Water War Accelerates In Pine

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In 1935, Arizona called out the National Guard and militia units to its California border to protest the construction of Parker Dam and diversions from the Colorado River.

The dispute ultimately was settled in court and a precedent was set in stone.

Whereas America's old-style water wars involved rifles and dynamited aqueducts, today's stakeholders head straight to their lawyers.

"We're going to see lawsuits everywhere over the next 10 years," a Florida hydrologist recently told the Associated Press in an interview about his state's water woes. "The water wars are going to start all over again."

There is, however, at least one American town where the water wars will not start over again because they've never ended.

Welcome to Pine, Arizona.

There is no other issue which so polarizes the residents of this perpetually water-short community than the wet stuff which courses in insufficient supplies beneath the earth's surface.

The arguments have now reached a fevered pitch, fueled by a lawsuit filed Aug. 20 by the Pine Water Company against Gila County, its Board of Supervisors and other county officials over the supervisors' approval of the new Strawberry Hollow Domestic Water Improvement District originally proposed by developer Loren Peterson to provide water to his 38-acre, 41-lot subdivision-in-progress, Strawberry Hollow Phase 1.

In the opinion of Barbara Johnson, president of the Pine-Strawberry Improvement Association, the outcome of this war will be identical to the outcome of all wars.

"We've got everything to lose and nothing to win," Johnson said. "Brooke Utilities is spending money that could much better be used to repair our very poor infrastructure; the county is forced to spend money to defend itself; and all this money, no matter what side wins, comes out of the taxpayers' pocketbooks. So the people up here are losers, no matter which way it goes."

Verbal bullets

Rest assured that there are a number of Pine water warriors who vehemently disagree with Johnson. Chief among them is Robert T. Hardcastle, president of the Pine Water Company and its parent company, Brooke Utilities.

"This is about private interests, the needs of one developer, nothing more and nothing less" wrote Hardcastle in an Aug. 20 press release announcing his legal request that the court invalidate the supervisors' decision and prevent the new district from operating.

Gila County District One Supervisor Ron Christensen, responding to the lawsuit last week, said the basis of Hardcastle's claim is that "he doesn't want a water improvement district up there, even though he's unable to serve the area ... So people are left to supply their own water."

Hardcastle, who will only communicate with the Roundup via e-mail, electronically submitted his reply after Christensen's remarks were published in last Tuesday's newspaper.

"... Supervisor Christensen would like the public to believe that areas of Pine are not being served water because of some sinister plan or because Brooke doesn't want to provide service to new or prospective customers.

"Nothing is further from the truth," Hardcastle continued. "Recently, Brooke invested nearly a half-million dollars to develop new infrastructure (the Pine-Strawberry water pipeline, Project Magnolia) for the benefit of our customers. The results speak for themselves no water conservation, unrestricted use, and more than 230 consecutive days of Stage 1."

The whites of their eyes

Among the most vocal soldiers in Hardcastle's Pine platoon is long-time resident and water-issue activist Betty Kelly.

"This is the first year in 21 years that we have had water, and (Brooke Utilities) is the first company that's had money to provide us water," Kelly said. "Last year, we went through 145 days when you couldn't flush your toilet. We had all these little sayings like, 'If it's brown, flush it down, if it's yellow, let it mellow.'

"We're not against development," she said. "We know the world turns and it has to go on. But you can't keep building without a new source of water. And that's our beef up here. We finally have someone who's come in here and has done everything they could to supply us with water and fix 90 percent of the leaks. But the county keeps picking away at us and keeps letting new homes come in up here when we don't have any new sources of water ..."

Steve Scott a full-time Pine resident for five years who has owned an area cabin since 1987 is another Brooke booster.

"Basically, we're confronting a shortage of water up here that's a little bit hard to deny," he said. "The Arizona Department of Water Resources has said that none of the developments up here have a 100-year water supply. So it's a struggle to see who's going to get the remaining water ..."

As Scott sees it, Pine's water-related dilemmas have been consistently exacerbated by another problem: the supervisor of Gila County District One.

"The county has strongly favored, under Ron Christensen, development in the area because it improves the tax base and supplies revenues for the county," Scott said. "Therefore, their decisions have not always been in the interests of the community ..."

While Scott concedes that he's had his share of disagreements with the water companies that have served Pine over the years, "I'd say Brooke Utilities has a good understanding of what happens when there isn't adequate water: they have to haul it in ... When (Hardcastle) runs out of water, the community runs out of water."

Arizona's problem

Pine's water woes are but a small piece of a very big picture now unfolding across Arizona.

According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, about 40 percent of the state's water use and all of Pine's comes from groundwater found beneath the earth's surface in natural reservoirs called aquifers. Throughout this century, groundwater has been pumped out more rapidly than it is being replenished, creating a condition called overdraft.

By continuing to overdraft the state's groundwater supplies, the ADWR has warned, the ability to ensure a secure water supply for the future is challenged.

It is safe to say that, for the town of Pine, the future is here.

Between Memorial Day and mid-October of 1997, Pine customers arrived at what is called "stage four water conservation," which enacts guidelines as strict as 40-percent reductions in indoor-water use. Brooke Utilities, which owns and operates water companies in Pine and Strawberry, trucked 4.5 million gallons of water from Strawberry to Pine.

Stage four returned on Memorial Day 1998, but residents were able to recover by the end of July, and no additional water needed to be trucked in.

For 19 days in the summer of 1999, conservation measures reached stage five, requiring mandatory conservation and monitoring by the Arizona Corporation Commission. Brooke Utilities hauled another 530,000 gallons of water to its customers.

War! What is it good for?

Still, Barbara Johnson said, "I just don't understand what the big squawk is about over Strawberry Hollow.

"There are already multiple water districts, several of them created for the same reason this new district was created. The law allows (developer Peterson) to do it, and he has no other option. Also, there is no proof that (Strawberry Hollow is) drawing water out of the same quote-unquote aquifer, because there's no proof that an aquifer exists."

It follows that Johnson also disagrees with the pro-Brooke Utilities faction on the subject of Christensen, whom she said "has done a great deal for this community. In years past, we had no representation here. Ron has been very active in rural water initiatives, not only in the state but in the federal government. We have more paved roads, more police protection. He has been very good for us."

John Breninger, however, is one more Pine resident who views Christensen in such a dim light that he thinks it is the supervisor's goal to become Northern Gila County's salaried "water czar."

But Breninger also wonders what it was, exactly, that Christensen and his fellow supervisors were approving when they gave thumbs up to the Strawberry Hollow Domestic Water Improvement District.

"It's interesting. Mr. Peterson now has a water district, but he doesn't have any water," Breninger said. "He's got three holes in the ground; one is a dry bone, another he now said is inadequate for his subdivision, and the third appears to be stalled, because he can't seem to get through the limestone."

If so, Pine's water war wouldn't be the first where the victor's booty was a whole lot of dust and very little wet stuff.

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