Sat, Feb. 22

SRP threatens action against <br>Big Chino pumping proposal

Prescott Active Management Area municipalities have long been aware that their big brother to the south, the Salt River Project, doesn’t like the idea of them pumping water from the Big Chino aquifer.

But the Salt River Project has never laid out its position in writing – until now.

The mayors of Prescott, Chino Valley and Prescott Valley all received a somewhat threatening letter from SRP President William Schrader. He copied the letter to the governor’s office, every state legislator, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Rita Pearson Maguire, and leaders of all the Verde Valley communities.

Schrader’s letter notes that Verde River water constitutes one-third of the surface water for its Phoenix metropolitan area customers.

The letter supports the Verde Valley position that the Prescott tri-cities should wait to pump from the aquifer near Paulden until more studies are completed. The ongoing studies aim to shed more light on how the pumping would affect the flow of the Verde River.

"I’m happy to see that the stakeholders in the middle and lower Verde River are committed to the same direction," said Yavapai County Water Advisory Committee Co-Chair Tony Gioia, a Camp Verde Town Council member.

The Water Advisory Committee is set to talk again today about the Verde Valley’s opposition to the pipeline. The Verde and Prescott area committee members have competing position papers on the issue, and both are seeking committee-wide consensus even though they don’t expect to get it.

While the Verde Valley and Prescott officials disagree on whether the tri-cities should wait for the studies, they do agree on another thing: the SRP letter came as no surprise.

"It’s kind of an expected response," Prescott Valley Mayor Rick Killingsworth said. "They’re going to try to throw their weight around. They don’t have a legal leg to stand on."

Tri-city mayors say they haven’t changed their mind because of the letter.

"This is their standard operating procedure," Prescott Mayor Sam Steiger said of SRP. "They bluff. They posture. They’ve got enough studies, and none reveal how much you can pump out of the Verde."

Neither will future studies, he said.

"They are not the impediment they think they are," Steiger said. "They’ve had their own way around here so long, they think they can win all the time."

Steiger already has fired off a succinct response letter to SRP.

"Your concerns over the tri-cities pumping from the Big Chino are without merit," Steiger wrote. "As you well know, we may only pump at a volume that will not impact the Verde. We know this, you know this; take your best shot."

The letter just goes to prove that the tri-cities need to move forward on their pumping proposal, instead of waiting, Killingsworth said.

"This letter alone shows they’re going to try to attach as much water down south as they can," Killingsworth said.

The three mayors agree that they don’t want to wait on any more studies.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources has noted in writing that the Prescott AMA needs to import water from another aquifer in order to meet the state-imposed goal to stop depleting its own aquifer, Steiger noted. The Big Chino is the only outside aquifer the AMA has a right to use under state law.

"We feel like we have a right, and we’re going to go forward," Chino Valley Mayor Dan Main said. "How many studies do you need before you start taking action?"

Until recently, SRP officials thought the tri-cities would wait for the completion of studies commissioned by the Yavapai County Water Advisory Committee before starting to pump from the aquifer, Schrader wrote.

"The recent decision of the city and towns to construct a pipeline and commence pumping immediately, in apparent disregard of the likely outcome of these studies, is both precipitous and unwise," Schrader said.

Maybe SRP should contribute some money to the Big Chino studies to speed them up, instead of making threats, Killingsworth said.

Schrader’s letter predicted that "fierce opposition" to the pumping plan will come not only from SRP, but also from downstream Indian tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, because of the threatened and endangered species that depend on the river.

Main said he wouldn’t send such a letter, but he understands why SRP did.

"They’re looking out for their interests, and we’re looking out for our interests," Main said. "And at the end of the day, I think they’ll coincide."

Chino Valley has a unique need for the pipeline, because right now all its residents depend on individual wells, Main noted.

"If a guy’s well goes dry, we have an immediate problem," he said.

The tri-city mayors don’t have any plans to let SRP have control over their pumping mitigation plan to protect the river’s flow, as SRP’s letter appears to suggest.

"Please be advised that without some practical, measurable, legal and binding mitigation, we intend to take appropriate action to oppose and ultimately prevent attempts by the City and Towns or others from pumping from the Big Chino…" Schrader wrote. "We also want to assure you that our opposition…will not be lessened merely because significant amounts of capital are expended in the construction of a pipeline over the next few years."

The tri-city mayors said they won’t be surprised if SRP sues them, either.

But they have no right to sue until the tri-cities hurt the river’s flow, and that won’t happen, Steiger said.

"We’ve been saying that from day one," that the river will be protected, agreed county Water Advisory Committee Co-Chair Larry Tarkowski, Prescott Valley’s public works director.

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