(This is the first in a bi-weekly series featuring in-depth interviews with the people who impact the Rim country's water situation.)
Pine water guru John Breninger believes Salt River Project has designs on all the water in Arizona.
Breninger also questioned the wisdom of pursuing the Blue Ridge Reservoir as a new source of water for the Rim country, and was critical of Gila County District 1 Supervisor Ron Christensen's motives in dissolving the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District.
Breninger, a member of PSWID and a driving force behind the recent hydrogeologic study that identified where to drill to tap into a large regional aquifer, has had a passion for water for 25 years.
A retired engineer who specialized in project and program management, Breninger has a background of dealing with difficult problems -- a set of skills he decided to apply to the issue of water.
Recently returned from the Arizona Hydrological Society Symposium, an annual event he has attended since 1995, Breninger was especially excited about a presentation on the R-aquifer, the most important aquifer system in northern Arizona and the very same aquifer identified in the PSWID study.
"Its significance is that it is huge, and contrary to Salt River Project's claim that they are the only ones that use that water, it has been supplying a lot of people water for a long time," he said. "Paulden and Sedona have been relying on it as their principle source of water for a long time."
Breninger criticized SRP's tactics on several fronts as water supplies become tight due to the ongoing drought.
"All water comes from the sky and hits the ground and SRP has always been satisfied taking surface water runoff -- except now they're running out of water," he said.
SRP reasons that wells dry up the springs that feed the rivers that fill their dams. Besides being difficult to prove, a major problem with this logic is that it runs contrary to Arizona water law, Breninger said.
"The law has never taken that giant step," he said. "In fact, Arizona law deliberately disconnected surface water from groundwater in 1980."
But SRP continues to press its argument on several fronts.
"What has law got to do with SRP -- that's the crux of the issue," Breninger said. "They write their own law; that's really what they're in the business of doing. Then they appear at community (meetings) dealing with water and say you've got to protect the downstream rights of water users that might be affected. These are all non-legal terms, but they panic the heck out of people."
SRP also wages its fight in the courtroom, he said.
"Now they're going to the next step," he said. "Now they're saying, ‘All groundwater feeds our sources of supply. Therefore we must control that.' What SRP does has nothing to do with state law, and most of the time (it has nothing to do) with federal law -- or any law. They take people to court over things that are in their rules, that never showed up in law anywhere. They write the rules on a daily basis."
Blue Ridge water
Breninger also tempered the enthusiasm recently expressed by participants in the water study sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation regarding water from Blue Ridge Reservoir.
Located on top of the Mogollon Rim near Clint's Well, the reservoir is currently not being used because its owner, Phelps-Dodge, has found a cheaper source of water for its mining operations.
"(Blue Ridge) is not a long-term, reliable supply of water," Breninger said. "There is a maximum of 3,900 acre feet that can be appropriated to communities under the Rim, and that's only if the dam overflows the spillways. The long-term projection for Pine and Strawberry is an additional 5,200 acre feet by the year 2050, so 3,900 acre feet doesn't even fulfill that requirement. It could be considered a supplement of some kind, but an erratic one at best because when you need it most is when it wouldn't be available."
Demise of water district
Breninger also questioned Christensen's motives in dissolving the PSWID.
The Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District is different from the four domestic water improvement districts in the Pine-Strawberry area which sell water to individual subdivisions. Under its charter, the district is charged only with finding a long-term, reliable water supply for the two communities.
The board was recently dissolved by the board of supervisors when PSWID board chairperson Mary Lou Myers and board member Marvin Mortensen resigned, leaving only Breninger and Betty Gooder on the board. Former board members Bill Johnson and Gary Hezel resigned several months ago, leaving the board with a bare quorum of four.
Christensen said he felt it was better to wipe the slate clean.
"Replacing one board member is one thing, but replacing as many as you have here you might as well have an election," he said. County Manager John Nelson was appointed interim administrator until a new board can be elected.
While Christensen said the board's work will continue, Breninger doesn't see how.
"The current status affects what we're trying to do," he said. "It stops us cold."
Breninger says he feels the real motive was to get rid of him.
The ‘unspoken thing'
Finally, Breninger touched on what he calls "the unspoken thing."
"For every producing well in Pine and Strawberry, there is one or more dry holes that are draining water," he said. "In 1997, I counted 322 registered wells. Of those, 168 have some kind of production. All the rest are still holes in the ground and are not being used because they are dry.
"They drain water for the same reason they collect water. Water flows in from surrounding soil and rock."
By plugging the wells, a process required by law and under the jurisdiction of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, dry wells no longer drain water. But politics get involved, according to Breninger.
"Nobody wants to pour money down a hole, so it doesn't get done," he said. "Plugging all those holes would never solve the problem, but it might improve the situation by 10, 20, 50 percent. Who knows how much?"