Pine Water Floating Above The Rim Again

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Pine water users are beginning to see the light at the end of the drought. As of July 30, Pine Water Company moved out of the mandatory water conservation measures of Stage 5, moving incrementally to Stage 4.

With the infusion of just 750,000-gallons of water from Strawberry storage, and hauling 97,000 gallons from Starlight Pines in a 48-hour period, the water storage in Pine has recovered to a steady 60-percent and Strawberry storage tanks have been full or nearly full in recent weeks.

Pine Water customers have moved up and down the conservation scale since then, based on the fluctuation of water storage levels.

Pine Water customers spent 40 days at the most restrictive conservation level and had almost two weeks of intermittent and prolonged water outages. These water outages prompted an emergency meeting of the ACC, held July 9 in Phoenix and brought about a meeting in Pine on July 11. At the meeting in Pine, residents aired their grievances about Brooke Utilities, the private water utility that has operated the Pine Water Company since 1996. Residents complained about the current situation, bad customer service and opposed rumors of emergency rate increase requests.

Since the July 9 meeting water customers have not had any outages and Brooke's water storage has been able to gain ground on customer demand.

The recent rain, the lack of visitors after the big holiday weekend and local conservation have all contributed to the increase in water, Robert Hardcastle, president of Brooke Utilities said. As the monsoons have dried up, water usage increases and storage levels drop.

In a four-page letter addressed to the ACC by Cheri and Ron Merkley, a series of questions were asked, beginning what appears to be a battle of words.

Ordered by the ACC to respond to the letter, Hardcastle penned an eight-page response providing history, some answers and some bitterness over the way the ACC handled the situation.

"Any inference that Pine Water Company is intentionally withholding water from its customers is unwarranted," Hardcastle said.

In the letter Hardcastle indicated that Brooke credited customers affected by outages. Customers received on average $12 in credit for a $13,000 total cost to the utility.

Hardcastle cited the beleaguered history of the utility and noted the improvements Brooke has instituted including, bringing the water quality up to and maintaining Arizona Department of Environmental Quality standards, fixing more than 400 meters, making several hundred leak repairs, adding 100,000 gallons of storage and installing a pipeline between Pine and Strawberry in 2000.

Frustrations expressed by Hardcastle include the creation of water districts within Pine to accommodate new development and circumvent the moratorium. Brooke is currently involved in a legal battle with Gila County over the newest development, Strawberry Hollow, located at the north end of Pine. The battle centers around the creation of the Strawberry Hollow Water District used exclusively to supply water to the new homes being built in that subdivision. Strawberry Hollow filled the Gila County Emergency Services tanker during the two weeks of residential outages.

"(By allowing this water district) the County has ignored its own responsibility to promote the development plan to address the water supply problem in Pine," he wrote.

Addressing complaints about the California call center contracted to provide customer service, Hardcastle said the company recognizes that mistakes have been made and is working to correct them.

As for water use, customers in Pine used 31 percent more water in June 2002 compared to June 2001, and in Strawberry water use was up 51 percent, Hardcastle wrote.

Concerned customers can pick up a copy of the letter at the Rim Country Chamber of Commerce office in Pine, located in the Museum at the Community Center.

For those customers serviced by Pine Water Company, Stage 4 as outlined by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) is a request by the water utility for voluntary water conservation. Water customers are asked to reduce daily consumption by 40 percent and have no outdoor watering except for livestock.

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