Water Stories 4:

Water Over the Rim — Part 2

Sometime early in 1964 the canyon of the East Verde echoed with a huge explosion and rocks flew in every direction. It was the end of the Phelps-Dodge Mining Company’s plan to drill a tunnel from the East Verde River up to the Blue Ridge Reservoir. As with the dream for the Mineral Belt Railroad of 1883, the mighty Mogollon Rim had won over human strategies once again.

All Rim Country folk remember that legend. New York businessman James Eddy, together with his venture capital friends, had a vision for bringing a train down from a connection with the intercontinental rail at Flagstaff and the “endless” supply of lumber on the Rim. Their Mineral Belt Railroad would come down the East Verde Canyon, run across the Tonto Basin to Globe where it would connect with the mines. Ultimate plans envisioned connecting to the Gulf of California and giving Arizona an ocean port. A 3,200-foot tunnel was the goal, but after penetrating the mountain 100 feet a lack of funding brought the project to an end. The tunnel does still provide a destination for hikers and historians.

The Phelps-Dodge Company found that costs together with the faults and springs they encountered brought an end to this 20th century tunnel. They cleaned up their narrow-gauge railroad and with a mighty charge of dynamite left a pile of rocks closing the gap. A backup plan was needed.

Up at the Blue Ridge Reservoir the tunnel from far below the water level had already gone in one mile. At that point a pump was installed that would bring the water up to the surface and deposit it into a pipeline. Down the canyon, at the other end of a nine-mile pipeline, an electric generating plant was built. Power lines were installed from that generating station back up the canyon and over the Rim to operate the pumps. It was a closed system, and excess electricity was to be sold.

Those of us who lived downstream from the end of the pipeline benefited. The flow of “our” river was quadrupled. The increased water acted like a giant evaporative cooler lowering the summer temperature. The forest rangers and Game and Fish folk found the now colder water perfect for trout. Every week during the season they stocked the stream with large numbers of fish, to the delight of everyone’s children and grandchildren who were almost guaranteed their limit.

Then came the time when the contract ordered by the courts between Phelps Dodge and SRP expired. The required water had been replaced and the flow was turned off. The little generating plant stood idle for years, its machinery undoubtedly becoming rusty. But as we saw in the first of these essays on legends about Rim Country water, the town of Payson has been aggressive in completing the plan for a local supply of water. They are permitted to take 3,500 acre-feet of C.C. Cragin Reservoir water (the new name for the Blue Ridge Reservoir) and have put together loans and grants to get the job done. The pipeline has been extended from the East Verde River along the Houston Mesa Road into town and a water purification plant and large storage tank have been built. As part of the deal the town had promised not to drill any more wells. Rather a network of new pipes has been installed connecting the existing wells, and allowing water from the Rim to be infused back into the ground for storage.

For nine months of the year the town will use only pipeline water and allow the town wells to receive the excess Rim water. Then during the winter months when the pipeline is shut down because of snow and freezing on the Rim, Payson will pump ground water. The water delivery systems can be expanded as population increases toward the 40,000 envisioned in the town’s general plan. This is a great victory for the decades-long effort of Payson water officials to win the rights to Blue Ridge water.

Next: The Great Flood

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