The three members of the Arizona Corporation Commission were among the more than 1,000 people who packed the Pine-Strawberry Elementary School Gym Tuesday morning to discuss the water crisis in Pine.
About 800 of the town's water customers have been without water for days at a time. Those who do have water are required to reduce their use by 50 percent and eliminate any outside watering. In the six years that Brooke Utilities has operated the Pine Water System, this is the fifth year water customers have had to alter their lifestyles and adjust to shortages and outages.
Commissioners Jim Irvin, Bill Mundell and Marc Spitzer along with Robert Hardcastle, president of Brooke Utilities sat for five hours, listening to hundreds of angry residents.
Also on hand were officials from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, Arizona Department of Water Resources, Arizona Department of Health Services, Gila County Division of Health and Human Services, and the Gila County Attorney's Office to make statements and answer questions.
"This is the worst drought our state has seen since the 1880s, according to the records of Salt River Project," Mundell said.
The first recorded water problems in Pine date back to 1954, according to Greg Wallace of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
The meeting followed an emergency gathering of the commissioners held Monday, July 8 in Phoenix, and was instigated by Pine residents' e-mails and telephone calls to Commissioner Irvin. During that initial meeting, the commissioners issued a verbal directive to Brooke Utilities to immediately commence hauling water to the drought-stricken community.
Asked when the hauling would begin, Hardcastle explained the process involved in locating water and a tanker.
"That is all well and good," Irvin interrupted. "When the hell are you going to begin hauling water to these people?"
"Saturday morning," Hardcastle said. He intends to haul water around the clock through this weekend and reassess the hauling needs Monday.
About 50 people had the opportunity to address the commission and Hardcastle. Questions about water quality, water bills, water availability, water storage and more were asked and noted.
The most common water-customer complaint was communication or the lack of it.
Brooke Utilities sends out system updates and conservation notices via e-mail and provides customers a toll-free number, but as many residents pointed out, that system is not working well. Many speakers criticized the call center in California for its lack of updated information and the impersonal attitude of its operators. Still others complained that they do not have e-mail or did not know e-mail was available as a Brooke Utilities customer-service option.
"You may have a communication problem between Bakersfield and Pine," Irvin said to Hardcastle. "It is incumbent upon you to fix that leak."
Resident Ron Merkley spearheaded the campaign to get the commissioners to Pine. At the Monday meeting, a four-page letter from Merkley was read into the record posing a myriad of questions about the operation of the water utility to the commission.
Irvin assured the community that, when determined, answers would be passed on to the residents. (At that time, they will also be published in the Roundup.)
Residents asked about the pipeline that runs between Pine and Strawberry, essentially making the two systems one causing some to wonder why Strawberry residents were not being asked to conserve.
Hardcastle assured the community that he would not drain one area to water another, and apologized to the community for the water situation at hand.
"As a community that has a common water problem, we have not done a good job," he said.
As of Tuesday, coincidentally the day after the ACC meeting in Phoenix, all residents in Pine had water a point not missed by the commissioners.
"We are going to have to take a new look at the Pine Water System and how it is operated," Irvin said. "There is a disconnect in what he says he is going to do and what he is doing. You have made your point ..."
His colleagues agreed.
"This matter is not settled and will continue to be investigated," Mundell said.
This report is part of an ongoing series designed to address and unravel the complex water issues facing the Pine-Strawberry community.