Man Vs. Utility: Pine Water, Part 3

What happens now?

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If Pine and Strawberry residents are to ever see water from a new well discovered in September, it might mean the formation of a domestic water improvement district. That district would then acquire a local utility that now holds a regulated monopoly on the service area.

At least, that is the opinion of hydrogeologist Mike Ploughe.

"Public water companies are in it to provide the public with high-quality service in the best interest of the public," Ploughe said.

"Private water companies are in it to make money."

Local real estate agent Ray Pugel, a co-owner of the recently discovered well, said a public water company would also allow residents to "control their own destiny, improve the quality of their lives and enjoy water independence."

If Pine-Strawberry residents do decide to form their own district and acquire the Pine Water Company -- which now controls the water system -- Pugel would share the well water.

"I'd sell the water, at a fair market price, directly to the people of Pine," Pugel said.

Pugel has said he prefers not to sell the water to PWC, owned by Robert Hardcastle and parent corporation Brooke Utilities, because the company has a long history of mismanagement.

He said the utility company is responsible for Pine water shortages and for the area currently being under water restrictions and a connection moratorium imposed by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC).

Ploughe has said the private water company has failed because it "hasn't invested in infrastructure."

Hardcastle did not respond to specific questions about those allegations, but issued this statement:

"Brooke Utilities, Inc. is always interested in any excess water made available in Pine. We would be happy to enter negotiations with any developer or well owner that could provide excess water to the community of Pine.

"We have no information about specific wells and their ability to produce, it would be wrong of us to speculate."

Pugel said he has not completely ruled out selling water to PWC, but if a deal can't be struck to form a water company or find another way to share the water, he would use it for proposed building projects in the area.

The well is located in a vacant field about 100 yards south of the Pine Market.

As valuable as the water would be in solving some of Pine's problems, Pugel and well co-owner Robert Randall cannot now share it because they are handcuffed by a certificate of Convenience and Necessity (CC&N), which PWC holds.

A CC&N is a state-issued permit that defines the terms and territory under which utilities can operate.

The CC&N also prevents Pugel and Randall from offering water service in Pine and Strawberry on their own.

Pugel filed a complaint in July 2006 with the ACC to withdraw his land from the PWC's water service area. Hardcastle has disputed Pugel's claim.

With the future availability of the newly-found Pine well water in a legal limbo, the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District is considering contracting with Hardcastle to drill a separate well at a reported cost of $300,000.

"The board is interested in finding new water as fast as possible and as cost-effective as possible," board water development committee chairman Wes Suhr said.

A decision on the contract could be made in the coming weeks.

Pugel said he opposes giving the money to Hardcastle for exploration.

"We should tell him, ‘Show me the water,' and then he can have the money," Pugel said. "What he is doing is like McDonald's asking a customer for money to go buy hamburger meat so they can sell the customer a hamburger."

While the water debate rages, some in Pine and Strawberry claim there is only one sure way to ensure faucets in the Rim Country never again run dry -- the formation of a public water utility.

"That appears to be the answer," Ploughe said.

See related story:

Who really owns the water? (Oct. 13)

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