ACC implements partial moratorium on new hookups; clears the way for Queen Creek interconnections
By Dana Trumbull
The first step to overcoming a problem is admitting that you have a problem. From that standpoint, San Tan Valley residents, whose complaints about Johnson Utilities’ subpar service had been ignored for many years, are finally seeing progress toward a working solution to their water and waste utility woes.
Last month, EPCOR, recently assigned as interim manager for Johnson Utilities by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), released a 300 page assessment that concluded, “Johnson Utilities systems are poorly performing, and there is a high risk of operational failure, environmental impacts and service interruptions to system customers.” The estimated cost of their proposed solutions to remediate immediate deficiencies, safety compliance and capacity came to just under $100 million, with future recommended improvements totaling nearly $80 million. These estimates address rebuilding the existing system without adding capacity for future development.
As a first step toward restoring capacity to existing residents, EPCOR requested a blanket moratorium on all new connections. The ACC responded by issuing a temporary stay on new permits, buying time to study alternatives. Real estate developers, already invested in the area, were adamantly opposed to the cut off and concerned about their planned future ventures; while local government officials, including the Pinal County Board of Supervisors, were torn between the need to support beleaguered residents and dreading the stigma attached to a moratorium on development and the potential economic impact.
On November 7, the ACC, working with EPCOR and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), determined that large portions of Johnson Utilities’ service area are still able to support continued development without disrupting capacity for current residents. Those areas that were identified as having ongoing water and sewer issues, however, will remain under a restriction of 28 new permits per month (one per developer per area). Any customers ready to take ownership of a new home are exempted from the stay, as are those for whom new hookups are needed for health and safety. The commissioners will revisit the moratorium in six months.
The ACC also determined that, as interim manager, EPCOR can legally sign agreements binding Johnson Utilities to commitments that may outlive their temporary management status. The decision clears the way for the utility to pursue short-term, quick-fix solutions to capacity issues. Toward that end, according to Paul Gardner, Director of Utilities for the town of Queen Creek, EPCOR and Queen Creek are currently negotiating terms of volume, rates and time frames for installing water and sewage interconnections between the two systems, with the goal of alleviating water capacity issues prior to May, 2019, when demands escalate due to summer heat. Cooperation between the two organizations is also anticipated to facilitate the shut-down of Johnson’s overburdened Section 11 wastewater plant (5452 E. Hunt Hwy.) by the end of 2019.
Queen Creek Proposal
In a special session, held Nov. 17, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors heard from Gardner, as he explained Queen Creek’s proposal for a comparatively quick fix, buying time for EPCOR to remediate and rebuild Johnson’s facilities without the need to stall ongoing development. He provided maps showing that the town’s recent annexations in San Tan Valley have brought their water lines within yards of Johnson Utilities pipelines – literally on the opposite side of the street, in some cases – making tie ins between the two systems a viable temporary solution to the problems of low water pressure experienced by Johnson’s customers. Some of the interconnections could be active in as little as 6 weeks. “We have excess capacity for water that we are able to interconnect to deliver up to 4,000 gallons a minute,” said Gardner.
Queen Creek is also proposing that they install interconnections to process sewage for the San Tan Heights area (southwest corner of San Tan Valley) and the northern developments of San Tan Valley. Gardner explained, “By us removing 10,500 homes from the current sewer system for Johnson Utilities, it frees up 10,500 homes for the builders to come right behind and build. And it gives the opportunity for the utility to recoup its cost through its connection fees to help build the expansion of new plants and new water systems.” Sewer interconnections could be installed in 3-8 months.
Gardner went on to say that, although the interconnections would not directly affect the overburdened Section 11 waste treatment plant, it would reduce the demand on the San Tan and Pecan plants. If EPCOR were to install a 7.7 mile pipeline between the Section 11 plant and the San Tan plant, Section 11 influent could be dispersed between the San Tan and Anthem plants, bypassing the failing Section 11 facility and buying the time needed to permit and build a replacement plant designed to handle future development. “You can construct a new line a lot faster than designing, permitting and building a brand new plant,” he added.
Although Queen Creek’s offer of assistance seems like a practical short-term solution, many in the San Tan community have expressed concern that the neighborly offer is actually an opportunistic advance to further Queen Creek’s interests in annexing cherry-picked sections of the unincorporated community. Supervisor Todd House reflected this concern: “If you went through this whole endeavor to hook up water and all the sewer and stuff, is there ever a way back from it?”
“On the water side, we have proposed a 3-year interconnection,” responded Gardner. “That could stay as an emergency interconnection after that; but we feel like, after 3 years, EPCOR will have it well under control. On the sewer side, what we have proposed is that those interconnections that we would be putting in can handle up to 5 million gallons/day as the area builds out. We are asking that a permanent supply of 2 ½ million stay with us, because of the commitment we’ve made; and it’s really the return inflow of the 11,000+ homes in the area that we currently provide with water, while the wastewater flow is processed by Johnson Utilities… By us committing to the next 3 years, that allows EPCOR to plan long-term to get their wells and storage facilities online.”
Approximately 35,000 residents in the northern end of San Tan Valley already receive water service from the town of Queen Creek, while relying on Johnson Utilities for wastewater treatment. Johnson has approximately 28,000 water customers and more than 38,500 sewer customers.