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Cibecue Mill Fire creates water shortage

CIBECUE — According to a social media post by BIA Forestry & Wildland Fire Management, Fort Apache Agency, the Cibecue Mill Fire, located near the old sawmill in Cibecue, began on April 21. When the fire jumped the creek on April 23, power had to be shut off to prevent hazardous conditions. With no power to the wells, a water shortage resulted.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe Police Department advised citizens that fire fighters were aggressively working to contain the fire. They asked residents to use alternative routes such as South Cooley Road due to the location of the fire, and asked non-residents to avoid the community.

Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood announced on her Saturday morning Facebook show that the bulldozer managed to get control of the fire on April 23 and said it was contained in that area.

“Everything is being mopped up in that area but the sawdust just slowly continues to burn,” said Lee-Gatewood. “They have our resources on it and I just want to thank Bashas’ grocery stores and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for their semi truckload of water for the community.”

Missionaries from the church helped distribute the water on April 23.”

The same day BIA was dealing with the Cibecue Sawmill Fire, they were also handling the Snake Creek fire near Sunrise Junction, caused by a down power line, and the Amos Wash fire which was caused by a faulty catalytic converter.

Lee-Gatewood said she wanted to thank the tribal fire department, Timber Mesa Fire and Medical, Navajo County and various other entities, who worked throughout the night and days following to contain the fire which was about half an acre.

Adding public works, land operations, WMATCO, all the tribal departments, Chief Mark Tessay and his crew, the police department, the Cibecue Complex staff and Donna Cooley and Councilmen Arnold Beach, Sr., and Travis Tessay, Sr. to her list of those who contributed to helping with the fire, Lee-Gatewood said, “It says a lot about how everyone came together, so thank you so much.”


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Drought intensifies forcing rationing of Colorado River water

The US Bureau of Reclamation last week warned water users to brace for a 500,000 acre-foot cut in water from the Colorado River as a historic drought continues to tighten its grip on the Southwest.

The cutback comes on top of a 200,000 acre-foot reduction Arizona water users agreed to last year in an effort to put off this day of reckoning. The Central Arizona Project provides more than a third of the state’s water. The reductions will mostly impact farmers.

The sparse snowpack this winter soaked into the ground during the hot, dry spring — producing little runoff.

The lack of runoff has drained reservoirs across the region just when they should be brimming with snowmelt. Lake Powell on the Colorado River holds just a third of its capacity and giant Lake Mead holds 38% of its capacity.

If Lake Mead falls to 22%, Arizona will lose it’s entire allotment — another million acre-feet. Arizona and Nevada are last in line of the seven states with rights to the Colorado River, behind California and the four upper-basin states.

Right now, the Colorado River reservoirs hold just 26 million acre feet of storage, compared to 31 million acre feet at the same time last year.

Rim Country and the White Mountains have not escaped the effects of the “extreme” or “exceptional” drought now settled heavily on the region.

Roosevelt Lake still holds 77% of its capacity, but the reservoirs on the Verde River have dwindled. The entire Salt and Verde reservoir system now holds 74 % of its capacity — compared to 98% at the same time last year.

Streams are already running dry, with the two driest months of the year still ahead.

In Rim Country, the East Verde River’s running at less than 1 cubic feet per second (CFS) and will likely run dry up in stretches soon. Normally, SRP pumps enough water out of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir to put 11,000 acre-feet in the East Verde and another 3,000 acre-feet in Payson’s domestic water pipeline. But the reservoirs at just 29% of capacity and SRP probably won’t pump any water out at all. Last year at this time, the reservoir was overflowing.

Meanwhile, Tonto Creek is flowing at 6 CSF.

Streams in the White Mountains have also dwindled. The Salt River’s flowing at just 155 CFS as it enters Roosevelt, about 13% of normal. The Black River’s flowing at 56 csf, the White River at 42 CFS and Carrizo Creek near Show Low at 3 CFS, and Cibecue Creek at 8 CSF — all far below normal for this time of the year.

All told, Lake Roosevelt’s receiving just 22% of its normal inflow from the streams and rivers that drain Rim Country and the White Mountains.

The fire season’s already in full swing, with several fires already having forced evacuations across the state – at least a month before big fires normally get started. The closest big fires are the 1,800-acre Bonito Rock Fire on the Whiteriver Apache Reservation, which is only 40% contained and the 2,000-acre G22 fire 18 miles southwest of Heber which is 70% contained. Other fires in the state include the 1,148-acre Margo fire near Tucson and the 1,300 Flag Fire, which is 13% contained and caused evacuations near Kingman.

The dry winter and spring may solidify the status of the current, 20-year drought as the worst drought in the past 1,000 years – as far back as estimates based on tree ring studies go.

