After Cutting Off Water to a Neighboring Community, Scottsdale Proposes a Solution

The city’s plan would provide the unincorporated community just beyond its borders with water for another two years, if Maricopa County agrees. But Scottsdale still needs to find a new water supply, which is proving elusive.

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John Hornewer climbs down the ladder of his tanker as he fills it up to haul water from Apache Junction to Rio Verde Foothills, Arizona, on Jan. 7, 2023. Credit: Getty Images
John Hornewer climbs down the ladder of his tanker as he fills it up to haul water from Apache Junction to Rio Verde Foothills, Arizona, on Jan. 7, 2023. Credit: Getty Images

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Eddie Reim’s school days look like those of most students. He goes to class and plays at recess with his friends. But at the end of the day, the fifth-grader does something a bit out of the ordinary: he heads to the water fountain and fills up his water bottle.

That’s because Eddie’s family lives in the Rio Verde Foothills, a community on unincorporated land governed by Maricopa County north of Scottsdale that had its main water supply cut off by the city at the beginning of this year. 

The water Eddie gets from the fountain will get him through until the next school day, ensuring he doesn’t have to take from his family’s now limited water supply.  

The Reims have cut back their water use. They don’t take showers at their own home. Or run the laundry or dishwasher. For their meals, they use paper plates and plastic utensils. “We’re not really getting to live in our house,” said Cody Reim, Eddie’s father, who organized a protest last month over the city’s water cutoff and has helped lead the community’s response to its water crisis. 

For years, Scottsdale had allowed haulers to fill their trucks at a water station to provide water to Rio Verde residents but cut off the haulers’ access in response to shortages on the Colorado River, the city’s main source of water. Though the city had said for years that it wouldn’t always be able to provide the water, many residents were unaware the water from the city would be cut off on Jan. 1. 

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The water haulers were the main source for residents who do not have wells, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars even when it’s not clear whether they will provide any water. The Rio Verde Foothills community was built by so-called “wildcat” developers who exploited a loophole in the state’s groundwater law that enabled construction without having to obtain a state certification that the development has enough water for 100 years.

The cutoff has thrust the Rio Verde Foothills—with roughly 2,000 homes—into the spotlight as more and more towns and cities, nationally and locally, face significant water issues.

In Arizona, news outlets have covered every twist and turn as the community looks to find water both in the short and long term. National news organizations have chimed in, with severe climate-induced droughts creating water shortages throughout the West and decrepit lead pipes and other aging water infrastructure wreaking havoc in parts of the Midwest, Northeast and South. 

In Maricopa County, Rio Verde Foothills residents filed a lawsuit against the city. State lawmakers have taken aim at Scottsdale’s leaders and introduced legislation to find water for the foothills for the next couple of years while a long-term solution is worked out.

After nearly two months without hauled water from Scottsdale, a short-term solution may finally have come together. Scottsdale City Council unanimously agreed Tuesday evening to adopt a resolution that would allow water haulers to draw from the water station for the next two years—if the county will agree. 

The city’s vote comes after Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes wrote in a letter last week that a county has the authority to temporarily provide water to county residents by entering an intergovernmental agreement with a public agency, like Scottsdale, or a private company.

The resolution, if agreed upon, would be dependent on Scottsdale finding a third-party source to provide 600 acre feet of water—200 acre feet per year—with 126 acre feet going to the county for purchase. That third-party source has yet to be determined.

Brian Biesemeyer, the city’s water resources director, told Inside Climate News he couldn’t comment on where the water might come from. An acre foot equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover an acre of land in one foot of water.

Over the weekend, Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega told 12 News in Phoenix that Scottsdale  would get the water from the Gila River Indian Community, but the tribe told the station it would not be providing the water to Scottsdale. Ortega then clarified the water would come from the Colorado River Indian Tribal Council, but that also ended up in dispute, with a spokesperson for the council telling 12 News they had not been approached by the city. Even if they had been approached, the spokesperson said, there is no system in place that could deliver the water.

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Michael Anthony Scerbo, the tribal council’s deputy director for public affairs, said Wednesday in an email that the council “has not had any direct talks with Scottsdale addressing water leasing and or assisting Rio Verde.

