Originally Published: February 11, 2010 2:31 p.m.
PRESCOTT - In a move that one local official described as "getting off the dime," Prescott and Prescott Valley unanimously approved a Big Chino-related settlement agreement with the Salt River Project Thursday.
Basically, the agreement obligates the two local communities and the Phoenix-area utility company to work together to try to resolve many of the issues that have long plagued the plans for the Big Chino Water Ranch pipeline.
For the most part, those efforts will occur outside of the courtroom, although some litigation apparently will continue.
The agreement comes after Prescott and Prescott Valley have spent more than $1.1 million on legal fees, and a total of $35.7 million on the $175 million water ranch project.
"Obviously, on both sides, a lot of resources have been spent on litigation," John Sullivan, associate general manager of SRP's water group, said after the meeting. "We're going to focus our resources in a more positive direction."
Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall expressed a similar view. "We've identified (the issues), and we've agreed to accomplish them," he said after the meeting. "And that won't be done in the courthouse."
With more than 75 people looking on in the audience, the meeting was more an affirmation of the months of negotiations that have taken place than a debate about the merits of the pact.
Applause broke out at the end of the hour-long meeting, and most in attendance appeared to view the agreement as a positive step.
For instance, Chip Davis, a Yavapai County supervisor from the Verde Valley, complimented the Prescott City Council and Prescott Valley Town Council on the move to work with SRP.
"I've been wallowing in this for 12 years, and this is the biggest step that has happened in 12 years," said Davis, who has been vocal in his concerns about the plans to pump water from the Big Chino Sub-basin. "I applaud you for getting off the dime."
Others in the audience were hopeful that the agreement would set the stage for more work on long-time sticking points.
Gary Beverly, one of three local appellants who earlier teamed up with SRP's attorneys to challenge that state's designation of Big Chino water to Prescott, said he was "guardedly optimistic" about the efforts to work out the Big Chino issues.
"I think it is important to give this time to work," Beverly said. "But I would like to see some expression of good faith on Prescott's part soon."
Michelle Harrington, the former Rivers Program manager for the Center for Biological Diversity and the current executive director of Arizona Rivers, said that while she is encouraged by Prescott's willingness to "play nice," she worried that the agreement "lacks any details" on issues such as mitigation of future impacts to the Verde River.
Meanwhile, Harrington said, Arizona Rivers and the Center for Biological Diversity are "not inclined" to drop their own litigation regarding the Big Chino project.
City of Prescott Regional Programs Director Craig McConnell stressed throughout his explanation of the agreement that Thursday's action was just the beginning of what could be a several-years-long process to deal with all of the details.
First up will be a joint effort to amend the 1991 state statute that originally authorized Prescott to pump water from the Paulden-area Big Chino sub-basin.
McConnell said the parties would work during the next several months to get the statute amendment through the legislative process before the end of the current session in June.
The amendment would have three major goals:
To quantify the amount of water that Prescott would be entitled to pump.
To remove any argument on the constitutionality of the statute.
To clarify that the imported Big Chino water could be delivered anywhere in the Prescott Active Management Area.
Sullivan said the pact is beneficial to SRP because it deals with a number of points that the company had been seeking for years, including a monitoring program, a water model to provide guidance on pumping and a commitment in writing on mitigation of future impacts to the river.
The terms of the agreement had been largely confidential until Thursday morning, when Prescott released the proposed pact. City Manager Steve Norwood said both sides had agreed early on to keep the negotiations under wraps.
"We started (negotiating) two days before Christmas," Norwood said. "We made a deal that we were not going to negotiate this in the media." In addition, he said, the negotiations included no attorneys on either side.
McConnell added that both sides also agreed that they would continue negotiating regardless of the outcome of the Feb. 1 hearing on the constitutionality of the 1991 state statute on importation. Ultimately, the judge ruled in Prescott's favor on that issue.
Legal issues arose soon after Prescott and Prescott Valley partnered on the 2004 purchase of ranchland northwest of Paulden for its Big Chino Water Ranch. The two communities plan a 30-mile water pipeline to transport water from the ranch.
SRP, which claims senior downstream rights to Verde River water, has maintained that the large-scale pumping in the Big Chino Basin, which is near the headwaters of the Verde, could harm the flow of the river.