Scottsdale cuts off Rio Verde Foothills water supply amid drought

Boarded the horses at the Miller Ranch in the foothills of the Rio Verde. (Caitlin O’Hara for The Washington Post)

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Survival, or at least basic subsistence, for hundreds of people in a desert community among horse ranches and golf courses outside Phoenix now depends on a 54-year-old man carrying a plastic bucket.

John Hornever took a quarter and put it in the slot. A lone water hose at a remote public gas station sprang to life and splashed 73 gallons into the steel tank of Horneer’s water truck. After two minutes it stopped. Hornewer, one of two major suppliers responsible for supplying water to a community of more than 2,000 homes known as Rio Verde Foothills, fished out another quarter.

“It shouldn’t be like that,” Hornever said.

Some who live here among the cacti and creosote bushes see themselves as the first domino to fall as the Colorado River descends into further crisis. On Jan. 1, the city of Scottsdale, which gets most of its water from the Colorado River, disconnected the Rio Verde Foothills from the municipal water supply it has relied on for decades. The result is a disorienting and frightening lack of clarity about how residents will find enough water as their tanks run out in the coming weeks, with bitter political wrangling affecting possible solutions.

Officials fear a “full-on doomsday scenario” for the drought-stricken Colorado River

The city’s decision and inability to find a reliable alternative has forced water carriers like Hornever to scour outlying towns for all available gallons. About a quarter of the homes in the Rio Verde Foothills, a one-acre tract of land connected by dirt roads in unincorporated Maricopa County, depend on water from a municipal pipe hauled by trucks. Their water prices have nearly tripled since the shutdown. Others have wells, though many have dried up as the water table has dropped hundreds of feet in some places after years of drought.

“It’s a real slap in the face for everybody,” said Hornever, who has been hauling water to his neighbors for more than two decades. “It’s not sustainable. We’re not going to get through a summer like this.

Prolonged drought and shrinking reservoirs have already put unprecedented restrictions on the use of the Colorado River, and the federal government is now pushing seven states to cut 2 to 4 million acre-feet more, up to 30 percent of the river’s average annual flow. The heavy rain and snow that has been ravaging California has not had much of an impact on the Colorado River Basin, with major reservoirs in Lake Powell and Lake Mead reduced to dangerous levels.

That grim forecast prompted Scottsdale to warn the Rio Verde Foothills more than a year ago that their water supply would be cut off. City officials stressed that their own residents were their priority and saw the Rio Verde Foothills as a boom in irresponsible development, fueled by noisy water trucks rumbling over city streets. “The city cannot be responsible for the water needs of an individual community, especially given its unfettered and unregulated growth,” the city manager’s office wrote in December.

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Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega was unmoved when his Rio Verde Foothills neighbors cried foul.

“There is no Santa,” he said in a statement last month. “Our time tells us all – water is not a game of compassion.”

With increasing urgency, residents of the Rio Verde Foothills have looked to two main alternatives to find a new water source, though bitter disagreements over the best solution have divided the community and pitted neighbors against each other.

In the past few years, some residents have pushed to create their own water district, which would allow the community to buy water from elsewhere in the state and import what it needs, more than 100 acre-feet of water per year. Another group favors bringing in Epcor, a private Canadian utility company, to supply the community, as it does next door. But political wrangling has so far scuttled both approaches.

Maricopa County supervisors in August rejected a water district plan that supporters say would give them long-term access to a reliable water source. Area Supervisor Thomas Galvin said he opposes adding a new layer of government to a community that values ​​its freedom, especially one run by neighbors who have the right to condemn property for infrastructure.

Galvin favored Epcor, a utility that would be regulated by the Arizona Corporation Commission if approved.

The water district “would be subject to the whims of the five local laymen who serve on its board. Because Epcor can’t rate anything on these people unless the corporation commission approves,” Galvin said in an interview. “To me, it was just a reasonable plan all around.”

Scottsdale officials didn’t see it that way. To avoid service interruptions to the Rio Verde Foothills, Epcor needed Scottsdale to agree to treat the water it would provide, but the city has not agreed to do so.

Mayor Ortega’s office said he was not available for an interview.

This has left the Rio Verde Foothills without a clear path to solve their water problem. Some homeowners have sued to challenge Maricopa County’s decision to block the water district. And a larger group of residents filed a lawsuit Thursday in Maricopa County Superior Court asking Scottsdale for an injunction to force the city to reopen the taps.

“What Scottsdale has done is inhumane. Dangerous. They’ve left us without fire protection. They’ve left us without water for families,” said resident Christy Jackman, who helped raise thousands of dollars to pay lawyers to seek an injunction. right now there is, there is fear.”

