Phoenix pipeline pursuit threatens mountain preserve lands

Activists admit drought exists, but preservation pursuit trumps

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A proposed water pipeline planned to run through the Phoenix Mountain Preserve is causing trepidation amongst Phoenix-area preservationists, as the group of activists seek to halt the project that would disrupt the desert landscape.

The drought resiliency infrastructure program seeks to install infrastructure in areas of northern Phoenix to allow for the distribution of Salt River water in the event of restricted Colorado River water.

As part of the project, a 66-inch water main is planned through the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, around the 20th Street and Maryland Avenue, to 32nd Street and Shea Boulevard areas.

The Phoenix Mountain Preservation Council, a grassroots organization that has been in existence for nearly 50 years, is concerned the proposed pipeline alignment will negatively and irreversibly impact important undisturbed preserve areas and the integrity of the preserve as a whole.

Furthermore, the organization believes an inadequate level of detail has been made available by Phoenix Water Services officials regarding how and why it selected this particular alignment.

Libby Goff, a member of the PMPC says the Phoenix City Charter calls for a City Council vote or referendum of the people in order to make changes to the preserve — neither of which, Ms. Goff says, have happened. Phoenix officials, on the other hand, say this project doesn’t require a vote.

Looming water restrictions

At an Oct. 2 Transportation, Infrastructure and Innovation subcommittee meeting, Deputy Water Services Director Darlene Helm presented an update on the drought resiliency infrastructure program, including details and proposed timelines of the upcoming project.

Overall, in the event the drought restricts Colorado River usage, the city water department is putting in place a plan to provide water to its residents through other means. Ms. Helm said during the meeting, restrictions on the Colorado River are looming.

The improvements include 12 miles of new pipelines, four booster stations to transport and boost clean water throughout the water distribution system and pressure-reducing-valve stations to regulate and maintain safe water pressure.

The cost is approximately $300 million, which will be funded with revenue generated from a 2019-20 City Council approved water rate increase.

The infrastructure includes:

  • A 66-inch water main coming out of the 24th Street Water Treatment Plan around 20th Street and Maryland to 32nd Street and Shea Boulevard;
  • Replacing an existing 48-inch water main that is at the end of its useful life;
  • Extending the 66-inch main along 32nd Street to Bell Road;
  • Installing a 42-inch main along 35th Avenue from Thunderbird Road to Grovers Avenue; and
  • Installing four large pump stations.

“When we did an internal study to see if we had enough water — if there would be restrictions on Colorado River system — with SRP and our wells, we determined that based on careful planning and managing of our resources, we do have enough water to supply all of our residents we just need infrastructure to move the water north into to the area served by Colorado River,” Ms. Helm said.

About 97% of Phoenix’s water comes from the Salt and Verde rivers, with about 47% of its water coming from the Colorado River. About 3% of the city’s water is from groundwater.

“Because we have been using surface water as our main source of water, it’s allowed us to store groundwater for future needs, but because of that, we need to be concerned with climate conditions and drought,” she said.

The design of the drought resiliency infrastructure program began in early 2019, and construction is anticipated to start in January 2020 through 2022.

The portion that affects the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, is at 30% design process. Construction in neighborhoods begins in January 2020, with construction in the preserve slated for May 2021.

Preservation perspective

The water alignment will require a nearly 1,000-foot tunnel for its 66-inch pipeline through the mountain, and cut through numerous washes and other areas within the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, the preservation council states.

“In our opinion, the law regarding preserves and using them for something other than a preserve isn’t exactly being followed,” Ms. Goff said.

“We’re concerned. The law calls for either a City Council vote or a vote of the people if the preserve is going to be used for something different. We think the City Council voted on this when it was buried with a bunch of other things — while voting on a budget item — they probably weren’t familiar with what they were voting on, or that they specifically need to make an exception.”

Ms. Goff added, the PMPC further believes no one has provided reasoning it is necessary for the water alignment to go through the preserve, speculating that the decision was made on cost and convenience.

“One reason this concerns us is we want to make sure this doesn’t set a precedent for other utilities to come through the preserve in any area simply because it’s more convenient and less expensive for them,” Ms. Goff said. “It’s anybody’s guess as to what’s going to happen. The water department has really tried to steamroll this through.”

The PMPC is constantly involved in fights to preserve the mountains of Phoenix, pointing to recent work near South Mountain for the Loop 202, that threatened to impact the land.

