SAN TAN VALLEY — The Arizona Corporation Commission will have another hearing on Johnson Utilities after some of its members raised new concerns over the company’s practices.
The investigation concerns several recent water outages reported in San Tan Valley, apparently due to a failed water pump. During a procedural hearing Thursday, Administrative Law Judge Jane Rodda set timelines for a new hearing on the issue amid fear that it could delay her final decision on whether an interim manager should be appointed for Johnson Utilities.
The new investigation docket stems from reports in late May of low water pressure among utility customers in San Tan Valley, most significantly in the neighborhoods of Copper Basin, Johnson Ranch, Oasis Magic Ranch and Rancho Bella Vista South. The company said at the time the low water pressure was caused by a failure in a key well motor caused a major pump to go offline.
A recent evidentiary hearing brought to light many other failures in the Johnson Utilities infrastructure, along with money going to mysterious companies instead of to improving said infrastructure. That was followed by highly critical statements being published by Commissioner Justin Olson and Chairman Tom Forese.
Forese’s letter in particular introduces a timeline of problems and calls the company to task for its inability to fix them. He said reports show that Johnson Utilities pulled more than 30 water meters from San Tan Valley. This forced several construction projects to cease operations, which then led to dust going unchecked and potentially causing air pollution violations.
“It is my understanding that the construction projects were not notified in advance about the meters being pulled, and that in some cases representatives of Johnson Utilities stated that the utility was not required to provide water to the construction projects,” Forese said.
That, combined with a water well motor failure that apparently had no backup system in place, led Forese to question why there are no quality-control checks in place at the company.
“A utility the size of Johnson should maintain a built-in redundancy pump system such that an immediate backup would take over in the event of any well motor failure,” Forese said. “Moreover, a utility of this size should likewise have a replacement well motor onsite to replace any failed equipment. … I would have expected Johnson Utilities to have overcompensated on its customer service by providing more adequate and advance notice to the construction projects. Unfortunately, it was reported that Johnson Utilities simply terminated the water supply without any prior notice to the construction projects.”
Rodda called the procedural hearing Thursday to make sure protocol is followed without pushing the entire Johnson Utilities case past the commissioners’ desired deadline of July 31. Robin Mitchell of ACC staff said she could have a staff report filed with the court by June 25. Johnson Utilities attorney Jeffrey Crockett agreed to have a response to the report filed no later than July 12, allowing Rodda to set a hearing on the matter for July 16.
Albert Acken, attorney for the towns of Queen Creek and Florence, and Kevin Costello of the Pinal County Attorney’s Office were also present at the hearing and said all three entities would likely want to intervene in the hearing.
“This is a very important matter for the towns,” Acken said.
Mitchell also brought up a concern over a sewage spill that took place near the end of the evidentiary hearing, which she wanted to get brought before the court in some way. However, Rodda concluded that it is an entirely separate matter and would have to be a part of a different docket. Also, Johnson Utilities would have to counter, which could drag the proceedings ever closer to the deadline.
“There have been many steps taken by the company since the end of the evidentiary record to improve service,” Crockett said. “So I don’t feel it’s appropriate for staff to focus on the negative things that have happened since the close of the record without us being able to put on evidence of the positive things that have happened.”