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Two days before the outage, Steven Koniaris, a retired emergency room physician, had a 5,000-gallon underground storage tank topped up. His solar-powered home, overlooking the McDowell Mountains, was already well equipped to survive the worst drought of the millennium. He had a small dishwasher; a toilet that used only 0.9 gallons per flush.

But this new dilemma has pushed Koniaris and her wife Donna Rice has gone into more extreme territory. They joined a gym in Scottsdale to shower. They take the dirty clothes to friends’ houses or to the laundromat. Plastic buckets in the yard collect the rainwater, however rare, that falls from the roof spouts. It is used in 3.5-gallon plastic jugs placed in the bathroom to flush the toilet, although now they usually do other things.

“We pee outside,” Koniaris mentioned, eating a lunch of grilled chicken off paper plates to avoid washing dishes.

These measures have reduced the couple’s average water usage from 200 gallons a day last year to 30 gallons a day in the first week of January as they look forward to a solution for their community. As the foreclosure deadline approached last year, some neighbors sold their homes, while others have watched their property values ​​decline.

Rice said they don’t plan to sell, but she couldn’t imagine much demand anyway.

“It would be crazy to buy our house right now,” she said.

But staying put will become increasingly difficult the longer the Rio Verde Foothills must rely on distant sources of hauled water.

Cody Reims, who works for a company that installs metal roofing, typically pays $380 a month for the roughly 10,000 gallons a month he uses with his wife and four young children. If his family continues to use water at the same rate, his next bill will be $1,340 a month at the new rates, he said. almost as much as his mortgage payment.

“It’s a life-changing amount of money for me,” he said.

He said Rheims has called or emailed all of his state and federal representatives, most ignoring his requests, and visited the state legislature last month to try to speak with the former Arizona governor. On Tuesday, he took part in a protest at the Scottsdale City Council — the city where his children attend school, where his family does most of its shopping — to demand water for his community.

“I think this is the United States of America, we do so much in humanitarian aid to other countries that don’t have water, they’re not going to let the taxpaying people of this area go without water,” he said.

“You don’t think it could happen,” he added. “You have that confidence that help will come.”

‘You fill everything with water?’

For now, Hornevers and other water carriers serving the Rio Verde Foothills are helping.

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Until this year, six trucks in his family’s business were based at a nearby Scottsdale gas station. He said it will take about 15 minutes to fill his 6,000-gallon tank, quickly entering a code into the automated system and receiving his water stream.

On Saturday, he spent an hour driving 45 miles to Apache Junction, one of the few towns nearby with a gas station, a small cinder block house with a single hose. It now takes 85 quarters and almost three hours to complete.

“I will do what I have to do for my people,” he said. “But, it’s getting stupid.”

As Hornever waited, other people pulled up with trailer loads of personal water tanks, eagerly watching his commercial hauler. One of those idling behind him, a man in a cowboy hat and plaid shirt, eventually got out of his pickup truck and pulled over. He tapped his fingers on Horneer’s tank.

“Do you fill everything with water?” he asked. “Seriously?”

The grueling process has reduced the number of potential water loads Hornewer’s company can handle by 75 percent. Driving that far in a truck that consumes a gallon of diesel every 3.5 miles has increased his costs significantly. During the hot summer months, when water use spikes, the math on how he could meet the Rio Verde Foothills’ water demand just doesn’t add up, he said.

“We have two months. And then we’re done,” he said. “In two months, it won’t matter how much money you have. After two months, it will: you’ll get your allotment, your water ration: use it wisely.

Some Hornewer customers require a large offer. Miller’s ranch, which draws visitors from around the world to ride its collection of Missouri Fox Trotter horses, uses about 24,000 gallons a month to maintain the roughly 40 horses and people who visit and live on the 20-acre farm.

“It’s definitely a problem,” said Sharon Yeale, ranch manager.

However, there are few alternatives if they want to keep their animals.

“It’s not like we can buy them bottled water,” she said.

Hornever keeps a printout on its dashboard showing how much water each customer has left. When their tanks run low, electronic monitors alert him so he can prioritize supplies. At the top of his list on Saturday was Brittney Kellum.

As he filled her underground tank, Kellum came out to thank him.

Kellum is a tenant, and her job at a logistics trucking company makes her appreciate the new obstacles to finding water. She also sympathizes with Hornever, who has faced attacks on Rio Verde Foothills social media sites from residents outraged by the higher prices and his support for the water district effort.

“It gets very personal,” Kellum said.

“I think it’s unfortunate that it has come to this,” she added. “We could have it or break it.”


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