Pine Water Customers Thirsting For Answers

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When Jim Dancho goes to get a glass of water, it's hit or miss.

When Aggie Hansen takes a shower, there may not be enough to rinse her hair; and Doug Sawyer has not had enough water to flush his toilet in 10 days.

These Pine residents are customers of Brooke Utilities and they're upset that turning on the faucet has become a guessing game.

Sunday night in a matter of 30 minutes, five people filled water jugs from the 5,000-gallon water tanker provided by Gila County Emergency Services, stationed at the corner of Hardscrabble Mesa Road and Highway 87. The 2,000-gallon tanker provided by Brooke stands empty.

The subdivisions hit the hardest are in the southern sections of Pine.

"South Pine represents an area of about 800 connections. Some or most of these customers have experienced water services interruptions over the last several days," Robert Hardcastle, president of Brooke Utilities said Monday.

Hundreds of residents in Cool Pines, Strawberry Mountain Shadows I and II, Woodland Heights and Pine Creek I have reported that they have been without water off and on since June 23 when Brooke Utilities posted Stage 5 water conservation guidelines.

Monday morning, water storage in Pine was reported at 95,000 gallons or 11 percent of capacity. Water customers calling Brooke Utilities on their toll-free customer service number are not getting satisfactory results. The calls are answered by a call-center in California.

Frustrated and angry, these water customers have begun circulating a petition requesting a meeting with the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Sawyer and his wife, Elsie, have been water customers for 35 years in Pine. One of his chief complaints, echoed by other residents, is that other subdivisions in Pine that are on the system have water while they do not.

There is a manual process that sends water to subdivisions alternately, Hardcastle said. But homes in the higher elevations are consistently the ones doing without, Sawyer and others complain. Other concerns include the lack of conservation requirements in Strawberry.

"We are on Stage Five and they aren't even on Stage One in Strawberry," Sawyer said.

While Brooke Utilities has not formally posted conservation signage in Strawberry, Hardcastle has been using e-mail to urge water customers there to conserve.

"We want to avoid any impact on Strawberry if all possible," Hardcastle said.

Water storage in Strawberry has hovered around the 50-percent mark, or about 125,000 gallons during this drought, a number that Hardcastle said makes him comfortable, except for the unknown demand that can occur on holiday weekends.

"Residents of Strawberry should reduce indoor use by at least 50 percent of their indoor use and use no more outside water than is absolutely necessary."

These are the same guidelines as are now mandatory in Pine under a Stage Five.

Hardcastle stresses that conservation is the key.

"Customer conservation is always the key ingredient," he said. "Unfortunately, we are well aware of numerous customers in Pine and Strawberry that have made no attempt to conserve."

Friday, a group of local residents met with Joan Ruf of the Arizona Corporation Commission Utilities Division. Ruf examined several homes without water or water pressure. She also spent some time looking at the water storage tanks in Pine and Strawberry, Sawyer said.

Owner Tom Weeks of Uncle Tom's Texaco has opted not to use any Brooke Utilities water during this crisis.

"I am hooked on to both systems," Weeks said. He also runs an ice making business in the Pine location. Weeks can purchase water from Pine Water Users Association or Brooke Utilities.

"I turned off (the connection with) Brooke Utilities," Weeks said. "I am not using it when they cannot keep up with demand."

Pine Water Users Association is a small water district with a majority of its customers located right on Highway 87 in Pine. The water rights in this district stay with the property owners of this small strip and were originally secured in the late 1800s by the pioneering families who settled the area. PWUA acquires its water from Pine Creek and is restricted by law from selling or giving water to the stricken areas in Pine. The surface water rights of Pine Creek belong to the Salt River Project and the PWUA has a grandfathered claim to a small portion of that water.

Three other small water districts not affected by the Brooke Utilities shortage are the subdivisions of Portal IV, Solitude Trails and Strawberry Hollow. These subdivisions drilled wells and have been allowed to supply the customers in those specific subdivisions.

As for the rest of Pine, those not on a private well are at the mercy of Brooke Utilities. To date, Brooke Utilities has not hauled any water in, although Hardcastle said he is looking into that and other alternatives.

Gila County is doing what it can, District One Supervisor Ron Christensen said. Gila County Emergency Services supplied the 5,000-gallon tanker filled with potable water under Christensen's direction, but cannot put that water into the system, he said.

Christensen said he is concerned about how the water company plans to address the chronic shortage in the future.

"(Customers') efforts to conserve will give the pumps an opportunity to recover," Christensen said. "But this is the same old problem we have had. Basically the water company has not developed any deep wells that I know of. They need to do that. If they are not willing, they then should be looked at as to whether they are the company that should be there."

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