“Additionally,” Scerbo said, “logistics are not yet in place to begin water leasing at this time.”  

Residents at the city council meeting on Tuesday had concerns beyond where the water would come from: the cost and the likelihood that the number of acre feet they get could be cut if the city faces any additional shortages due to drought on the Colorado River.

To get the water, the county will have to pay $1,000 a month, plus $21.25 per 1,000 gallons of potable water, resulting in higher costs than the community was previously paying for Scottsdale’s water. 

John and Doreen Hornewer have lived in the Rio Verde Foothills for over 20 years and operate a water hauling business. Before the Jan. 1 cutoff, they charged around 4 to 5 cents a gallon for water they obtained at the station in Scottsdale. Now, they have to drive further out to Apache Junction to get the water to deliver to customers who have large tanks at their homes, raising the cost to around 11 cents. The Hornewers aren’t sure what the exact cost will end up being if Scottsdale’s resolution is agreed to by the county, but they expect it to be around 6 cents per gallon. 

The amount of water the county will receive can also be cut if Scottsdale’s own water supply is reduced. “If our access to water is constrained in any way we would constrain the water deliveries to Rio Verde Foothills,” Biesemeyer said, when presenting the resolution to the city council. 

The city relies heavily on water from the Colorado River, which has experienced more than 20 years of drought and decades of over-allocation. The seven states that rely on the river are currently negotiating how to address the dwindling water supply, but have yet to reach an agreement. 

With the river’s two largest reservoirs—Lake Mead and Lake Powell—facing the possibility of reaching low enough water levels where electricity for millions of Americans is lost and states cannot receive their full allocation of water, it is likely Arizona will see further cuts to its water supply from the Colorado River. 

Scottsdale’s resolution also calls for the county to attempt to stop issuing building permits in the community. In Rio Verde Foothills, “wildcat” developers built hundreds of homes on five parcels or less, meaning that the water supply did not need to be certified under the state’s groundwater law. The law requires any subdivision—meaning six or more parcels—in the fastest-growing regions of the state need to have the water department certify that it has enough water for 100 years.

These “wildcat” developers have drawn sharp criticism from all sides and need to be reined in by the county, officials and homeowners say.

Any short-term agreement for the Rio Verde Foothills now lies in the county’s hands. Maricopa County Supervisor Thomas Galvin, whose district includes Rio Verde Foothills, wrote in a letter to Scottsdale dated Tuesday that the county had yet to review the city’s proposal. He also shared many of the same concerns as residents over the cost of the water, where it would come from and how it will be transported to residents. 

Galvin also noted in the letter that he had proposed a plan last year “from a private water company, that would be of financial benefit to Scottsdale and of no cost to Maricopa County.”

“This plan makes sense because a private water utility company went on record, with a willingness and ability to be part of an interim solution to the water issue, before the City’s imposed cutoff deadline of December 31, 2022,” he wrote. “This proposed solution remains available.”

That private water utility company is EPCOR, but the city never voted on the proposal. EPCOR has also submitted an application to provide residents with a so-called standpipe service to solve the long-term problem. The company hasn’t yet specified the source of its water. But the plan needs approval from the state’s regulatory body for utilities, the Arizona Corporation Commission. The company projects that it would take at least two or three years to establish service and cost $6 million at minimum just to construct the standpipe system, which would essentially be another water station where haulers and homeowners could go to pay for water.

Cody Reim, the community leader and father of the fifth-grader, said the city’s resolution is a start to finding a short-term solution that will allow for negotiations with the county to proceed. But tensions between the city and community still run high.

During the meeting’s public comment on Tuesday, Reim spoke on the conflicting statements Ortega, the Scottsdale mayor, had given on where the water would come from, which he would later retract. Ortega also criticized the residents like Reims for bringing children with them to previous city council meetings where residents protested Scottsdale’s decision to cut off water. “I’m very glad that we’re all adults here who don’t have children carrying signs against” the city, he said. 

Reim took exception to the comment, saying it had come from an elected government official who “didn’t appreciate you expressing your First Amendment right with your children.”

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