A growing body of research suggests we’d best get used to a fierce, early fire season and chronic water shortages throughout the state.

A host of studies has linked the steady rise in in global temperatures to drought, megafires, floods and unpredictable rain and snow totals in the southwest. Most climate researchers say the steady increase in heat-trapping greenhouse gases due to human pollutants has increased the region’s existing variability – turning what might have been a normal dry spell into a megadrought.

One University of Arizona study based on data from 300 weather stations across the west found that the average rainfall in Arizona has dropped by a stunning 4 inches per year since the 1970s. Moreover, the average dry spell has increased by 50% — from 20 days to 32 days. In the desert parts of the state, the average stretches without rain have increased from 31 days to 48 days. Average rainfall in the desert portions of the state has cropped from 10 inches annually to just 7 inches.

The continued projected rise in temperatures could result in a 25% reduction in the flow of the Colorado River by 2050. Already, the past 12 months rank as the driest on record in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico and the fourth-driest ever in Colorado, according to the National Weather Service.

This winter, snowpack on the Colorado River watershed was just 71% of average. That reflects a steady rise in average temperatures, with the last 20 years 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the average for the 20th Century.


A COVID-19 Memorial was held by the Navajo County Board of Supervisors Meeting on April 27th. They planted a white rosebush in honor of the 525 Navajo County residents who lost their lives to COVID-19. Pictured, in front starting left are Sheriff David Clouse, Vice Chairwoman Dawnafe Whitesinger and Supervisor Alberto L. Peshlakai. In the back are, from left, Chairman Daryl Seymore, Supervisor Jason Whiting, and Health Director Janelle Linn.


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Suit over Taylor business park dismissed

TAYLOR — The lawsuit against the Town of Taylor by residents over what they claimed was a number of improprieties by town officials over the so-called Taylor Business Park near its airport, has been dismissed. According to a stipulation by both sides filed with the Navajo County Superior Court in February, they asked the court to dismiss the case with prejudice with each side to bear their own legal fees and costs. “With prejudice” means that the same parties cannot urge the same points again in the future. In March, the court returned to the plaintiffs the $12,000 bond that they had posted in support of an injunction against the town from taking any action on the project until the matter was settled. Now it has been settled by the court’s dismissal of the suit.

Background

The master plan for Taylor Airport, sometimes called the Taylor Business Park was put into action in October 2002, when the Taylor Town Council approved the capital improvement program for the endeavor.

It wouldn’t be “an industrial park, but a business technical park,” said then-Airport Manager Richard Prior about plans to develop the 100-plus acres southeast of the airport which the town bought from the Palmer Family Trust in 2003. “We want to bring in clean industries that offer higher salaries. It would really help our economy,” he told the council. Planners envisioned green spaces, recreation areas, daycare centers and even a movie theater. The runway would be strengthened to accommodate Lear jets; new hangars and taxiway lights would be built. Best of all, the federal government would pay for 91% of the $2.5 million cost, with the town paying only $115,000, believed the planners.

Now, almost 19 years later, there is no business park, and on May 4, 2020, Taylor residents, property owners and taxpayers sued the town. The plaintiffs were Aaron and Gary Solomon, Marion Hatch and Richard and Alice Franco; the defendant is Town of Taylor Municipal Property Corporation. Plaintiffs alleged in the suit that the town made illegal, unconstitutional gifts to insiders, had an impermissible conflict of interest, and used illegal parliamentary maneuvers to move things along, including violating Arizona’s open meeting law. The Arizona attorney general in May 2019 produced written findings that the town had indeed violated the open meetings law in two out of three alleged incidents with regard to the business park.

Plaintiffs also asked for an injunction to stop the town from taking further action on the project until a court could sort it all out, and piece by piece, the court did.

The dispute

At the heart of the dispute is Hatch Development LLC (“Hatch”), reportedly owned by Jason and Shannon Hatch. In September 2018, Hatch offered to sell to the town land for its business park, divided into two parcels, A and B, about 150 acres, for $750,000. Right off the bat, plaintiffs thought that was curious because, as stated above, the town had already bought the property once in 2003, or at least 100-plus acres of it. The tangled machinations of how the town ended up not owning it anymore and how Hatch ended up with the property at various times still is unclear and outside the scope of this report. Suffice it to say that on Nov. 20, 2018, the town signed a purchase agreement with Hatch and the very next day, paid the seller $292,000 for Parcel A.

