The 1,000 Pine residents without water since Wednesday will hopefully get service back late this afternoon, said CH2MHill Regional Vice President Robert Kuta.
A still undisclosed problem knocked out service to about a third of the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District’s customers on Wednesday, prompting the district to issue health warnings and appeal to all its customers to reduce usage.
A June 19 notice to affected customers in 14 subdivisions scattered around the tiny mountain hamlet blamed the outage on “a combination of mechanical issues, drought conditions and increased demand.”
The district has refused to elaborate on the cause of the outage as it investigates by replacing pumps and looking for leaks in water lines. The rumor mill in the little community centered on the impact of the firing or resignation of three employees shortly before the problems developed.
CH2MHill brought in a team of water experts to restore service. The district also contracted with the Town of Payson’s water department to deliver water in trucks to refill water tanks apparently emptied due to problems with pumps.
CH2MHill is an international engineering, construction and operations firm the Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District (PSWID) board hired in October of 2010 to run the two water companies.
On Thursday, Kuta was set to take Pine water samples to a quality testing site in the Valley to see if PSWID could return service to beleaguered customers, some who have been without water for three days. He said no water samples have shown a problem, but state rules require the testing and health warnings any time a public water system shuts down and restarts.
If some samples passed tests and others did not, the district would restore water service immediately to those areas that passed and testing would continue in the other areas until the samples were OK’d.
The process of returning water to affected areas in Pine, Kuta said, involves disinfecting the lines, flushing them out, then testing the water again. Only then can the district restore service.
Kuta did not pinpoint what “mechanical issues” caused the outage. But district officials said they plan to hold a press conference next week once they determine the cause of the problems.
District Manager Brad Cole said the district had already ordered and started to install replacement parts. On Thursday, he said two broken booster pumps had already been replaced.
The district remains closed-mouthed about what caused the system to fail, but much speculation has centered on the firing or resignations of three water company employees just before the problems developed.
One of the employees, Dean Shaffer, is a longtime staffer often praised as the key to keeping the system running smoothly.
Some users say it’s no coincidence the water delivery problems occurred only a day after the district let go some of its most experienced employees.
Some rumors have suggested sabotage of the pumps that fill the holding tanks. Other theories suggest that the replacement workers may not have known how to run the system properly.
Kuta would not confirm or deny the interference speculation, but said if such misdeeds did occur they were “acts of terrorism and any evidence of tampering would be forwarded to the Office of Homeland Security.”
In searching for reasons for the outages, Kuta is also downplayed at least four water main breakages on Pine Creek Trail, where crews have been installing new lines. He said the line breaks were not significant contributors to the water service disruptions.
Workers on the lines say they have quickly repaired leaks and breaks.
On Thursday, sheriff’s posse volunteers — including PSWID board member Mike Greer — rode horseback over most of the pipeline checking for leaks.
Many water users this week were most alarmed by the public notice the district issued asking consumers to not drink, cook or bathe with the water until further notice.
“That’s alarming,” said one water user.
Kuta said while the language was alarming, it was required by the the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. He said the district had a responsibility to be cautious , “We take public health very seriously.”
Following the outage, PSWID made arrangements to provide drinking water to customers from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the PSWID office on Hardscrabble Road. There, two workers — Ron Wescott and Ben Metzler — both transferred from CH2MHill’s Prescott Valley office — listened patiently to water user complaints while distributing three gallons to each resident who showed up.