The rebuilding of a vital Flagstaff water pipeline destroyed in the Schultz fire has encountered some hurdles.
The U.S. Forest Service has asked the city to consider rerouting a short section of the 14-mile-long Inner Basin pipeline out of a wilderness area at an extra cost of $500,000.
Further, about 11,000 dead trees along the Waterline Road must be removed, with the city expected to pay part of the extra $1 million cost.
Also, three pairs of endangered Mexican spotted owls are known to nest in the vicinity of the road, and the Forest Service must consider the impact of heavy equipment noise and dust on their habitat before signing off on the rebuilding plan.
BROKEN IN 17 PLACES
First constructed in 1890, the pipeline supplies 20 percent of Flagstaff's summer water from springs on the San Francisco Peaks -- water that's clean and cheap because it's transported to Schultz Pass mostly by gravity rather than generators.
The pipeline was broken by flood debris in at least 17 places, and it is located on a road that's now impassable in 28 areas.
Replacing the pipeline is estimated to cost $3.6 million.
Flagstaff City Manager Kevin Burke said the project would be funded by a three-way split among the Federal Emergency Management Agency (75 percent), Arizona Division of Emergency Management (15 percent) and the city of Flagstaff (10 percent).
Not replacing the pipeline would cost city taxpayers an estimated $6,000 daily in expenses to pump water from new underground wells and treat that water.
The $3.6 million estimate, as well as how much each agency will pay, could change depending on whether the city moves forward in replacing a 300-foot section of the pipeline inside a designated wilderness area.
WILDERNESS WAIVER SOUGHT
The city could rebuild the pipeline along its original route in the wilderness because the pipeline pre-dates the creation of the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. But the U.S. Forest Service is asking the city to consider moving two-thirds of a mile of it out of the wilderness near Schultz Pass.
Such a move would more than double what the city has budgeted for its part of the pipeline reconstruction bill. FEMA is expected to pay for the replacement cost of the pipeline but will not pay to go around the wilderness area.
"To go around, it is an additional half a million dollars and we don't have a half a million dollars," Burke said. "FEMA is like an insurance policy: They replace things as is."
Currently, city officials are optimistic the Forest Service will issue a waiver allowing construction inside the Kachina Peaks Wilderness.
Motorized and mechanized activities (bicycling, driving, logging by chain saw, using a bulldozer) are typically forbidden in wilderness areas.
"The Forest Service has given us indications that they believe a waiver is absolutely possible and likely to occur," Burke said.
However, there is a plan B if Forest Service officials opt against the waiver.
"We are making grant applications and looking at our finances to figure out if there's $500,000 to go around (the wilderness area)," Burke said.
OWL HABITAT IN PLAY
Another factor the Forest Service and the city must consider is the existence of perhaps three pairs of Mexican spotted owls in the pipeline area. The owls are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
If construction happens, there would be excavators, cranes, dump trucks and bulldozers from Schultz Pass to near Lockett Meadow.
The heavy machinery would be employed building structures that look like miniature freeway overpasses (bridges more immune to washouts), and more firmly armoring the road with piles of rocks wrapped in baskets made of wire.
The owls typically return to an area for breeding and foraging, even soon after a fire, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Forest Service must formally weigh how noise or construction could affect the birds and consider ways to reduce the impact, if needed.
Burke said the discussions between three agencies related to spotted owl habitat are ongoing.
"How we work in an endangered species environment is something we've got to work out with U.S. Fish and Wildlife," Burke said.
BURNED TREES A HAZARD
A third issue is whether the city will remove an estimated 11,000 burned trees near Waterline Road.
Initial estimates put the cost at nearly a million dollars and FEMA will not pay for the cost of removing the trees, Burke said.
The city has a pledge from ADEM to cover 75 percent of the cost, but the city has nothing in writing as of today.
Burke said the state agency believes the charred trees pose a safety hazard and wants to remove at least a portion of the trees along the road.
City officials remain optimistic that construction can begin later this year.
Joe Ferguson can be reached at email@example.com or 556-2253.
Cyndy Cole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 913-8607.
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