Brooke Claims County Wants To Circumvent Acc

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Members of the Arizona Corporation Commission will be at the Pine-Strawberry Elementary School at 6:30 p.m. Monday for a public comment hearing on a moratorium on new water hookups recommended by commission staff.

Commissioner Kristin Mayes said the ACC considers the issue most serious.

"I would predict all five commissioners will be (at the Pine hearing)," Mayes said. "No matter what the commission does regarding a hookup moratorium, it's clear that we believe something has to be done, and that this is an issue that's going to occupy our attention for awhile."

Mayes said a hookup moratorium is an extreme measure.

"This is going to be closely watched by the rest of the state," she said. "It's not unprecedented, but it's extremely unusual, and I think it speaks to the fact that we all recognize that we're in a serious drought and we have to face that."

The Pine hearing is preparatory to a hearing in Phoenix Feb. 14 to determine whether to accept the ACC staff recommendation.

In its report, issued Nov. 19, the staff depicts a water supply already overtaxed by existing customers.

"Staff has determined that the Pine Water's 19-well production source could adequately serve up to 555 service connections during the peak month," the report says. "During the peak month, Pine Water had 1,992 active accounts, consisting of 1,752 accounts that used water and 240 accounts that did not use water."

The report was required as part of the Pine Water Company rate case settlement reached in August. In testimony responding to that report, Robert Hardcastle, president of Pine Water Company parent Brooke Utilities, argued that imposing a moratorium would only allow Gila County to circumvent the commission in its pursuit of growth.

"To the extent that there is a demand for residential and commercial growth in the area, if (Pine Water Company) does not serve those customers, someone else will be using the same water supplies we utilize to serve our existing customers," Hardcastle said. "Consequently, I believe it is better for the commission and company to work together to manage growth ... rather than ceding control to Gila County and the local real estate and development community."

In his testimony, Hardcastle was critical of Gila County's motives.

"It is no secret to the commission that for some time now, Gila County has desired to and taken steps towards expanding the population in this portion of the county despite the water supply deficiencies," he said. "Whether the local real estate community that supports this effort is the reason for the county's desire to expand the population or whether the county, desirous of increasing its tax base, has expressed a desire that has spawned the local real estate community, I really cannot say."

Pine Water lost in a lawsuit against Gila County several years ago, challenging the county's right to allow the formation of the Strawberry Hollow Domestic Water Improvement District. Such districts are not under the jurisdiction of the ACC.

"Obviously, a number of separate water providers working independently poses a greater threat to the region's limited water supplies than one provider serving all of the customers in the area and well aware of the needs to manage limited water supplies on a regional basis," Hardcastle said.

Mayes encouraged residents to attend the Monday hearing and said related issues like the prohibitive cost of getting Blue Ridge Reservoir water to Pine are appropriate topics of discussion.

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