WMAT rural water project moves forward

January 19, 2018
In The News

WHITERIVER — In a process that has taken most of the past decade, The White Mountain Apache Tribe is one step closer toward implementation of its rural water system.

With the help of Congressman Tom O’Halleran, a bill known as SB 140 was approved Jan. 11 that allows the tribe to use settlement funds from the WMAT Water Rights Quantification Act of 2010 to cover any possible cost overruns for construction of the Miner Flat Dam and an accompanying rural water system project.

The project includes a roller-compacted concrete dam, about 160 feet high, a reservoir with a water storage capacity of about 8,620 acre-feet, a water treatment system designed to treat 14.55 million gallons of water per day, storage tanks, and about 60 miles of pipe that would start at the proposed dam site about 12 miles north of Whiteriver and extend to Cibecue.

The act provides $200 million to the White Mountain Apache Tribe for the planning, design, construction, and operation and maintenance of the tribe’s rural water system. Another $79 million is also provided for a settlement fund for fish production, rehabilitation of recreational lakes and other projects that will benefit the tribe.

“It doesn’t add any money whatsoever,” said Bob Brauchli, WMAT’s water rights attorney based in Tucson. “It’s budget neutral. All it does is clarify that the tribe could use money (from another part of the act) in the event they needed to draw from that to finish the rural water system project. It’s been done before. We always thought the money from that part of the Quantification Act could be used to complete the water system, if necessary.”

The act, signed Dec. 8, 2010, by former President Obama, settled the Tribe’s claims to both the Gila and the Little Colorado rivers. The settlement provides funding for the design and construction of a domestic water delivery system, known as the Miner Flat Project, and offers water certainty for the city of Phoenix, the Salt River Project and other downstream users.

All told, the tribe is entitled to 52,000 acre-feet of water per year. An acre-foot of water is about 325,000 gallons.

Now, Brauchli said only two things remain before the tribe can begin construction of its new water delivery system — complete an environmental impact statement and a 30-percent design of the dam, reservoir, pipeline and water treatment plant for approval by the Department of the Interior.

“In order to get approval, the (Interior) secretary has to approve the design of the system, and we have to complete the environmental impact statement because federal funds are involved,” Brauchli said. “Everyone else has signed off on this thing. People in the Valley — everyone wants this to happen. It gives legal certainty to everyone’s water rights so everyone can plan for the future.”

Brauchli said the dam and reservoir are at the heart of water-related economic development.

“Just like Show Low Reservoir, Blue Ridge Reservoir … Roosevelt Dam. These are essential for the economic development,” he said.

But he said SB 140 required passage before design plans for Miner Flat Dam and its associated water projects could move forward.

“In order to proceed with a 30-percent design, you need assurance that there is going to be money there to build the system,” Brauchli said. “We need to get going on the EIS, which is somewhat dependent on how you design the dam. There are always impacts, so they want to look at those. We have to make sure that everyone understands that in the event the final design says you will need ‘X’ amount of dollars to build this dam safely and reliably, that the money is there in the act.”

Brauchli said one the design is approved by the Interior secretary, construction on the project can proceed. He hopes that construction can be authorized within the next two years or sooner.

“It’s a good thing. It could be a great boon for the whole area, create jobs and prosperity,” he said. “The White Mountain Apache will have a guaranteed water supply. Right now, they run out all the time. They don’t have enough water in the summertime. The water is black in Cibecue. You just can’t have any prosperity without a reliable water supply.”