Tapped Out

Fourth of July weekend is as festive as ever in the villages of Pine and Strawberry.

In Pine, there is a pancake breakfast at the old school. A barbecue at the Senior Center. An arts-and-crafts display. A show put on by local fiddlers on the porch of the community center.

Just off Highway 87, which is Pine's main street, a man peddles watermelons and ceramic raccoons from his van. He pays no attention to the residents filling water jugs at the large water truck parked nearby--a symptom of the severe water shortage plaguing the twin Mogollon Rim resort communities, just a two-hour drive northeast of Phoenix.

But on the weekend of the Fourth, seems no one wants to focus on the problem.

Three miles to the northwest of Pine, in Strawberry, an old woman sells homemade pies in front of her mobile home on Fossil Creek Road.

At the Strawberry Lodge, locals meet for coffee, talk about how great it is not to live in crime-ridden, polluted Phoenix.

"It's a little bit of heaven," says 59-year-old retired Phoenix police officer Bill McKnight, who lives a quiet life in Strawberry. Occasionally, he and his group of friends, the Strawberry Elite, do a little fund raising for needy kids. It's a way, he says, to pay back his community of "good, good people."

The "good, good people" are largely conservative retirees, attracted by the climate, the blue skies, the ponderosa forests and the fact that there is minimal government--neither community is incorporated into an official town. There are no mayors, no councilmembers, no city taxes.

Pine appealed to Julie and John Breninger, who settled into one of hundreds of upscale log homes in the area.

Three years ago, John Breninger, a 68-year-old retired engineer from San Diego, sought a home in a landscape also suitable for mushing his team of five Siberian husky dogs. During the cool, mild summers, Breninger hitches his dogs to a motorless all-terrain vehicle, mushes them down the forest roads. Winters, when it snows, he glides behind the dogs on skis. His dogs once appeared on the Joan Rivers show, barked so loudly backstage they interrupted the comedienne's opening routine. Breninger likes to tell the story, show the videotape.

Despite their quiet, contented lifestyles, Breninger and McKnight are what some locals call "troublemakers"--because both men talk openly, loudly, publicly about the "water problem" that has taken over both communities.

This takes a degree of courage.
In Pine and Strawberry, folks who talk realistically about the water shortage are as popular as Endangered Species Act enthusiasts in the timber towns of Washington state.

Of course, neither McKnight nor Breninger is a member of any activist environmental group--it's hard even to imagine such a group in the villages.

But McKnight and Breninger will be the first to tell you there is a critical water problem in Pine and Strawberry. They blame a poorly managed water company that has failed to drill sufficient wells. The state, however, says the area may be overbuilt for its water supply.

These days, the local water companies truck 30,000 gallons of water daily to fill their dry storage tanks--at the cost of about $7,000 per week. Gila County officials also have trucked water into the area.

State officials say there simply isn't enough groundwater to supply the swelling population of residents.

Groundwater is the main source of water for the villages. But all water runs downhill. The communities are situated on the slope of the Mogollon Rim, which means that their groundwater runs from the top of the rim down to the flat river valleys in Phoenix.

But the water crisis should not have taken locals by surprise.
Public records obtained by New Times reveal that state officials have for ten years warned residents and developers that underground water reserves were fragile, finite.

A 1987 report by the Arizona Department of Water Resources, for instance, says ". . . if the water demand continues increasing at the present rate, in about two more years the Pine Strawberry area will be using 100 percent of its dependable supply. After that, additional future demands will be accelerating the overdraft of the aquifer."

But back in 1987, no one seemed to pay much attention to the state report--including the Gila County Board of Supervisors, which repeatedly approved new housing developments in the area, and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, which in 1995 approved a plan for a large new water line that had been banned--because there wasn't enough water to go around--by the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Despite the warnings in the 1987 state report, people continued flocking to Pine and Strawberry. The population of permanent residents swelled from about 1,250 in 1980 to 3,704 in 1994.

More important, summer-home sales soared, especially in new housing developments. On weekends, officials say, the so-called "second-home residents" can double or even triple the weekday population.

Which explains why, on weekends, the water shortage is particularly dire.
"This is no laughing matter," says Bill McKnight.
"It's happened just about every weekend since Memorial Day."

Since April, residents have been required to drastically conserve water--when they have it. They can't water their flowers, wash their cars, fill their birdbaths. They reuse bathwater. They haul drinking water from Payson--some even complain that the often-muddy local water causes urinary-tract infections.

But the "water problem" has done more than make life uncomfortable. The controversy over what, exactly, has caused the shortage has sharply divided the residents.

Everyone seems to have a solution for the crisis.
Some blame the problem on the severe drought, say things will improve when it rains. Pro-growth forces blame newcomers for "using" the drought to create a water panic in hopes of banishing developers--and more growth. Some residents believe curtailing growth is the only answer--that the demand for water has already exceeded the supply.

