First it’s the frigging itty-bitty little pipes.
Then it’s the dribbles of water and leaks.
Then it’s the recalls, resignations, special elections and general what not.
How about the mystery of the well that wasn’t?
The recently installed Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District board last week grappled with a slew of leaks, complaints and work-arounds — plus one baffling mystery.
Who the heck owns the badly needed well in Strawberry with the 20,000-gallon storage tank?
Actually, water tanks in Strawberry ran like a dissonant theme through the two-hour meeting last week, as the newly elected water board met for just the third time.
They came to office as a result of a recall effort that led to a mass-resignation of the old board, a period of management by the Gila County Board of Supervisors and a special election.
Now they’re trying to get their heads wrapped around the problems of managing a district wracked by years of conflict and still trying to figure how to patch together a bailing-wire system bought after years of neglect by Brooke Utilities.
The meeting opened with a report from District Manager Brad Cole, who works for CH2M Hill, the consulting firm that runs the district.
He noted that the district had to struggle mightily to keep the patchwork system running during the peak demand on the long July 4 weekend, when the vacation homeowners open their shuttered cabins and water demand soars.
Cole noted that one survey indicated 78 percent of the water lines in the district are less than four-inches in diameter — many of them aging plastic well beyond their designed replacement period.
The problem’s acute in Strawberry, which has so few wells and storage tanks, that getting through the holiday weekend meant constantly pumping water out of major wells in Pine like the Milk Ranch wells through a series of pipes and storage tanks to Strawberry.
The installation of new pumps intended to reduce the problems actually made things worse — at least for a while.
“Thank goodness for the Milk Ranch wells,” said Cole with unconscious irony, since the purchase of the deep, Milk Ranch Well from real estate agent and former board member Ray Pugel has roiled district politics for several years.
“We have to move water through the system to Strawberry,” explained Cole. Most of the water comes out of the Milk Ranch wells, goes to the K2 tank, then to the barely big enough 67,000-gallon Rimwood Tank, which serves 70 percent of Strawberry. The pumps have to keep the tank nearly full to produce enough pressure to drive the system.
“In Strawberry, we’ve got a lack of production, a lack of storage and high demand,” said Cole. “Does Rimwood need another tank? Are the pipe sizes adequate? Those are the things our master plan is going to tell us.”
Board member Don Smith commented, “With that understanding looking at the bigger picture, wouldn’t it be better to add more storage in Rim View? We need another 100,000 gallons.”
“My gut is telling me yes,” said Cole. “I’m pretty sure the master plan will produce results like that.”
Board member Richard James asked, “But don’t we have a lot of empty lots up there, so the problem’s going to get worse?”
“We’re only about 50 percent built out,” interjected board president Tom Weeks.
“Our staff knows how to move water around,” said Cole. “That’s one of our strengths: We’re pretty flexible.”
However, another little problem developed. The new pumps kept shutting down.
District trouble-shooters spent days switching them back on and driving themselves nuts.
“The new problem that occurred unbeknownst to the manufacturer was that the pumps had a programmed time-out mode after 72 operations. It took us a week or two to figure out why it was shutting down — that was the cause of some water outages. When the pumps go out, they’re the first to run out of water.”
So now a worker goes out and shuts down and turns on the pipe every 48 hours, thwarting the timer — which the manufacturer is still trying to fix.
One customer underscored the difficulties facing many Strawberry water users, particularly up near Coyote Drive. She said she can often get no water at all and even when water does dribble from the tap, it takes 90 seconds to fill a single bottle.
“I still have lousy water service up there. It’s been going on for three months, maybe a little longer. If I get up in the morning and the water’s on, it might be on for half an hour, then I turn on the water and it’s literally dribbling out of there. I just want to get up in the morning and take a shower like the rest of you do. Now I spend all my time writing letters and it’s affecting my business.”
So what does this all have to do with the well that wasn’t?
Not long ago, the district got a call from a real estate agent saying he was selling a piece of property with a well on it. He figured the district might want to buy it — since the booster pump and the 20,000-gallon storage tank sit right above the problematic Coyote Drive.
But wait: It gets as murky as water from an overpumped well.
Turns out, the well was included on the inventory list of property the district bought from Brooke Utilities. But the district has absolutely no proof of ownership.
As the district started to dig into the problem, it turned out a developer drilled the well and built the storage tank to induce the district to provide water service to the assorted lots in the development. But the development went belly up before the developer could legally convey the tank and well to the district. So it’s been sitting unused on the district’s inventory sheet, although the district doesn’t legally own the well.
Cole noted, “We’re talking about Strawberry creek tank and booster pump that I said we might not own.”
Weeks noted, “We haven’t been paying taxes on it either. So we must not own it.”
Board member Smith interjected, “So should we do a title search to see who owns that property?”
“It’s out of service,” said Cole.
“Is it big enough to be of service? It’s a 20,000 tank — we need storage in Strawberry. We always assumed that belonged to the district. What would it cost to move it?” asked Smith. Then he added it sounded like something the chairman ought to figure out.
Weeks sighed. “I think we need to have an attorney involved in it. With an attorney, maybe I can find out it’s not ours.”
“Well,” said Smith. “That’s a start.”