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PHOENIX — Over the objections of Johnson Utilities, the company will partially relieve the burden on its wastewater system by connecting with the town of Queen Creek, the Arizona Corporation Commission ordered.

EPCOR Water Arizona, interim operator of JU, also reported at the ACC’s Nov. 4 open meeting that the company continues to struggle with sanitary sewer overflows.

The interconnection with Queen Creek is being done to increase sewer capacity and allow home building to continue in the northern San Tan Valley area served by the Pecan treatment plant.

“We think it’s critical for you to pass this order today,” Spencer Kamps with the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona told the commission. “…With the growth that’s continuing out there and the home sales that are expected, providing sufficient capacity to serve that is critical.”

“It’s absolutely essential that this is approved and moves forward,” agreed attorney Court Rich, representing landowners and developers.

Rich said with JU unable to obtain financing for expansion, while also opposing the connection with Queen Creek, it leaves one of the fastest-growing communities in the country “with no viable alternative.”

Johnson Utilities serves approximately 29,450 water and 40,160 wastewater customers in San Tan Valley, Queen Creek and Florence. The ACC is also considering an agreement for EPCOR to buy JU’s infrastructure and assets.

The ACC also planned to hold a hearing on the sale of JU beginning at 10 a.m. on Nov. 18. Due to pandemic safety guidelines, the public will not be permitted in person, but the ACC will allow public comment by phone from 10 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., or until the last caller is finished speaking. The hearing will begin after public comment concludes. To comment by phone, call 1-866-705-2554 and enter this code: 241497#.

At the Nov. 4 meeting, Rich reminded the ACC that JU’s Section 11 plant in southern San Tan Valley continues to struggle as well. He said a 22-square-mile area served by that plant has been subject to “a de facto moratorium” on development for more than two years now. He said his clients are working with EPCOR on an interim solution.

Developers will help pay for the interconnection with Queen Creek. According to EPCOR, anything not paid by developers will be paid by new hook-up fees, so current customers won’t pay anything for the interconnection.

EPCOR attorney Jason Gellman said the company doesn’t believe any of JU’s objections prevent moving forward with the plan. He said construction will take four months, but he couldn’t provide an exact date it will be complete. Scott Holcomb, town attorney for Queen Creek, said town staff believe construction time could be much less and are ready to go forward.

JU attorney Jeffrey Crockett told the commission that JU maintains the interconnection isn’t needed and ownership disapproves, as he explained in exceptions filed that week and in prior filings before the ACC.

ACC Chairman Bob Burns asked about financing for expanding the Pecan plant.

“We continue to work toward that, but we’re finding it very difficult,” Crockett replied. “Yesterday, we received word from JU’s bank that they will not fund the loan for capital improvements, so we’re looking for another lender that will do that, and that work continues.”

Also continuing are occasional sanitary sewer eruptions. Jeff Stuck, EPCOR vice president of operations, told the ACC that the company continues work on managing and maintaining the collection system “to ensure episodes are reduced to the maximum extent possible. … Many that we’re experiencing are related to contractors. … We have been very successful in putting in place a business process to respond to those, so they’re responded to very quickly, efficiently and effectively,” Stuck told the ACC.

He said the company continues to maintain and repair the wastewater plants, but “significant capital” is needed to address remaining issues. Troy Day, EPCOR vice president of engineering and commercial services, said the company continues to be in “maintenance mode only. … There are significant capital projects necessary for the wastewater capacity in this system, and the cash flow does not support starting those projects,” he said.

Stuck reported that water supply and pressure are faring better. An ion exchange plant has been installed and is operating, and water pressure is up throughout the system. EPCOR has added more than 9 million gallons of potable water supply to the system, has activated a previously unused booster station to better moderate pressures, and has completed a couple of chlorination projects, he said.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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