The Arizona Corporation Commission has dismissed 19 complaints and absolved Brooke Utilities of any wrongdoing in the water hauling charges it imposed this summer in Mesa del Caballo.
Commission spokeswoman Rebecca Wilder said, “they were found to have charged the surcharge correctly. Some of the issue was a misunderstanding. All the complaints we received were resolved.”
For the past several summers, the 400 homeowners in Mesa del Caballo have repeatedly used water faster than the aging wells can pump new water into the scattered water storage tanks serving the subdivision.
After swallowing the extra costs involved in hauling water in from outside to fill those tanks, this year Brooke Utilities got permission from the corporation commission to put a surcharge on this summer’s bills to cover the extra costs in months when it has to haul water.
The corporation commission had also approved a system that allowed the company to impose increasingly severe water use restrictions, including a ban on landscape watering, washing cars and other uses. The rules included a “curtailment charge,” which allowed the company to impose fines on customers using more than 4,000 gallons a month who didn’t reduce their usage.
At the time, the company dismissed the complaints as “absurd” and mostly blamed a vendetta against the company by Steve Gehring, who owns a market in the unincorporated subdivision off Houston Mesa Road.
Gehring filed one of 19 complaints related to the water hauling charges. Gehring’s complaint claimed the company manufactured a crisis so it could impose the water hauling charges and then inflated its purchases and imposed the water hauling charge on every gallon sold during the month, instead of just the extra water bought from Payson and hauled to the storage tanks by truck.
However, Wilder said a review by Corporation commission staff concluded the company did nothing wrong. She said she believed that the “tariff” allowing the extra water hauling charges does apply to all the water sold in the month, since the extra water keeps the whole system functioning.
“When there’s a water hauling period, then all the water is hauled. It’s all being hauled. So the charge applies to all the water sold.”
Moreover, some of the complaints confused the water hauling charges that applied to everybody and the curtailment charges that applied only to people using more than 4,000 gallons a month.
“There was some of the language in the tariff that was confusing and that language was removed,” she said.
She didn’t know how much staff time the complaints consumed. The commission has about 10 people working in the department that investigates consumer complaints about the hundreds of companies the corporation commission operates, including some of the biggest utilities in the state.
The company hopes to eventually end water hauling charges by connecting the subdivision to Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline, since the treatment plant will sit right next to Mesa del Caballo.
Company officials estimate it would cost Mesa del Caballo homeowners about $1 million to buy into the Blue Ridge pipeline. Covering that cost would increase the average monthly bill by about 130 percent. Currently, bills average $23 a month.
Gehring and others have launched a local effort to form a water improvement district, in hopes that district could first secure the rights to the Blue Ridge water and then perhaps buy out the private company, following in the footsteps of both the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District and the Town of Star Valley, which recently bought out Brooke-owned companies.