Glass of water

APACHE COUNTY — The longsuffering residents of Vernon appealed to the Apache County Board of Supervisors to do something – anything – about the chronically low water pressure provided by the Lord Arizona Systems Water Company.

Sorry guys. Really nothing we can do, the board of supervisors decided at its June 4 meeting.

The issue bubbled to the surface during a hearing on whether to extend the water company’s franchise, which essentially allows it to access county property and right of way to provide service to residence.

A parade of residents came to the microphone to complain about the fitful water pressure provided by the water company and raise questions about water quality as well.

Owner Tom Lord admitted the system has persistent issues with water pressure, but that’s because it was built in 1988, doesn’t have enough wells or storage tanks and has to make do with small pumps and four-inch pipes. He said he’s working with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to perhaps drill another well to ease the problems – although he’ll still have old, four-inch pipes that can only handle so much water pressure.

The hearing underscored an issue common in rural areas throughout the state, as growth overwhelms the aging, shoestring water systems often installed decades ago. The unincorporated community of Pine faced similar issues when it suffered under a decade-long building moratorium because the private Payson Water Company kept rates low by refusing to drill new wells or upgrade the aging, leak prone system. The Arizona Corporation Commission did nothing to force the water company to increase the supply, so the community eventually formed a water improvement district, bought out the private company and embarked on a multi-million dollar expansion and overhaul. The move ultimately more than doubled water rates, but lifted the moratorium, reduced outages caused by leaks and dramatically increased the water supply.

Residents who spoke at the June 4 hearing hoped the county might force improvements by denying the franchise renewal.

However, County Attorney Michael Whiting said all the franchise denial would accomplish was to make it impossible for the water company to operate, leaving residents with no water at all.

Lord said he’s working with the state and the Arizona Corporation Commission to improve the system. That could mean a 40 percent increase in water rates, if the ACC approves the company’s current request.

Vernon resident Kenneth Luttrell said he doesn’t think the water company has adequate inspections to make sure the wells are safe, efficient and not contaminated. The system suffers from leaks, pressure and volume problems, he said. The company doesn’t regularly flush and service lines and hasn’t demonstrated a long-term water supply, he said according to the minutes of the hearing.

Resident David Peelman said the company has failed its customers and hasn’t provided a map of well testing or hydrology to provide any assurance the system won’t simply run out of water.

However, County Attorney Michael Whiting said while he understands the frustrations of the customers, the board of supervisors really has no control over the business. The county franchise simply provides access to the wells, water lines and other elements of the system, but doesn’t give the county any real authority over things like the long-term water supply, water pressure or well testing. He noted that the county’s franchise is not exclusive – so another company could put in a system and compete for customers if it wanted. He added that approving the franchise won’t make the county liable for the system’s service or water quality.

County Manager Ryan Patterson said he had checked with ADEQ, which told him the system has no current violations of water quality.

Several residents continued to protest, saying the country has an obligation to the residents.

Concho resident Barry Weller said that by granting the franchise the county was agreeing the system was adequate. He said the county must protect the safety and health of its residents.

George Walsh said a video of testimony before the ACC suggested the company wants to put in a second well on the north side of Highway 60, which would help water pressure on the south side. However, the system now has such small pumps and narrow pipes that simply adding a well won’t help much.

In the end, Supervisor Joe Shirley said that while he would like to see improvements, denying the franchise request leave residents with no water at all. The problems with the system have persisted for 25 years and the community needs to do something to address the problem – which isn’t the board of supervisors’ responsibility.

Supervisor Travis Simshauser agreed the board faced a tough decision, but really couldn’t do anything about the underlying problems.

Supervisor Alton Sheperd said he didn’t know much about the issue. However, he noted that the county had worked actively with ADEQ and the corporation commission to resolve water problems on New Lands when uranium contaminated the water supply. He said the county shouldn’t just leave Vernon on its own to cope with the problem.

However, when it came time to vote the supervisors unanimously extended the water company’s franchise.

Peter Aleshire is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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