“You may be about to become a poster child for the value of water!” local environmental activist Tricia Gerrodette wrote to Sonoita resident Molly Anderson recently. Anderson and more than 70 of her neighbors who get their water from the Sonoita Valley Water Company (SVW) may be about to see their water bills dramatically increase due to a depleted well and the high cost of hauling water. 

In papers filed with the Arizona Corporations Commission (ACC), Gary Wene, owner of SVW, testified that the well servicing the Papago Springs/Los Encinos area of Sonoita has been drawn down significantly. By May 2021 it was producing less than ten gallons per minute. To address the problem, the company installed a 10,000-gallon storage tank at the site, and made repairs to the well, at a cost of $19,320. 

On May 18, 2022, SVW was granted permission by the ACC to add a surcharge of $11.03/ month for 24 months to their users’ bills to recoup the cost of these repairs. 

To meet the water demands of its customers, the company hauled water from a second well located in the center of Sonoita from May to November 2021, which cost the company $156,000. According to documents filed with the ACC, Southwestern Utility Management paid for the water hauling, as Sonoita Valley Water Company was unable to pay this bill. This debt is being carried on SVW’s books, according to Attorney Steve Wene, who represents Southwestern Utility Management, which manages SVW. Steve Wene is also the brother of SVW’s owner. 

If SVW were to be sold to a private company, Southwestern Utility would want to be repaid for the hauling expense, according to Wene. If the residents were to form a water improvement district and take over the company, “everybody would be more lenient” about forgiving the debt, Wene said. 

SVW did not seek permission from the ACC to add a surcharge to their customers’ bills to recover the $156,000 water hauling expense. But even with the well now repaired and producing 20 – 30 gallons/minute, water hauling is still needed, due to the depleted aquifer, according to Gary Wene’s testimony. He stated that the solution would be to drill a new well, and that the company is trying to locate a suitable site to drill.

SVW asked for, and received, permission to pass hauling costs on to their customers going forward. The company “loses money right now, but we are hoping to break even with the surcharges,” Steve Wene said. Although, according to Steve Wene, the well improvements helped to alleviate the water shortage, last month the company had to resume hauling water to the Papago Springs well. He does not anticipate that the hauling charges will be as high this year as last, but, based on the $156,000 it cost for hauling water in the last half of 2021, the hauling surcharge could cost SVW customers $2000 or more annually for their water going forward. “Southwestern Utility just wants to recover its costs,” Steve Wene said. 

This water crisis has had a ripple effect in downtown Sonoita, as well, where several businesses along SR82 are also customers of Sonoita Valley Water Company. Todd Bostock, of Dos Cabezas WineWorks sees water trucks filling up at the water company’s well located behind the building that was formerly Sonoita Auto. “Recently it’s been all day, every day,” he said. “We know when they are pumping because our water pressure goes down to just a drip.” He reported that the winery has to shut down its equipment and wait for the pressure to build up again. “We went from it being okay a few years ago, even when the Ranch House, the Vineyard Café, Sonoita Auto and Overland Trout were open, but when they started hauling water that’s when it became an issue.” Bostock added that “as businesses start to reopen up again, it’s going to be untenable.”

Gary Wene took over SVW after the death of its founder, Buck Lewis, a civil engineer from Sierra Vista. Lewis is purported to have stated that his wish was for the residents to take over the water company through the establishment of a water improvement district, but when this was proposed over a decade ago, residents were not willing to take over the aging system that needed much expensive repair. 

“If a district cannot be formed in three to four years, Mr. Wene intends to sell the company to a permanent owner,” according to the documents filed with the ACC. The Wenes would very much like to see the community take over the water company, which operated at a net loss in both 2019 and 2020. “We want to get it to pay for itself, get everything in place and turn it over, Steve Wene said. “We’re just trying to help the community. There’s no other explanation.” 

They hope to make the necessary repairs to infrastructure so that the company would be viable going forward. “We’re trying to set them up so that they can afford water,” he said. “I don’t think big corporations coming into small towns is the right thing.” 

In the near future, more residents and businesses in eastern Santa Cruz County may be facing the challenges that Sonoita Valley Water Company customers are dealing with now. The increase in demand for water in the Sonoita /Elgin region, more homes, more vineyards, the decrease in the aquifers, climate change, rising temperatures, and possibly the dewatering of the Hermosa Mine in the Patagonia Mountains are all stressors that could lead to even more wells drying up.

Sonoita Valley Water Company customers may be ‘the canaries in the mine,’ a cautionary tale for residents of eastern Santa Cruz County and beyond. “This is the tip of the iceberg,” Gerrodette said to the PRT. “I think this is a dramatic warning case for what others may likely be facing, depending on where their wells are located. This is scary. It doesn’t get any more dramatic than turning on your tap and nothing comes out.”