Don't Blame Water Woes On County, Christensen Exclaims

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Gila County District 1 Supervisor Ron Christensen takes exception to criticism from the Arizona Corporation Commission and Brooke Utilities regarding the county's role in Pine's worsening water problem.

"Gila County is not causing the water problem," Christensen said before last Tuesday's board of supervisors meeting at the Payson campus of Gila Community College. He was responding to a recent article in the Payson Roundup in which ACC public information officer Heather Murphy said the county must accept a good share of the blame for critical water shortages in Pine because of its continuing approval of new development.

"She is fabricating a problem that does not exist because of the county's planning, zoning or land use," Christensen said. "It's an easy way out for those guys because they don't have a lot of authority, so it's just one way to shift it onto somebody else." The supervisor has requested the minutes of the Dec. 2 ACC meeting, at which the county was chided for continuing to allow growth in a community with no water. He intends to respond to the commission in writing.

"It's one thing if we were just building and approving, but any water improvement district has to prove its water sources to supply their subdivision, and every one of them has done that," Christensen said. "There's never been a shortage in any one of those districts. Why? Because they've developed an adequate supply of water to provide for that."

Christensen was referring to four Pine subdivisions -- Portals 4, Solitude Trails, Solitude Pines and Strawberry Hollow. Each was allowed to form its own water district.

The supervisor blamed Brooke Utilities, which owns Pine Water Company, for creating the current crisis by not spending the money necessary to improve the system.

"Brooke Utilities is trying to shift this to somebody else for undercapitalizing their own water company," Christensen said.

What's more, he said the county has helped Brooke out on several occasions by supplying the company with water and has never received so much as a thank you.

"We hauled water in there for (Bob Hardcastle, president of Brooke Utilities) out of Strawberry Hollow, which he tried to sue us over and lost," Christensen said.

Comparing Brooke's actions to continuing to ride a horse after its gone lame, Christensen said the company needs to invest in the system.

"The public good is that (Hardcastle) spend $10 or $12 million on the water system up there and put in the right size piping and the number of wells that's necessary and do the research," Christensen said. "He doesn't join the water alliance and participate in that. He's not involved with the Bureau of Reclamation in the study areas. He doesn't put a dime into anything at all in respect to studies or research or development."

Hardcastle disagreed, saying that sinking that kind of money into the Pine system would send rates skyrocketing.

"Ron Christensen believes as much as $20 million needs to be spent developing alternative water supplies, and the result of this investment means that seasonal water rates could be $500 a month or more for some customers," Hardcastle said.

There is no question, he added, that the county has exacerbated the situation.

"The Pine population has been allowed for decades to outgrow the summertime water supply," he said. "This condition results from poor planning and excessive pro-growth plans controlled by Gila County."

Brooke Utilities officials believe the county is simply trying to circumvent moratoriums and limitations imposed by the Corporation Commission when it approves new subdivisions with their own water districts.

"It's an end run around the moratorium and Brooke Utilities is very interested in calling a spade a spade," a Brooke spokesperson said.

"The county is working directly against us by punching holes in the same place we are... Instead of looking at the quality of life for people who have lived here forever, they're looking at their tax base."

Meanwhile, Murphy said the Roundup story was fair and reflected what happened at the Dec. 2 meeting.

"I stand by my comments, and I understand how the county might have been -- for lack of a better word -- tweaked by them," Murphy said.

"The commissioners were calling for cooperation and a regional solution, and it's still true that notably absent from the meeting were representatives from the county, and I think their perspective would be welcome."

Murphy also disagreed with Christensen's assessment that the commission is trying to shift the problem to somebody else.

"As with any governmental agency, sometimes it comes to trying to balance the equities -- and I think that's what the commission is trying to do," she said. "We are addressing the engineering and the investment issue, we did order the company to file a rate case, ... we ordered the company to file an engineering plan, we addressed the contingency plan. But what we can't do is tread on individual people's property rights."

Paul Walker, advisor to Commissioner Marc Spitzer, objected to Christensen's charge that the ACC was taking the easy way out.

"Commissioner Spitzer and the entire commission would take umbrage with that statement," Walker said. "The commission on its own volition went to Pine, sat down with over 400 people and talked about these problems when they started. We've held numerous meetings, both in Pine and Phoenix. We've talked with the parties, with the experts, with the homeowners, with the real estate community, trying very hard to find a long-term solution that's in the broad public interest. There is no way that's the easy way out."

The simple truth, according to Walker is that there is no water.

"In 1995, the Department of Water Resources did an extensive survey of the groundwater issues in Pine and the Mogollon Rim area, and their conclusions were that there is no aquifer, there is no reliable source of long-term water, and that this area was going to be plagued with water problems for the foreseeable future. It simply doesn't have water and we can't get past that fact."

Given this reality, both Murphy and Walker again emphasized the need for all concerned parties to work on a regional solution.

"If the water isn't there because of geological or meteorological reasons, then people need to work together on some sort of solution," Murphy said.

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