With higher water rates taking effect this month, Pine Water Company President Robert Hardcastle agreed to answer a set of questions submitted by the Roundup.
The ACC granted Pine Water Company an annual revenue increase of 11.81 percent. Other highlights of the ACC's decision:
- A requirement that Pine Water Company provide a detailed plan for reducing water loss to less than 10 percent;
- A requirement that the company establish a 24-hour local telephone number for reporting leaks and outages;
- A directive to the ACC staff to prepare a report within three months that determines whether a moratorium on new hookups should be instituted.
- A requirement that the Company "participate in all appropriate efforts to discover and implement a regional approach to solving water shortage problems ..."
Here are the Roundup's questions and the answers from Hardcastle through his Pine representative Myndi Brogdon:
(Note: Rim country communities serviced by Pine Water Company parent Brooke Utilities include Deer Creek, East Verde Park, Flowing Springs, Geronimo Estates, Mesa del Caballo, Pine, Star Valley, Strawberry, Tonto Basin and Whispering Pines.)
Q). Does the recent settlement provide Pine Water Company the revenue necessary to reduce water loss and maintain the system in good repair?
A). Yes, and yet we have always focused on both.
We strive to maintain the infrastructure in Pine, as well as all of our water companies, in the best possible condition. It is important to remember that when Brooke Utilities bought the water companies in 1996 they were in serious disrepair. Lots of time and money was spent to bring the systems to an acceptable level. This said, we know it can be better and we will continue to do so.
The national and Arizona average for acceptable water loss is 15 percent or less. Pine Water Company's water loss in 2002 (the rate case test year) was 12.6 percent. We are now examining every aspect of water loss to bring that in under 10 percent at the direction of the ACC. While we agree that every drop counts, we believe, given where we started eight years ago, that our water loss alone shows the dramatic improvements we have made to the system.
Q). Does Brooke Utilities have any plans to better inform its customers about the importance of water conservation?
A). Yes. Water conservation is always important. We live in a desert state and water is an important resource. Making the most of water use is something most of our customers have already done. The average daily consumption in the Pine area is less than half that of, say, the typical Valley customer. (Besides) conservation, we'd like to urge people to take an active role in local, county and state government discussions about conservation and water issues. This is as important as conservation in our eyes.
Q). Did (town of Payson hydrologist) Mike Ploughe dispute Brooke's theory that if we don't use the water it is gone forever at a recent meeting of the group participating in the Bureau of Reclamation study?
A). You will have to ask Mike about his ideas about the hydrogeology of the area. In our eight years of study, reading studies and drilling wells, we have found a fractured rock subsurface that allows the water to move through the area. We see the resource, the water, moving on down the road if it is not captured.
(Ploughe's response: "I don't think that makes sense in arguing against conservation at all. Groundwater does not flow like a river. It's a gradual thing, and sometimes it can take thousands of years to move several feet.")
Q). How does Brooke Utilities feel about the county's recent approval of a new RV park in Pine?
A). I understand that this is not a final approval, and yet it appears to be in conflict with Gila County's Resolution #04-06-02 requesting the Gila County Planning and Zoning Commission "adopt new ordinances and amend existing ordinances in order to promote water conservation and wise water usage." I also understand property owners' rights. It's a very tough issue and it is time for some political leadership that will be willing to address the growth issue in the Pine area until a water solution is found.
Q). Are there any plans to develop new water sources for Pine, or do you see it as a hopeless cause?
A). Pine is not hopeless, but it is a very difficult problem. Recently, Pine explored for water at two different sites in Strawberry. One well was uneconomical and the second well appears to be attractive. More will be known after the 72-hour pumping test is completed. Further, the people of Pine need to participate in this issue by helping the new Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District board of directors identify all possible water source alternatives.
Q). What improvements are you making in the areas of customer service and your call center as a result of the rate case settlement?
A). Fortunately in this case, all the Rim (country) systems will benefit from the improved customer service. We contract out our call center services. It's far more cost-effective for us and, in the end, our customers. These folks are thoroughly trained on our system and are being re-trained even as we speak. (800) 270-6084 is always the customer's best way to contact Brooke about any issue.
Q). Do you comply with state and federal requirements regarding water testing and reporting to customers?
A). Always have and always will.
Q). Is a new hookup moratorium inevitable in Pine?
A). The ACC commissioners took a very bold step (several years ago) allowing as many as 25 meters to be installed per month. They concluded that not nearly that much demand existed in the community. They were right, as an average of two or three new meters are actually installed monthly. The commissioners took this extraordinary step to prevent Gila County from over reaching in its desire to create more and more water improvement districts. The ACC Staff is currently reviewing this prior decision to determine if an amended moratorium is now appropriate.
Q). Is part of the problem that people don't appreciate the value of water, say, compared to electricity, because water is so cheap?
A). I think people do appreciate water, especially when they turn on the tap and it's not running. But the cost of water in comparison to other utilities is cheap. Heck, your cable bill is likely higher than your water bill. The problem is not people appreciating water; it's more that there are so many fractions (sic) of thought, and the perception that if you think differently then you are the enemy. I think if a fair and reasonable plan is presented to the customer and/or the public, they can accept it -- even if it includes a higher price tag.
Q). If the world is running out of fresh water, what do you see as the answer if not conservation?
A). The problem isn't that the world is running out of water. The problem is, just like here in Pine and Strawberry, moving water from a place of prominence to a place of requirement. Water is the most expensive natural resource of all to move from one place to another. That is the question that the people of Pine and Strawberry now face. When is the cost of water too much? It is a difficult question.
Q). One local water authority said no community can live off groundwater indefinitely.
A). It depends on if and how the groundwater is being recharged, and how the community is using that resource. The Earth has been very kind to us and if we pay attention we can learn from her regeneration abilities.
Q). Any other comments or observations?
A). People need to visualize how big of an effect the unhealthy forest that surrounds us has on our groundwater. Not only is it an immediate fire threat, but it is quite literally sucking us dry. More pressure to the right places on clearing the brush will have a dramatic effect on the restoration of ground and surface water. Those thirsty trees, and scrub are as devastating to our groundwater supply as the drought. This is just one more component of the water problem and identifying these can lead to solutions, but there is no magic bullet and we certainly have no magic wand. We want to work with the community and its leaders to move forward in addressing this problem.