McKnight and Breninger are sort of middle-of-the-road. They figure there is probably plenty of groundwater in the area, but blame the water company for not investing the money necessary to explore for new reserves.

Recently, disgusted Pine and Strawberry residents formed their own water district--which will be regulated by Gila County authorities--to locate additional water reserves. It's a move McKnight and Breninger approve of.

Because river water has long been allocated to users downstream, there's not much of a possibility that rivers can be tapped. But there is talk around town of an as-yet-unverified aquifer thousands of feet below the Earth's surface. There's also talk of underground rivers shooting out of the Mogollon Rim.

But it's only talk. State hydrologists say they have no evidence of such supplies.

Nevertheless, folks in the rim country figure that if they take water exploration into their own hands, they'll do a better job than Rich Williamson, the financially troubled owner of E and R Pine Water Company and E and R Strawberry Water Company, the regulated utilities that supply most of the area's water.

Williamson was recently called before the Arizona Corporation Commission to answer charges that he violated the commission's ban on supplying developers with new main water lines--a ban the commission imposed in the first place because Williamson's system could not supply existing customers.

Williamson has denied wrongdoing. He says water outages have not been caused by lack of water, but rather by shutdowns for repairs. And he gets around other charges with interpretations of events that the communities often find difficult to accept. In papers filed with the commission, Williamson seems to bond with pro-growth forces: "Instead of penalizing this important mountain escape," he writes, "the company suggests that the commission help provide incentives for additional water production while providing for modest economic stability for the working people of Pine."

This week the commission will decide whether it will accept a hearing officer's recommendation to sanction Williamson with fines.

More important, the commission will rule on whether the water company will be allowed to hook up any new homes to the current water-supply lines. The commission is considering banning new hookups until hydrologists can prove there is an adequate supply that will last 100 consecutive years.

Such a move would halt much of the growth in the area.
"This is a particularly prophetic story about limits," says Renz Jennings, chairman of the Corporation Commission.

"We think the party will never end, that the water will always be there. . . . Even in the face of what appears to be another drought cycle, people want to grow more, add more hookups, add new subscribers to an overdrafted system. And the county government lives off that growth--they want a new tax base, jobs, and more activity even in the face of a water shortage.

"This case is prophetic in the sense that people don't heed warnings. There is a denial that the desert by definition is water-short. People think they can transcend or beat nature."

"State hydrologists tell us there is an inadequate water supply," says retiree Betty Kelly, who has lived in Pine for 16 years. "It's obvious there is an inadequate water supply because every summer we are without water whether we have a drought or not. There's just not enough water to go around."

"Don't paint me out to be anti-growth," adds Kelly. "I am not anti-growth. I'm for growth if people can prove there is an adequate water supply."

Kelly doesn't particularly want to be interviewed by New Times, she doesn't want to incite the anger of her neighbors. And real estate agents. And developers.

"I hate to see another slap at us," says Mary Lou Myers, a real estate agent whose husband, Austin, is a major developer in the area. When New Times requested an interview with Austin Myers, Mary Lou declined for her husband. She expressed disappointment with a Phoenix television station for "hysterical" coverage of the recent Corporation Commission hearing--coverage she claimed was unfair to the real estate agents and developers.

These days, there's a story going around Pine and Strawberry that if a fellow puts his ear to a well, he'll hear the water rushing downhill through rivers in the fractured rock, on its way from the Mogollon Rim to Phoenix.

While the story might be exaggerated, it is true that the giant, flat river-valley aquifer of the Valley collects run-off from the Mogollon Rim.

But there is more than just a geologic difference that separates Phoenix and the thirsty rim resorts.

There is a regulatory difference.
The Salt River Valley is subjected to vigorous groundwater management by the state. Pine and Strawberry, by virtue of their location and population base, are not.

When the state Legislature passed the Groundwater Code in 1980, it hoped to ensure dependable long-term water supplies in Arizona's large urban or agricultural zones. The Salt River Valley was placed into an "Active Management Area," where groundwater withdrawal is subject to special rules and is regulated by the Arizona Department of Water Resources. In the so-called AMAs, for instance, developers are not allowed to build developments unless they can prove the real estate projects have an assured dependable water supply for 100 years.

But because Pine and Strawberry are not located in an AMA, state officials can't force groundwater conservation. They can only be consumer advocates, warning buyers that developments do not have an adequate 100-year water supply.

Developers not in AMAs can legally sell dry lots if they disclose to buyers the lack of an assured water supply. Homeowners, however, do not have to disclose the lack of an assured water supply when they sell a home the second time around.

In Pine and Strawberry, Gila County officials have repeatedly approved developments that do not have assured water supplies. And they're doing it legally.

State records reveal that since 1973, 98 percent of all subdivisions in Pine, Strawberry and nearby Payson--a total of 5,000 lots--have not had adequate water supplies to meet the needs of the projected population for 100 years. But they were approved anyway by county officials.