“People don’t understand the desert is very fragile. Unlike the jungle or other ecosystems, it doesn’t recover like other areas do,” Ms. Goff said.

“Disturbing that top layer, the crust, really makes a difference. When they did the [State Route] 51, if you drive on the 51, you can see and see it has not recovered.”

The PMPC alleges that there is no documentation in the form of meeting minutes or presentation materials from a reported 50 meetings held by the Phoenix Water Department that show the project impacts and alignment details being presented to the public.

In chapter 26 of the Phoenix Charter, titled City of Phoenix Mountain Preserves, it states:

“In no event shall any real property within any City Mountain Preserve be sold, traded or otherwise alienated, redesignated or deleted from the Mountain Preserve except by approval of a majority of the electors voting thereon, provided that Mountain Preserve property may be traded if such trade is approved by the Council by ordinance prior to January 1, 1989 in accordance with the provisions set forth in this chapter.”

Attorney Susan Montgomery, who the preserve council hired for representation, says the affected neighborhood has a lot of concerns about the project. In addition, an October meeting between the neighborhood and Phoenix Water Services was met with a lot of emotion.

“The Water Services Department had a meeting there at Madison Heights Elementary. It was several hundred people — easily, a huge turn out,” Ms. Montgomery explained. “The water department showed up and said ‘here’s the project, we’re not taking any questions.’ It was one angry group of people — there was yelling.”

Ms. Montgomery says the city is pushing this project through, without taking time to appropriately assess the impacts.

“The neighborhood is pissed. They didn’t appreciate having them show up and say, literally said, the alignment is set, so we’re here to talk to you about it,” she said. “We all acknowledge that Arizona has water challenges and we’re in a time of shortage.”

Pointing to the City Charter, Ms. Montgomery reiterated the fact there hasn’t been a finding of necessity for this project by the City Council.

“They never voted on this alignment, they voted on a suite of funding packages, budgetary packages. This was one of a larger set of projects they want to do.”

Critical infrastructure

The drought resiliency infrastructure program is a part of the city’s Capital Improvement Program, Ms. Helm says, and there have been presentations to City Council on the project. In addition, the council approved design contracts in October 2018 and December 2018, which set the project in motion.

Additionally, Ms. Helm says the direction given to the water department by the city’s legal counsel is a vote isn’t needed to approve or disapprove the project entering the preserve.

“Based on our legal counsel at this point, we don’t need to go for a specific vote before the council,” Ms. Helm said. “Just by council acting on the contracts, that’s them approving. That’s the direction we’ve been given.”

Discussions on the need for drought planning have been happening for at least five years, Ms. Helm says, when the city first began extensively looking at the issue.

“In the 2016-17 time period is when we really started trying to figure out how we were going to move those water resources we have in the southern portion of Phoenix to the northern portion,” she explained.

“A study showed we have the resources available, we just needed the infrastructure.”

It was around 2017 city officials began presenting their plans to the city’s parks subcommittees, Ms. Helm says.

“With us reaching out back in 2017 we knew that there was going to be a lot of coordination because of the alignment going through the preserve, and working closely with the parks department trying to find an alignment with the least amount of impact,” she said.

“We were able to find an alignment where we’re using an old entrance to the park where there’s already been impact and also along the bike path because we know those were already placed [where] there’s been construction and impact. We’re trying to limit disturbance within the preserve.”

Ms. Helm says there are about 7,000 acres within the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, and the drought resiliency project is impacting about 20 acres. Of those 20 acres, seven have already been impacted from previous roadways or bike paths.

“We’re working really hard to ensure we’re impacting the least amount of Preserve as possible, obviously knowing there will be impacts,” she said.

Pointing to the installation of State Route 51, which cuts through the Phoenix mountains, Ms. Helm says there are only so many options to get through that area because of the topography and other factors, including the Arizona Canal.

“We did look heavily at another alignment ... it was a longer alignment, so for us, concerns like water quality, impacts to residents and businesses — it just had a lot more disadvantages,” she said.

As for the October community meeting, Ms. Helm says it was a positive aspect there was a big turnout, as it gives the water department an opportunity to address as many concerns and questions as possible.

“There will be impacts, people won’t be happy about that,” she said, pointing out that her department is trying to do the best they can. “We understand there will be concerns. Our goal was to try and gather as much information and see what the concerns are, and how best to less the impacts — knowing there will be impacts.”

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