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Two Valley Moms Battle Wealthy Water Baron George Johnson in Court

Like most rich folks, deep-pockets Scottsdale developer George Johnson is good at getting his way. Maybe not all the time, but often enough.

Earlier this year, when Johnson wanted the right to convey water to an as-yet-undeveloped area of Florence, he got it from the Florence Town Council, saying he needed it for 6,000 homes he planned to build there.

As my colleague, Monica Alonzo, and I reported in our recent series, "Florence Exposed," all but two members of the Town Council supported Johnson, whose company, Johnson Utilities, provides water-and-sewer service to homes in the San Tan Valley and parts of Florence.

Then, in June, Johnson Utilities won the right from the Arizona Corporation Commission to pass on its taxes to customers, an effective increase in its water and sewer rates.

This despite complaints from some of the utility's customers at a June 27 CorpCom hearing regarding low water pressure, "yellow water" coming from faucets, and water that smelled like "sewage."

Johnson Utility customers also mentioned two high-profile incidents in recent memory.

One was from August 2012, when the media learned of the suspected presence of E. coli bacteria in results of water tests required by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, the agency responsible for monitoring the state's water supply.

Later, ADEQ issued a notice of violation to Johnson Utilities, based on the presence in its water samples of E. coli and "coliform bacteria," an indicator of possible sewage contamination.

ADEQ also dinged the company for not properly informing the public of the emergency. The company insists the incident was because of "false positives" in the water testing.

Then, in May, TV news reported on foul, smelly water in a pond at the entrance to the community of San Tan Heights.

In various reports, residents described the pond as smelling like raw sewage. ADEQ said it contained treated waste water discharged by Johnson Utilities. As a result, the company had to drain and disinfect the pond.

It only was the most recent problem for the firm.

The company received notices of violation for discharging "approximately 30,000 gallons of sewage [into] a roadside ditch" in 2005, according to one ADEQ document, and for the discharge of "an estimated 500,000 gallons" of treated waste water into a pecan orchard in 2007, causing two "sink holes," according to another.

In 2003, the company paid an $80,000 fine to ADEQ, the agency informs New Times, for "failure to receive approval to build and operate [a] drinking water plant." In 2000, it forked over $10,900 to ADEQ, settling another case.

That's nothing compared to what George Johnson himself has paid out to federal and state agencies.

In 2007, then-Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard announced that Johnson and his companies had agreed to pay $7 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that Johnson's companies, along with other businesses, illegally bulldozed hundreds of acres of state trust lands and thousands of acres of private lands.

Allegations included, according to an AG press release at the time, destroying 40,000 protected native plants and portions of seven Hohokam archeological sites, discharging pollutants into the Little Colorado River, and "negligently causing a disease epidemic that resulted in the death of at least 21 rare Arizona desert bighorn sheep and serious injury to numerous others."

In part, the AG's suit involved a proposed Johnson development near Marana, the subject of a January 22, 2004, New Times feature ("Big Bad Developer").

Of course, only the more recent violations by Johnson Utilities were at issue when the commission voted in June.

Ultimately, Commissioner Brenda Burns voted against the company's request for a rate increase, while the other four Republicans on the CorpCom voted for it.

At one point, Burns stated for the record that she didn't want anyone listening to the live-streaming proceedings to think that water quality was not important to the commission.

Other women have shown backbone in standing up to Johnson.

Two examples of late are Emily Hughes and Carrie Ribeiro.

Hughes was one of three female customers of Johnson Utilities complaining of "yellow water" at the June 27 CorpCom hearing.

But by then, Hughes, 31, already had taken her outrage to the next level.

A member of the anti-Johnson Utilities Facebook group Citizens Against Johnson Utilities (later renamed San Tan Valley Safe Water Advocates), Hughes had been frustrated by what she said was persistent low water pressure in her Johnson Ranch home.

One day, during a hectic morning trying to get herself and her five kids, ages 3 to 11, ready for the day, her shower water went low for what seemed like the umpteenth time, she says.

"So I'm standing around waiting and waiting," she tells me of the day her war with Johnson Utilities began. "I finally got mad enough that I got my phone and [videotaped] my shower."

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons