water into a watershed,” he said.
The gulch is what Henry calls, “an impaired water system.” If Payson were to put clean, fresh water into a system that co-mingles with reclamation water from the sanitary district, that could cause the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to balk.
Tanner conceded that with deep pockets and political will, the town could do almost anything. But should it?
“Sure it can be done — if it comes to using a huge amount of water,” he said. “Is it economically feasible? I don’t know.”
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