That was illegal, say plaintiffs, because Arizona law requires a 30-day waiting period between the time a municipality agrees to such a transaction and when it actually goes through with it. In this case, the town forked over the cash in less than 24 hours after the deal was approved by the town. Plaintiffs also allege that the town didn’t get an accurate appraisal and plaintiffs say the town didn’t assure that the title was clear, which it wasn’t, and it cost the town a year’s worth of legal work to get the title cleared, they urged.

Regarding conflicts of interest, plaintiffs say that Councilmember Fay Hatch, who voted for the agreement, is related to Jason Hatch, and the law required Fay to disclose the connection and to recuse himself from the vote, neither of which he did.

Then there is what the plaintiffs characterize as “gifts.” First, the Arizona Constitution forbids governments of all shapes and sizes in the state from making sweetheart deals with private commercial interests, the so-called “Gift Clause,” or more accurately, the Anti-Gift Clause. Plaintiffs claim that pieces of Parcel B, under contract to be sold to the town for an agreed upon price, already have been peeled off and sold or given to others. For example, the complaint alleges that in October 2019, “Jason Hatch gave 0.38 acres of land to Marchell J. Williamson III and Sara A. Williamson,” who happen to be Taylor Mayor Smith’s daughter and son-in-law, at no cost to them. As stated, Mayor Smith said that is simply not true.

In an email to the Independent on May 14, 2020 Smith stated that the allegations “are completely unfounded,” and that the plaintiffs are “asserting facts that are both wrong and of which they have no first hand knowledge.” Smith says that two of the plaintiffs “are not even Taylor residents,” and some “have sued the Town before without merit.”

In Court

In June 2020 the town attempted to have the suit thrown out without having a trial, a device known under the rules of court as a judgment on the pleadings. To get a judgment on the pleadings, the court must find that even if everything that one side alleges is true, that the other side is still “clearly entitled to judgment,” according to the rule.

Among the grounds that the town said favored their side was the issue of standing. It’s well-settled law that if a person seeks relief from a court, that person must have some kind of standing to bring it, meaning that the event complained about will have an effect on the claimant’s “rights, status or legal relations,” as the court put it. Regarding standing to sue, defendant says that just because persons reside in a town, or own property there, and pay taxes there, does not mean that they have “automatic standing” to sue the town.

Plaintiffs have no such interest here, the town argued. The parties appeared for argument on July 20, 2020 in the courtroom of Judge Michaela Ruechel and the judge issued her ruling on August 31, 2020. The case was not thrown out, but the judge agreed with the Town of Taylor that Plaintiffs Solomon, Marion Hatch and Alice Franco do not have standing to sue the town, but that Richard Franco does.

Citing statutes and case law, the judge ruled that just because a person pays taxes in a town, or is a resident thereof, does not give the resident automatic standing to sue the town. The idea goes back to the notion that political differences about decisions made by town leaders are best resolved at the ballot box. Judge Ruechel observed that in order to involve the court in such things, to have standing to sue, a person must show that tax revenue taken from residents was used by the town for the action complained about, in this case, the purchase of part of the land city leaders want for the business park. The judge said that the plaintiffs in their complaint didn’t even allege that happened, so they don’t have standing.

But Franco did have standing to sue said the judge because his rights were indeed affected when he was given only 30 seconds to address the town council on this matter during a meeting on Jan. 3, 2019 — an abbreviated span of time that other presenters were not restricted to. That was a violation of his “right to be heard,” stated the judge.

Other grounds that the town raised included the fact that plaintiffs waited too long to bring suit, that the statute of limitations on such actions are time-barred after one year, and the events the plaintiffs complain about happened over a year before they filed the suit. The court could not find for either side on that issue, because there are still details to be determined at a trial about that.

But now there will be no trial. Franco wrote to the Independent on April 29. “(We) could see nothing but large legal bills to prove our point so we pulled the plug...we can think of no better victory at this point than to allow Taylor and Mayor Smith to forge ahead and cement their legacy as the owners of the biggest and costliest failure in the town’s history. It’s truly poetic justice for one of the worst financial transactions...I’ve ever seen...”

Franco also reports that the town has already closed on the deal, that “Taylor citizens get stuck with the bills, both past and future… a pipe dream of a ‘if you buy it, they will come’ so-called business park that will never be,” he wrote.

For the town’s part, in his email to the Independent in May, 2020, the mayor stated, “The Town is confident that in the end the Court will allow the transaction to proceed.” Looks like he was right. In his final comment on this matter, the mayor wrote Monday “We are glad to be moving forward for a positive impact on the Town, which is to be able to have a location for small and new business to have a place to locate in Taylor. Our flood control project that has been on hold is now underway and our road paving project is currently being designed and plan to bid this summer. We are moving forward and just in time as we are experiencing unprecedented growth in Taylor.”

Reach the reporter at rlynch@wmicentral.com


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