Repeated water rationing and the cutoff of customers for using too much water in Mesa del Caballo have triggered a slew of complaints to the Arizona Corporation Commission, which has promised to investigate the actions of Brooke Utilities.
Twice in three weeks, residents have lived through Stage 5 restrictions, which imposes heavy fines for any non-essential use of water — including shutdowns for people who use too much.
On Thursday, the conservation level had dropped to Stage 3, as the private water company reportedly hauled reportedly hauled water from Gisela sometime during the week.
Residents say they feel their small community has become a “police state” with “water Nazis” watching every drop of water, waiting with disconnection notices in hand.
Brooke Spokesman Myndi Brogdon said she had been instructed to make no comment on any issue to any newspaper.
Arizona Corporation Commission Chairman Kristin Mayes said the board that regulates utilities has received multiple complaints about Brooke’s actions. Residents have complained wildly inaccurate meter readings have prompted water cutoffs. Residents have also complained they have been cut off without receiving the required written notice.
“We are definitely investigating it,” said Mayes. “A formal investigation would take a vote of the commissioners and we haven’t had a chance to do that, but we’ll look into that next week.”
Mayes said company officials have said the water restrictions were imposed because of increased use and dropping supply, perhaps because of an increase in full-time residents in the 400-home community this summer.
But that doesn’t excuse repeatedly running out of water, said Mayes.
“Whatever the reason is, the bottom line is the company has to provide for its customers. So the first question I ask is, what additional storage or well capacity does the company need to have and what are they doing to get it.”
Caballo Club formed
At least two separate movements are coalescing to gain water freedom. The community’s version of a homeowner’s association, the Caballo Club, has appointed three people to head a water committee for exploring possible solutions. Two members, Randy Norman and Ed Schwebel, say they want to increase communication with Brooke Utilities and work toward securing a share of Blue Ridge water. The men say they do not want an adversarial relationship with the utility company. They add that Brooke has ignored attempts at discussion.
Payson’s Blue Ridge Pipeline will pass right by the community, but only water providers can negotiate with Salt River Project and Payson for a share of the 500 acre feet of water reserved by federal law for water users in Northern Gila County other than Payson. Brooke utilities has expressed interest in contracting for that water, but many residents have expressed doubts about whether the company will follow through.
Many residents this week were complaining of poor communications and arbitrary actions by the water company.
Stephen Gehring, who owns Houston Mesa General Store, is building his case against Brooke Utilities for shutting his water off for what he says is no reason. He denies watering plants outside, washing his car, or engaging in activities banned by elevated conservation levels.
“It was arbitrary and capricious on their part,” he said, calling the company “water Nazis.”
Gehring is preparing a roughly 13-page packet of information for the Arizona Corporation Commission, and he says he’ll include damning information from former employees of Brooke Utilities that alleges leaks in the system which allow air to register on the meters. Gehring says this means residents appear to be using excessive amounts of water due to an error by the water meters.
Gehring speculates Brooke Utility cut off his water in retribution after he talked to a local newspaper. Thirty other residents also had their water shut-off for no reason — according to Gehring.
Brooke Utilities declined to comment on any of the allegations.
In an earlier interview, Brogdon said water use had increased, triggering the shift to stage five restrictions and water hauling. However, she did not provide any water use figures to support her statement. She said the company has difficulty finding well sites in the community, since drinking water wells have to be a certain distance for any septic system and all the houses rely on septic tanks.
Brooke Utilities disconnected Gehring’s water Monday during a Stage 5 conservation level. He has since bathed in the nearby East Verde River because he cannot afford the $600 reconnection fee.
Monday, Brooke Utilities sent an e-mail to residents, alerting them of the “unfortunate responsibility” which required the company to disconnect water service to some customers.
“This action was not taken lightly and only after careful consideration,” the e-mail read.
Arizona Corporation Commission rules require written notification before cutting off a customer for violation of water restrictions during a Stage 5 alert.
Schwebel said that earlier this summer sprinklers accidentally turned on at a property he owns, but in which he does not live. A Brooke Utilities employee was driving around, looking for conservation violators, and eventually turned off his water.
“She said you’re not supposed to be watering,” Schwebel said. He told her, “If I was going to break the rule, I’d water at midnight.”
Through the newly formed water committee, Schwebel and Norman will explore long-term options. They fear Brooke will not work to gain a portion of the 500 acre feet of Blue Ridge Pipeline water available for communities outside of Payson.
Access to Blue Ridge water
Gehring also wants the community to gain access to Blue Ridge water. However, he says the company is too cheap to build a filtration system.
“They don’t care; they’re going to do the minimum,” Gehring said.
Residents formed the water committee after they heard at a meeting that communities wanting a part of Blue Ridge water need to get in line within the next two years.
The Normans say perhaps targeted reductions could be developed so residents have an identifiable goal.
“Conservation is a part of (the final picture),” said Norman.
Brooke pays dearly when the community runs out of water and it has to haul water in from other wells it owns, because the Corporation Commission hasn’t given it permission to impose a water hauling surcharge – as it has in Pine and Strawberry. As a result, the company must haul water, but charge the normal rate. During a recent water shortage in Pine, the company hauled water from its wells in Star Valley. But Star Valley then banned heavy hauling trucks on the roads leading to Brooke’s well. As a result, this time Brooke is reportedly hauling water from Gisela, which also has water problems.
“It’s a monopoly,” said Schwebel. “We can’t choose. We don’t have another alternative We’re nearly held hostage by all of this. It feels like a police state.”
Mayes said “It’s just not acceptable to be subject to stage five curtailment twice in one month – that is really extraordinary. It’s cause for concern.”
She said the investigation could result in fines for the company, imposition of a building moratorium like the one in effect in Pine and even cancellation of the company’s monopoly right to provide water service in the community.