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.

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Terry Greene Sterling