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SAN TAN VALLEY — Pinal County is losing big money in investment and tax revenue as problems persist at the smelly Section 11 wastewater plant, attendees at a Pinal Partnership forum were told.

Sewer treatment woes that have already stymied growth in southern San Tan Valley and are threatening to stall it in the north were the subject of the online forum on Friday. Approximately 260 people viewed it.

New construction has essentially stopped for two years on 22,000 acres, or nearly 35 square miles, in San Tan Valley over problems at Section 11, attorney Court Rich and Danny Court, senior economist with Elliott D. Pollack & Company, said.

Danny Court said if there’s no change in the next 18 months, the county will have missed out on $250 million in economic activity and $8 million in lost tax revenue. In three years the loss could be $600 million. In seven years the loss could be $1.6 billion and $50 million on tax revenue, he said.

The county may never get this money back if investors see too much risk. He said it’s worth considering, “are we permanently damaging an area unnecessarily, and are we going to be losing out on long-term investment?”

Magma Ranch developer Nariman Afkhami said he has 1,800 lots he can’t build on. “The time of talk is over, we need action,” Afkhami said. “We need immediate resolution for Section 11 to bring it to compliance. Whether they use Biolac (a type of enclosed wastewater plant) or anything else they want to do is up to them.”

Afkhami also recommended that Johnson Utilities make an interconnection with the town of Queen Creek’s sewer system, which “will immediately open up capacity.” An attendee noted that JU’s owners have resisted this idea for a long time. Court Rich responded that he believes they will continue to, but if the Arizona Corporation Commission orders it, the courts won’t stop it.

JU’s Pecan wastewater plant near Queen Creek is also near capacity, Court Rich said. The Pinal County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 16 voted to send a letter to the ACC asking it to immediately provide interim solutions that will allow development to proceed around the Pecan and the Section 11 plants.

Court Rich said he hopes the ACC is in a position by its Oct. 14 open meeting to offer solutions and a clearer picture of when these problems will end. “Hopefully by next month, we’ve got some certainty and we can move forward.”

He said Biolac technology, a solution favored by JU, is being used in Eloy and Apache Junction and could be up and running in 18 months to relieve Section 11. But EPCOR, interim operator of JU, favors replacing Section 11 with a new plant in Copper Basin, which could take five years.

A listener asked if control of JU will eventually return to the owners or if it will be sold. Court Rich said the issue of taking the utility away from the owners will likely end up before the Arizona Supreme Court at some point. He said private property rights are very important in the United States, but so is the duty of a monopoly utility. He said the odds are it will go back to George Johnson someday.

Court Rich said the ACC has an item on its upcoming agenda that would actually take away the certificate of convenience and necessity, or the legal right to operate. “I don’t know if the commission intends to vote on that or not. … It would no doubt be a huge legal fight.”

Another attendee asked who will pay for these fixes. Court Rich said developers have already indicated to the ACC they will pay for an interconnection to the Queen Creek sewer system.

At Section 11, there are daily ongoing environmental violations that need to be cleaned up. Whether the state makes the owner pay for it and not put the cost on the ratepayers is one question. Developers may also be willing to help pay for interim solutions there as well, Court Rich said.

Another attendee asked if these are just short-term solutions to help developers, or if anyone is planning for the future of Pinal County. Court Rich said when developers pay their impact fees, and help build roads and infrastructure, it’s good for the area.

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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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