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6:14 PM Thu, Nov. 15th

Big Chino legislation lauded as 'new chapter' in history of Verde River

PRESCOTT - The mood was celebratory Friday afternoon, when more than 50 local, state and Salt River Project officials gathered at the Hassayampa Inn to watch Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer give her second stamp of approval to a new Big Chino-related state law.

This week's signing was largely symbolic, because the governor had officially signed the bill in late April. Even so, most of the attendees appeared to view the accomplishment of the bill as something to commemorate.

"It's big; this is huge news," Brewer said after the signing ceremony. "Here we are finally - a solution."

Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall agreed, emphasizing the local communities' ability, after years of litigation, to sit down with SRP to try to work through the issues.

"Today, you could see the spirit of real cooperation," Kuykendall said. "It's a big thing."

SRP General Manager Dick Silverman called the bill the beginning of "a new chapter in the history of the Verde River - a chapter of cooperation."

The bill was one of the goals of a settlement agreement that Prescott, Prescott Valley and SRP approved in February in an effort to get the long-disputed Big Chino issue out of the courtroom.

The landmark settlement urged the passage of new state legislation that would clear up issues relating to Prescott's rights - dating back to 1991 legislation - to pump water from the Paulden-area Big Chino Basin.

Among other things, the settlement agreement stated that the new legislation should: quantify the amount of water Prescott would be entitled to pump, and clarify that the imported water could be delivered anywhere in the Prescott Active Management Area.

The new law, Senate Bill 1445, gives Prescott the right to pump as much as 8,068 acre-feet of water per year, and clarifies that any municipality in the Prescott Active Management Area can use the Big Chino groundwater.

Even as local officials were marking the accomplishment of the new state law, however, work continues between Prescott, Prescott Valley and SRP to hammer out the other details of the settlement.

On Thursday, SRP officials, including John Sullivan, associate general manager of the company's water group, and David Roberts, manager of water rights and contracts for SRP, traveled to Prescott for a meeting with Prescott and Prescott Valley officials to continue the negotiations that have been ongoing for months.

Craig McConnell, Prescott's Regional Programs director, reported Friday that one of the topics of discussion at the meeting was a "draft comprehensive agreement number one," which deals with the "three M's - modeling (of groundwater), monitoring and mitigation."

The two communities submitted the 30-page draft agreement to SRP officials in May, McConnell said, and have yet to get back detailed feedback.

At the same time, Prescott and Prescott Valley are completing another draft agreement that attempts to resolve litigation that had been going on before the February settlement agreement. Specifically, the second agreement deals with litigation over public records requests and SRP's objections to Prescott's application for modification of its assured water supply to reflect Big Chino water.

McConnell said that agreement is still in the draft stage and should be ready to go to SRP soon.

Prescott Valley Town Manager Larry Tarkowski noted that compilation of the two agreements came from a "cooperative effort, back and forth" between local officials and SRP representatives.

A third agreement, dealing with the water rights of all of the parties, has yet to be drafted, McConnell said.

Roberts, who attended the Friday signing ceremony, said the parties made progress at Thursday's meeting. He added: "It looks good to get this completed this year."

Because the draft agreements are part of settlement discussions, McConnell said they are "specifically protected by the Arizona rules of evidence," which he said prohibits the involved parties from disclosing the details.

The dispute over the Big Chino water began soon after Prescott and its partner Prescott Valley bought the Big Chino Water Ranch northwest of Paulden in 2004, with the intention of building a 30-mile pipeline to import water to the tri-city area.

Prior to the February settlement, the two communities and SRP were embroiled in litigation for years over Prescott and Prescott Valley's plans.

SRP, which claims senior downstream water rights to the Verde River, had long maintained that the pumping in the Big Chino Basin, which is near the headwaters of the Verde, could harm the flow of the river.