A sharp drop in well output forced water rationing in Mesa del Caballo this summer, Brooke Utilities President Robert Hardcastle told community representatives this week in a conciliatory, three-hour meeting.
A promise to improve communications and revise the enforcement of water restrictions by the normally reclusive Hardcastle helped dampen the red-hot anger of members of a community upset by repeated water rationing and the cutoff of water to people deemed to be using too much.
“I wanted to make sure we can establish some kind of communication and he was all for that,” said Ed Schwebel, one of a handful of residents who has taken the lead in seeking solutions to the community’s worsening water water shortages.
The community on Monday went to a Stage 3 water alert, which discourages outdoor water use but doesn’t impose penalties for violations.
In the meantime, Brooke Utilities also submitted to the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) a written response to complaints about the water rationing and customer cutoffs, said ACC spokeswoman Rebecca Wilder.
The commission board had asked for the written response from Brooke to about 15 complaints, with an explanation for the repeated jump to Stage 5 conservation levels, which forbid most outdoor use of water. Customers who use too much water during such an alert can have their water shut off, then must pay $600 to reconnect.
ACC Chairman Kris Mayes has said repeatedly she can think of no acceptable excuse for failing to provide enough water for the residents of the community where Brooke Utilities has the exclusive right to sell water.
Wilder said the commissioners would go over Brooke’s response in a staff meeting this week before deciding whether to launch a formal investigation, which could result in anything from no action to the revocation of the private water company’s certificate to sell water in the 400-home community.
However, Hardcastle seemed to have answered many of the homeowners’ questions in a long meeting with the people designated to represent the community in a recent, overflow meeting.
Schwebel said the group will continue to look into forming a water improvement district, but would rather work with the company — at least in the short term. “We’re pursuing (a water improvement district), but not aggressively pursuing it,” he said.
Schwebel said Hardcastle indicated that the almost non-existent monsoon season this year had contributed to a 73 percent drop in the output of the wells serving the small, unincorporated community just off Houston Mesa Road.
“Last year we had 10 inches (at this point), but this year we’ve had maybe three-tenths of an inch,” said Schwebel.
Brooke Utilities representatives have refused to speak to the press about the problems in the community. However, before the news blackout on the company’s side, representatives had mostly blamed the shortages on an increase in usage, compounded by a bone dry monsoon that prompted many residents to water their landscaping.
However, Schwebel cited figures suggesting that water use in the community in July dropped nearly 6 percent from last year’s levels.
Schwebel said the conversation with Hardcastle gave encouragement on both short-term water use issues and long-term water supply issues.
Hardcastle agreed to work with residents to come up with a new way to reduce water use during shortages, perhaps by simply increasing the cost of water above a certain threshold.
That could prevent the bad blood caused by the current system, in which water company employees drive around during the Stage 5 alert to find people using water outside.
Hardcastle “clearly stated he does not like being in the enforcement business, anything we can come up with that gets him out of that business he’s for.”
Schwebel said community members will work with the company and the ACC to come up with some alternatives, like a price structure that drastically increases the cost of water above 10,000 or 20,000 gallons during a conservation alert.
During the meeting, Hardcastle also said he was investigating drilling additional wells to serve the subdivision, some perhaps as deep as 1,200 feet.
Currently, the deepest well serving the community is just over 400 feet deep, said Schwebel.
Finally, Hardcastle promised to pursue getting water from Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline. Studies suggest that for the pipeline water could be much cheaper than pumping water from the ground for communities like Mesa del, which lies right next to the proposed pipeline and downhill from the proposed water treatment plant. Payson hopes to begin delivering 3,500 acre-feet of water annually from the Blue Ridge Reservoir starting in about 2015, including 500 acre-feet reserved for Northern Gila County communities like Mesa del Caballo.
Finally, Schwebel said the water committee and the water company agreed to investigate setting up some way for private well users in the community to sell their excess water production capacity to Brooke Utilities, to prevent future shortages.
This summer, Hardcastle said the company hauled about 505,000 gallons of water, most of it from the also-water-short community of Rye south of Payson.