Chiding both Gila County officials and area real estate developers for their role in the Pine water crisis, the Arizona Corporation Commission reluctantly denied a meter moratorium recommended by its staff Monday.
At the meeting in Phoenix, attended by half a dozen or so residents from the Pine-Strawberry area, the ACC also clarified the issue of whether the three systems tied together by Brooke Utilities when it bought out Williamson Waterworks in 1996 should be treated as one system.
The commission decided the area previously serviced by E and R Water Company will be allowed 25 new meters per month. Property owners living outside E and R’s service area can get a temporary meter if they request one before Jan. 31, 2003.
Once these residents meet the following conditions, they will get a permanent meter:
1. Pay Pine Water Company’s minimum monthly charge of $20.35 and continue doing so until they decide to build ven though they will receive no water until they build.
2. At some point, bring a building permit for a residential dwelling unit to Pine Water Company.
“This addresses the concern that property owners could get a meter by simply obtaining a permit for a storage shed,” said Heather Murphy, public information officer for the commission. “This is also where a lot of property owners kind of got stuck in the middle of the debate over who the moratorium applied to.”
After Jan. 31, the 25-meter moratorium will apply to all of Pine Water Company’s service area.
In allowing 25 meters per month, the commission went against a staff recommendation to allow no new hookups.
“It’s a very frustrating position for the commission to be in,” Murphy said. “Here we have a utility with an obligation to serve their customers, while property owners are saying ‘I have a right. I bought this property with the expectation that I can (get a meter).
“And yet you have real estate agents who are continuing to turn over properties, a county that is continuing to zone it for development, and people who are continuing to want to move there and nobody wants a moratorium.”
Murphy said the commissioners stressed the need for more cooperation from the various entities involved in the area.
“Everybody needs to realize that this community has had ongoing, serious water availability issues since the 1950s, and a commission decision isn’t going to change that,” she said. “But a zoning decision could change that. Property owners being made aware of the water situation by the real estate community could have an impact, and so on and so forth.”
A spokesperson for Brooke Utilities who attended the Monday meeting said the company is pleased with the commission’s rulings, and agreed that the county bears a large share of responsibility for Pine’s water woes.
“Since 1973 the (Arizona) Department of Water Resources has been saying there is not enough water for more development in the Pine area,” the spokesperson said. “(The commission) is trying to fix the situation and the county is just going hog-wild. (The commission’s) concern is that our customers are paying for the county’s development through higher rates because it will cost a lot of money to truck water in.”
At the meeting, Brooke Utilities, which owns Pine Water Company, said it will continue to provide water for its customers, but the price may be steep.
“(The county) can zone as many properties as they want, but the water is just not there,” Murphy said. “It’s just going to be really expensive and really intermittent service because people are going to have to depend on water to be trucked in in the summertime and other crisis times. But this is what the people in the community are clamoring for.”
Besides clarifying the moratorium issue, the commission ordered Brooke Utilities to:
- Produce and present to the commission a plan with long-range solutions or remedies to the water situation in Pine by May, 2003.
- Produce and present to the commission a rate case by May, 2003, based on a test year ending Dec. 31, 2002.
“Rate cases are always predicated upon a specific window in time and the commission wants to see this one based on this past year’s experience,” Murphy said.
- Review its existing curtailment tariff and come back to the commission with appropriate modifications. A curtailment tariff is simply a plan for dealing with water outages and shortages of varying degrees of seriousness.
- Begin a consumer education program that will result in more and better communication with the utility’s customers.
Among the staff recommendations not adopted by the commission was one linking Strawberry water conservation stages to Pine’s based on the fact that the two systems are physically connected through the Project Magnolia pipeline. Brooke Utilities also owns Strawberry Water Company.
“The Strawberry issue was not dealt with at this time,” Murphy said. “But it could come back as part of Brooke’s plan, or the commission could make it part of the plan.”
After the meeting, Murphy emphasized the role mother nature plays in the process.
“The bottom line is that a commission order won’t make it rain or give you a big heavy snowpack that’ll help alleviate the situation,” she said. “No government official that I know of can control the weather, and that’s really what has to happen.
“If it’s a dry winter, God forbid. People who come up there for the weekend need to give a lot of thought to their plans for this upcoming summer.”