A Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District board that once appeared united and like-minded now looks to be split and bickering.
Evidence of the chasm surfaced May 26 during a petulant board meeting where some members demanded the resignations of board president Bill Haney and general manager Harry Jones.
Some of the board members also accused staff of fostering a conspiracy.
What resulted was the loss of the district hydrologist Michael Ploughe, district engineer Tanner Henry of the Payson firm Tetra Tech and Customer Services Supervisor Steve Stevens. All three submitted resignations at the meeting.
Haney refused to step down saying he was not going to be intimidated into resigning. Jones also did not resign, but his position is temporary and the board is in search of a replacement.
So what happened to stir a once seemingly allied board into such atypical behavior?
Rumors in the two tiny mountain towns along with much of the discourse at the board meeting seems to indicate there are those, including possibly three vocal board members and maybe one other, who adhere to a conspiracy theory.
Those who subscribe to that hypothesis apparently are perturbed the purchase of the Milk Ranch Well from owners Ray Pugel and Robert Randall is taking longer than expected. They blame Ploughe, Tetra Tech and Haney as being in a so-called “conspiracy” to slow the purchase and implementation of the well.
Board member Richard Dickinson, however, doesn’t believe in the conspiracy theory.
“Frankly I’m getting a little sick and tired of hearing about it. The only one who has said anything about a conspiracy is Tetra Tech.”
In the termination notice Tetra Tech sent to the board, it lists one of the reasons for withdrawing was because the firm has been accused of “participating in a conspiracy.”
Stevens also used the “C” word telling the Roundup he was quitting because “(several board members) accused me of conspiracy against the board.”
He would not identify the board members.
At the May 26 meeting, Michael Greer read a statement accusing Haney and Jones of trying to block the Milk Ranch purchase by setting up roadblocks and obstacles.
Haney denies the accusations, but he was the lone board member to vote against the purchase of the well.
Ploughe and Tetra Tech engineers also emphatically deny there is a conspiracy and say they had no reason to align themselves with Haney to stall the purchase of the Milk Ranch Well. Ploughe and Tetra Tech Engineering Director Garret Goldman contend board members don’t understand that buying and hooking up the well to the existing system is a time consuming process that requires meeting the mandates of banks who will finance the purchase and ADEQ.
“There is a certain process that you have to go through to do those things and some board members don’t understand that,” said Haney. “This doesn’t happen overnight.”
The PSWID president also believes the process can be drawn out because the board is dealing with public dollars and must be frugal with how they are spent.
Ploughe says, “There are a lot of delays and challenges (in getting the well hooked up) and hurrying is not a good idea.”
Goldman, Tetra Tech’s engineering director, is in agreement the process is a lengthy one that includes bidding, surveys, ADEQ applications for drinking water facilities, and testing. And all must be done, “with concerns for the safety, health and welfare of the public,” he said.
Dickinson believes board members are frustrated with seemingly endless delays.
“We told (Ploughe and Tetra Tech) to get going on this in December and there has been no progress,” he said. “All we want to do is get water flowing in the pipes and we are not going to do something stupid.”
Board watchdog Sam Schwalm, of the Water for Pine Strawberry organization, argues Pugel is behind the conspiracy theory.
“The basic thread here is that Mr. Pugel is unhappy he doesn’t have a check in hand (for the purchase of the well) and he has seen the advice and actions of Mr. Henry, Mr. Ploughe and Mr. Haney as impediments to getting that check,” he said. “I believe Mr. Pugel is working through the board members he has the most control over to remove those people ...”
Dickinson says, “That accusation rankles me, it’s just not true.”
Also lending to some board members’ unrest over the delays in the addition of Milk Ranch was Tetra Tech’s cost estimate of $420,000 to hook up the well into the existing system. That would bring the cost of purchasing and hooking up the well to over $1 million.
Pugel also expressed his displeasure with the estimate saying at the board meeting the appraisal was inflated.
The board has a verbal agreement with Pugel and Randall to purchase the well for $400,000 but no money has changed hands and no documents have been signed.
The appraisal has never been finished, but Haney is among those who have doubts about the purchase price.
“I don’t think the appraisal would have come in at $400, 000,” he said.
Pugel has said the agreed upon purchase price “is just about what I have in it.”
An appraisal done on the Strawberry Hollow Well, a deep well similar to Milk Ranch, was for $243,000, but lowered to $163,000 when hydrogeologic risks were taken into consideration. Dickinson would not commit to what he thought an appraisal would reveal saying only, “What do you think?”
An incident surrounding the board’s proposed take over of the well occurred May 5 at the well site while Ploughe, owner and operator of Highland Water Resources Consulting, was doing a restart to a sediment load test.
Present at the site with Ploughe was Operations Manager Dean Schaffer and board member Gary Lovetro.
Ploughe says the district operator wanted to run the pump at maximum pressure, but he advised against it, saying that would risk damage to the pump and motor.
The operator responded by saying he was working under the direction of the board to test the well under high head pressure.
Ploughe said he was unaware, at the time, of such an order, but allowed the operator to continue. Two days later, the motor failed causing a system fault and instant shut down.
Dickinson said the breakdown was not from running the pump at an accelerated rate, but due to a broken pipe, “and the manufacturer has replaced that pipe at no cost.”
Dickinson also says the pump had to be run at a high pressure, as much as 120 psi, because tests had shown when that occurred, sand particles in the water were reduced.
Ploughe says the unauthorized test played a part in his resignation and the upheaval going on among the board members, “that was when things started to fall apart.”
The well did not run for about three weeks, leading some proponents of the purchase to worry the well would plug and prompted Pugel to demand the well be turned back on.
The well was up and running this week.
In Ploughe’s resignation letter, he said, “it has been made clear that an apparent majority of the board and the contract operations manager are not willing to accept professional recommendations.”
Henry voiced similar reasons in his letter of resignation saying Tetra Tech could not continue to offer services because the firm had been falsely accused of participating in a conspiracy to hamper the progress of PSWID and creating a hostile environment.
Goldman calls those allegations “fictitious” and “ludicrous” saying the firm is professional and strictly adheres to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ code of ethics.
Dickinson argues Ploughe and Tetra Tech might be overreacting and all the board wanted the two to do was speed up the process of acquiring the wells to ensure Pine and Strawberry had new sources of water to make it through the summer.
So what is the bottom line now that PSWID is without the services of a hydrologist and engineering firm and some board members are calling for the president’s resignation?
“Set aside the emotions and the special interests and realize there are obstacles to overcome that will take time,” said Ploughe. “Also know there is no conspiracy.”
Haney believes the district is “not back to square one” in its efforts to find new water sources but board members must replace Ploughe and Tetra Tech as soon as possible and then continue on a path of “understanding the public process of purchasing the well” and not take shortcuts that could have ramifications down the water highway.