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Every Drop of Water Precious in Thirsty Ariz. Town

Drought: Throngs of weekend visitors and severe conditions are overtaxing local supply. Residents are becoming experts at making do.


PINE, Ariz. — As thousands of tourists converge today in this high-country town for its annual-- but belated--arts and crafts festival, the big question is what will be depleted first: the quilts, ceramic dishes and cottonwood bark sculptures, or the town's water supply.

Pine, at 5,500 feet in central Arizona's Mogollon Rim, relies almost exclusively on wells to tap underground water. But with precious little winter snow or summer rain falling on the towering escarpment that runs across the middle of Arizona, the state's worst-recorded drought is taking its toll.

The mountain slope's swiftly moving aquifer has never been as stingy. On high-demand weekends like this one, when overheated Phoenix folks come to enjoy weekend retreats in the shade of ponderosa pines and treasure-hunting tourists scour the town's shops, water is consumed more quickly than it can be replenished.

The water company has parked a potable water truck near the center of town so local residents can fill containers if needed, and Phoenix residents were warned Friday that if they were heading here for the arts festival, which ends today, they should bring their own water.

"There's a lot of anxiety over whether we'll have enough water to make it through the weekend," said local resident Ed Paul, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter, on Saturday afternoon. "There are a lot of weekend residents in town, and tourists, so it's probable that we won't have any water left by Monday."

Most locals shrug off the impending shortage as the cost of living in the mountains here, and indeed, they are becoming somewhat expert at it.

Much of the town ran out of water two months ago, capping off an already dismal July 4th weekend. Because nearby forest fires had burned nearly half a million acres, and the tinder-dry woods had been closed to campers, hikers, fishermen and other users, the summer arts and crafts show was postponed until this weekend.

Still, even with no influx of tourists in early July, about 800 of Pine's 1,931 residents had no water for up to eight days.

Some Pine residents maintain private wells, live in small subdivisions served by their own well fields or live along Pine Creek and have historic settler rights to its water.

During the July 4th water shortage, those affected purchased bottled water for their cooking needs, showered at sports clubs in Payson, 19 miles southeast, and filled buckets with nonpotable water from trucks to service their toilets.

Living with the drought has become a way of life here. Outdoor watering is prohibited, and residents are expected to cut their interior water use by half or face possible fines.

"We know who our good customers have been, who can't cut back by half because they're already conserving so much," said Myndi Brogdon, spokeswoman for Brooke Utilities Inc., a Bakersfield-based firm that owns water companies in California and Arizona, including the local Pine Water Co.

Jeanette Buchholz, 80, knows the drought drill: She keeps a dozen gallon jugs filled with water on her porch, either to flush the toilets or to cook, when her tap no longer delivers.

"It's worth it, in order to live here," she said. "I love these tall pines, the rocks, the quiet."

There is some complaints among full-time residents that weekend residents abuse water.

"The part-timers are running their drip [irrigation] systems all the time--you can see the water running down the street," complained Jim Thompson, who moved here four years ago from Chicago. "They should have their water cut off."

Pine has few options for resolving its water problem, short of an end to the drought.

Dig more wells? Because Pine is surrounded by the Tonto National Forest, it is generally restricted to drilling within the town limits. But because of the town's reliance on septic tanks and leach fields, there is little land available for new wells.

Dig deeper wells? Many wells that once produced good amounts of water at 160 feet deep are now dry. The local water improvement district sank a test well to 1,800 feet, but it found little water. In the cavern-pocked limestone underground here, finding fractures and fissures with water is something of a crapshoot.

"We have to find more water somewhere," said John Breninger, a director of the local water improvement district. "The problem is, we don't necessarily know where it is, how much there is, and where to intercept it."

In the meantime, Pine is trying to recover its lost summer at the eleventh hour. Besides today's arts show, an antiques festival, originally scheduled for late July, will be held Oct. 12-13, complete with a classic car show and pit barbecue.

"This is like the summer that never happened, like someone put a big 'canceled' sign on it," said Dennis Abel, who owns the Ginger Bread House antiques store and ice cream parlor with his wife, Shirley Vickers.

"Over the course of the summer, our business is off 50%. This weekend isn't just the best weekend of the summer, it's basically been our only weekend.

"And now that we have all these people coming to town, we're at risk of running out of water. What a summer."

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