Pine, Strawberry Water Buyout -- Part Declaration, Part Family Feud

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The Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District has made it official: The district will offer water magnate Robert Hardcastle $2.17 million for the water facilities that two struggling communities so desperately need.

Pine resident and Realtor Ray Pugel drew cheers at the meeting last week by declaring July 3 "Water Independence Day." Maybe.

But maybe it's more like the day a 16-year-old kid with great promise and no money leaves home, after a bitter argument on principle with his harsh father.

Or maybe it's really more like a particularly uncomfortable episode of family feud. Either way, it's a rough road ahead -- but a necessary journey.

The breach between Brooke Utilities and the board has been a long time coming. It played out most visibly in the recent recall election and the odd debate about the K2 well, which was like some strange family fury about silverware that really turns on issue of control and trust and puckering of old scars.

Hardcastle's failure to invest in the company he bought a decade ago and his failure to aggressively seek an adequate source of water brought him to this point.

Pine and Strawberry have been crippled by the lack of an affordable and reliable water source. The Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates private water providers, imposed a building moratorium when it became clear that the area's shallow wells could not support current development -- much less future homes.

Anyone who has shopped for a house in the Rim Country has been cautioned against investing in Pine and Strawberry because the community has "water problems." Clearly, the lack of a secure water supply has cast a long shadow.

As a decade of drought worsened, homeowners found themselves paying huge water bills as Hardcastle pumped water out of wells in Star Valley, trucked it up the hill to Pine and sold it to trapped homeowners.

Hardcastle seemed content to sell water to his captive audience indefinitely, letting the pipes and pumps slowly deteriorate and maintaining a disdainful silence.

But then others demonstrated a deeper water table exists that can likely supply the area's minimum needs at a reasonable cost. It is ironic, but perhaps typical of a family feud that has festered into irrationality, that it was Hardcastle's attempt to drill a well that would finally tap that long-term water source that caused the final rupture.

Clearly, Brooke Utilities will fight the takeover, in order to get the best possible price for Hardcastle's investment. The company has every right to insist on a fair price -- and the government's sobering power to condemn and force the sale of private property should be used with restraint and justice. But Brooke has already shown a willingness to fight a takeover in every trench over in Star Valley, where the town has launched condemnation procedures. In that case, the company's failure to invest in infrastructure is less glaring, but still noteworthy.

In Pine and Strawberry, the company refused to cooperate with an appraiser hired by the district. That makes it hard to have full confidence in the estimate that suggested the value of the company's infrastructure had deteriorated from more than $7 million to just over $2 million. However, the visible decay, the use of plastic pipes and other signs underscore the district's complaints that it must seize control of its water destiny. Fortunately, the law puts the responsibility for determining the full value of the company in the hands of the courts -- who we hope will give Brooke Utilities a fair and reasonable price.

Of course, gathering the courage to leave home in the face of abuse is only the beginning of the struggle. And, come to think of it, declaring independence was the easy part. Valley Forge lay ahead.

No doubt, the current district board members will face long days, tough decisions and frequent crossfires as they take action to secure the area's future. They'll make mistakes, earn enemies and puzzle friends, but in the end we trust they'll do what they must in the interests of the communities they've pledged to serve.

And residents must play their own vital roles. We suspect that by the time the dust settles and the district buys out Brooke, upgrades the dilapidated infrastructure and invests in wells that can reach that deeper water table, residents will find themselves paying significantly higher monthly bills. But it's still better than summer water hauling -- and a moratorium that smothers economic growth.

So now that the district has signed the declaration and reaped the easy cheers, it's time to face into the wind and start walking.

It's a long road ahead.

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