And actually, county leaders don't think much of the 100-year-water-supply rule in the first place. Gila County Supervisor Ron Christensen says the 100-year assured supply rule is "not practical or a good way to demonstrate adequacy of water." Some communities, like Pine and Strawberry, are just "drought sensitive," he says, and supplies naturally replenish themselves with rain and snow melt in wet years.

To ban a subdivision because it doesn't have a 100-year water supply is tantamount to trampling on the developer's property rights, he says.

Of course, developers and the Board of Supervisors had access to state reports warning of the water problems.

"They've known that they don't have an assured or adequate water supply for years," says Steve Olson, assistant director of the state Department of Water Resources. "They've known."

In 1987, state hydrologists concluded that Pine and Strawberry had reached a critical point--they would soon be taking more water out of underground reserves than rainwater and snow melt could replenish.

In 1989, after a severe drought and complaints that water taps were running dry, the Corporation Commission banned the local water company, E and R Water Company, from installing further hookups to new homes or digging new main water lines (for developments) until it could be proven that a water shortage no longer existed.

A year later, Rich Williamson, a former state water engineer, purchased E and R Water Company. The Corporation Commission's ban on adding new main water lines for developments continued, although the water company was allowed to hook up a maximum of ten new customers a month--to be fair to individual property owners who'd already purchased their land and were ready to build.

John Breninger happens to live near Solitude Trails, a proposed new development on Whispering Pines Road in Pine.

The development's brochure seems to target stressed-out Valley residents. "Whether you want to make Solitude Trails a permanent residence or your place to unwind and enjoy on weekends and vacations, it's a great place to live life," the brochure says.

"Solitude Trails features four mild lovely seasons with beautiful spring flowers, full of fragrant aromas, cool summer nights under a canopy of stars, a brilliant rainbow of autumn colors . . . and those infrequent but glorious snowfalls that dress our world in white.

"All of this is an easy two-hour drive from the Greater Phoenix Area to Pine Arizona."

In small print, the brochure says the Arizona Department of Water Resources has "found the water supply in Solitude Trails to be inadequate to prove a 100-year water supply."

Breninger was astonished earlier this year when he noticed what appeared to be a main water line--the very sort banned by the Corporation Commission--being installed to service Solitude Trails. In fact, the Corporation Commission would later charge that Williamson was trying to hook up three different subdivisions to his weary water system. All of those hookups had been banned.

The plans for the Solitude Trails water line had been approved by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, which, inexplicably, also had a copy of the Corporation Commission ban in its E and R file.

After the Corporation Commission began investigating, DEQ revoked the approval. But the agency offers no real explanation for why it approved the banned water line in the first place. DEQ and the Corporation Commission operate under separate guidelines, says DEQ water quality official Peggy Guichard-Watters, explaining DEQ's failure to honor the commission's ban. As the commission investigated Williamson and his alleged illegal hookups, it also studied data from Williamson's own water wells. The results were disturbing: The water supply seemed to be diminishing even in wet years. "All the wells, except for one, have been trending downward," the commission report says.

Williamson says the well study is scientifically flawed, that Pine and Strawberry are not running out of water, that the wells are simply low because of a severe drought.

His denials of commission charges that he violated the hookup bans are comical and complicated. He says two of the so-called developments he hooked up were not legally subdivisions and thus did not violate the bans.

Despite the fact that he contracted to provide water service to Solitude Trails, Williamson now says the main line he put in for Solitude Trails was built to transport the developer's own water.

The water mess prompted Solitude Trails developer Mark Fumusa temporarily to stop selling his lots and attempt to form his own water district so he himself can provide homeowners with water.

Fumusa refused comment, citing the pending commission decision. But in a memo to the Gila County Board of Supervisors, who must approve his water district, Fumusa said he hoped to supply water to Solitude Trails' 68 lots and then sell water back to E and R to help provide water for Pine residents.

Of course, Fumusa didn't say how long his wells would last.
"You know, the real estate people don't want all this bad advertising," says 79-year-old Ken Hollemon as he ushers a reporter into the living room of his mobile home.

Hollemon moved to Strawberry from Phoenix in 1979. The "water problem," he says, has become more and more severe. So severe that he recently installed a 220-gallon tank with a serious pump to hold emergency reserves.

Without that reserve, he and his wife would have no water for days at a time.

What bothers him almost more than the water shortage is that he never knows when his faucet will run dry. He has hope, though. The water district. Perhaps it will figure out how to tap into that deep, deep aquifer that everyone seems to be talking about.

He sits down on his favorite chair, looks out the picture window with its view of the Strawberry valley, gets to talking about how someday Phoenix will have the same problem and--his thoughts are interrupted. He squints a bit.

"Look out at that power line," he says. "There goes a dad-gummed squirrel across the power line. See, the dogs can't get him when he's way up there."

And he is reminded, once again, that even with the water problem, he's picked a place to retire that suits him just fine.


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