The Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District has declared a water crisis and will no longer issue water permits for new construction.
The move effectively restores the growth-strangling building moratorium that prompted the water district to buy out the private water company a decade ago, district officials said at a community meeting on Thursday.
The district has repeatedly raised rates, spent $8 million on upgrades and has another $24 million in projects planned. However, the system still loses a third of its water to leaks, runs dry in periods of peak use and spends 80% of its operating budget scrambling from leak to leak, said General Manager David Dickinson. The district’s March manager’s report put the water loss at 47% for February.
The district owns 38 wells, but only 14 actually function. Most of the shallow wells have run dry — and the water table is dropping. Only two of the eight deep wells still produce water, in most cases due to problems posed by the high sand content of the water trapped 1,500 to 2,000 feet beneath the surface.
The Thursday meeting at the Church of Latter-day Saints in Pine drew perhaps 100 disgruntled residents, with another 60 or so listening online. The meeting included state, county and federal officials — to whom the district directed an urgent plea for grant funding.
The district needs $134 million to drill four or five new, deep wells, replace 61 miles of failing, improvised, undersized pipelines and build storage facilities and booster pump stations, said Dickinson.
That works out to nearly $40,000 for each of the district’s 3,200 hookups.
“We are not too proud as a community to admit that we are an underserved and disadvantaged water district in a small, rural Arizona community,” said PSWID Board Chair Raymond Headings, with representatives of the State Department of Water Resources and Arizona Senator Mark Kelly listening in. State House Rep. Walt Blackman also participated in the online chat during the meeting, although he was on the House floor in Phoenix during the meeting.
Headings continued, “We do have our hands out for money, grants and forgivable loans. Anyone who can support that and put us on a road to that end — get involved.”
The desperate appeal comes on the brink of a statewide water crisis just as a flush of federal money due to a historic increase in infrastructure spending has come flooding into the state.
However, the tiny district must compete with a host of much larger, better connected agencies. That includes projects to respond to the critically low levels on the Colorado River, which provides more than a third of the state’s water supply.
The problems are compounded by the ongoing, 22-year drought, the mismanagement of forests atop the Rim that has produced at least a tenfold increase in tree densities — dramatically reducing runoff and water table recharge. Pine Creek used to run year-round, now it generally carries water only after a big storm.
Pine’s water crisis has boiled over now after a decade of big plans, dashed hopes and piecemeal solutions.
The water district bought out Brooke Utilities with ambitious plans to replace miles of failing water lines and tap into a deep aquifer. But the deep wells proved much less productive than originally promised. Fragmented and inconsistent planning, controversy on the board and historic drought had already created a crisis — when the recent building boom hit.
The water board — with mostly a whole new lineup — responded by notifying Gila County it will stop issuing water permits for new construction until it can assure a future water supply. That means any development will have to show to the county that it can drill its own well to provide water. The region doesn’t have any kind of groundwater management rules, so anyone who drills a well is free to pump as much water as they can.
The communities are pockmarked with more than 221 private wells, most of them tapping into the shallow, dwindling aquifer. Wells that can reach water trapped 2,000 feet beneath the surface cost about $2 million each and must contend with the sandy water that quickly ruins pumps and strains filtration systems without special precautions.
Building permits in the unincorporated community are issued by the Gila County Board of Supervisors, and both supervisors Woody Cline and Steve Christensen participated in the meeting remotely. However, the county’s code doesn’t include even commonplace conservation measures for communities with a limited water supply. That includes things like limiting water use for landscaping, low-flow water fixtures, required use of gray water systems, rainwater capture systems or a host of other measures.
The county codes also don’t include common fire protection measures. The fire hydrants in the community don’t have enough water pressure to cope with most fires. That compounds the lack of county codes requiring brush clearing to keep fires from spreading quickly through the community or use of fire-hardened building designs and materials to prevent embers from a nearby wildfire from setting many houses on fire all at once. The fire danger was driven home last summer when the Backbone Fire rushed up out of Fossil Creek Canyon forcing the evacuation of Pine and Strawberry.
Melanie Baily, one participant in the meeting, said, “the supervisors’ lack of fiduciary duties has left us literally high and dry. Haphazard building permit approval of the Pine Motel and the Dude Ranch show their true indifference to the facts of our water shortage. They are all enabling the situation to worsen — not to protect what we have.”
The residents who spoke at the meeting decried the years of ineffective and piecemeal response that have led to the return of the moratorium, frequent water outages and an uncertain future for the whole community. Many complained about homeowners associations that use too much water on landscaping, homes rented out to guests that use too much water and the recent run of new construction.
They mostly complained that the year-round residents who use water responsibly are facing a crisis created by the second homeowners and new development.
Dickinson’s presentation during the meeting put stark numbers on the crisis.
He noted it costs $1 million per mile to replace the 61 miles of substandard pipe in the system. The pipes are often thin, plastic pipes buried 50 years ago — some now soft enough to crush in your hand. Often, the pipes were repaired or clamped together with hose clamps from the hardware store.
He noted that the district already falls 177 gallons a minute short of demand in the peak summer months — when the number of people served rises from the winter low of 3,000 to a summer high of about 8,000. Fixing every single leak in the system would produce an additional 136 gallons per minute. But that leaves the system still 50 gallons a minute short of demand — with no allowance for future growth.
Unfortunately, the district doesn’t have enough customers, assets or revenue to get any kind of loan to undertake even a fraction of the repairs and increased capacity needed to serve the existing customers — much less allow the community to grow, he said.
Fortunately, Joe Russell, an aide to Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, said this is an ideal time for the district to seek help from the federal government.
Russell noted that the recently enacted infrastructure bills have made some $8.6 billion available for water projects in the West. In addition, the just-enacted federal budget included $109 million in loans and grants for rural water systems through the state’s Water Infrastructure Finance Authority. The infrastructure law also included $10 million for small, rural water companies with fewer than 10,000 customers. The Bureau of Reclamation got another $400 million for water-smart grants to help communities reduce water use. The infrastructure law also provided $300 million for water projects to help address the crisis on the Colorado River — which should free up other state and federal funding for rural systems, said Russell.
“We’re happy to be a resource,” Russell said, “this is one of the top issues our office is working on every day.”
Dickinson said the district’s top priority will be figuring out where it can drill at least four more deep-water wells and seek state and federal grant funding to cover the roughly $8 million cost.
The district’s also working on a drought response plan — which would likely need county involvement to put in place an array of water conservation measures.
Chris Ray, who conducted much of the meeting and presented a detailed PowerPoint presentation on the crisis, said people need to install rainwater harvesting systems, water conserving fixtures as well as minimizing use of water on landscaping.
“I’m not here to tell people how to run their lives — but we need to be forward thinking.”
She also said the county needs to help with community planning.
“I’m not here to criticize, but we keep building and people are saying, ‘where are we going to get water?’ We should be looking at that. One of the things I’ve learned that would be helpful — is if building inspectors actually come to the site.”
She urged people to get involved, attend meetings, write letters to elected state and federal and county representatives — and pay attention to who they vote for. “As a community, we need to get people involved. Know what your elected officials are doing.”
Headings said the water district will stick by the moratorium until the region can secure the money it needs to provide for future growth.
“Just fixing all the leaks is not enough. We need more deep wells. We’re not going to be bought off. There have been a number of requests — ‘just give me a meter.’ We stand firm on the moratorium. Until we have enough water, we’re not going to be issuing water permits.”