Scottsdale cuts off Rio Verde Foothills water supply amid drought

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


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Survival — or at least basic sustenance — for hundreds in a desert community amid the horse farms and golf courses outside Phoenix now rests on a 54-year-old man with a plastic bucket of quarters.

John Hornewer picked up a quarter and put it in the slot. The lone water hose at a remote public gas station spurted to life, spraying 73 gallons into the steel tank of Hornewer’s water transport truck. After two minutes it stopped. Hornewer, one of two main suppliers responsible for providing water to a community of more than 2,000 homes known as Rio Verde Foothills, fished out another quarter.

“It shouldn’t be like this,” Hornewer said.

Some who live here amid the cactus and creosote bushes see themselves as the first domino to fall as the Colorado River tips further into crisis. On Jan. 1, the city of Scottsdale, which gets most of its water from the Colorado River, cut off the Rio Verde Foothills from the municipal water supply it has depended on for decades. The result is a disorienting and frightening lack of certainty about how residents will find enough water when their tanks run dry in the coming weeks, with a bitter political feud affecting possible solutions.

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The city’s decision — and the failure to find a reliable alternative — has forced water haulers like Hornewer to scour distant towns for every available gallon. About a quarter of the homes in the Rio Verde Foothills, a checkerboard of one-acre lots connected by dirt roads in an unincorporated part of Maricopa County, rely on water from a municipal pipe hauled by trucks. Since the disconnect, their water rates have nearly tripled. The others have wells, although many of these have gone dry, as the water table has dropped several hundred meters in some places after many years of drought.

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

The prolonged drought and shrinking reservoirs have already led to 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 annual average flow. The heavy rain and snow pounding California has not had much of an impact on the Colorado River Basin, and the major reservoirs Lake Powell and Lake Mead have dropped 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 emphasized that their priority was to their own residents and cast the Rio Verde Foothills as a boomtown for irresponsible development, fed by noisy water trucks rumbling across city streets. “The city cannot be responsible for the water needs of a separate 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 unfazed as his Rio Verde Foothills neighbors cried foul.

“There is no Santa Claus,” he said in a statement last month. “The mega-drought tells us all – water is not a compassion game.”

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

For the past several years, some residents have sought to form their own water district that would allow the community to buy water from elsewhere in the state and import what they need, more than 100 acre-feet of water per year. Another group prefers to hire a Canadian private utility company, Epcor, to supply the community, as it does with neighboring areas. But political disputes have so far stymied both approaches.

The water district plan — which supporters say would give them long-term access to a reliable water source — was rejected in August by Maricopa County supervisors. Precinct Supervisor Thomas Galvin said he opposed adding a new layer of government to a community that values ​​its freedom, especially one run by neighbors with the authority to condemn property to build infrastructure.

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

The water district “would be subject to the whims of five local lay people who served on its board. While Epcor can’t assess anything about those people unless the Corporations Commission approves,” Galvin said in an interview. “To me, it was just a sensible plan all the way around.”

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

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

That has left the Rio Verde Foothills with no clear path to solving 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 seeking an injunction against Scottsdale to force the city to reopen its faucets.

“What Scottsdale has done is inhumane. Dangerous. They’ve left us without fire protection. They’ve left us without water for families,” said Christy Jackman, a resident who helped lead an effort to raise thousands of dollars to pay lawyers to seek the ban. “Mostly what we have right now is palpable fear.”

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Two days before the cutoff, Stephen Coniaris, a retired emergency room physician, had his 5,000-gallon underground storage tank topped off. His solar-powered home overlooking the McDowell Mountains was already well-equipped to sustain through the worst drought in a millennium. He had a low volume dishwasher; a toilet that only consumed 0.9 gallons per rinsing.

But this new dilemma has pressured Coniaris and his wife, Donna Rice, into more extreme territory. They joined a gym in Scottsdale to shower. They transport dirty clothes to friends’ homes or a laundromat. Plastic buckets in the backyard collect the rainwater, though rarely, that falls from the spouts from the roof. This goes to 3.5 gallon plastic jugs placed in the bathroom to flush the toilet – although now they usually make other arrangements.

“We pee outside,” Coniaris mentioned as he ate his grilled chicken lunch on paper plates to avoid doing the dishes.

These measures have lowered the couple’s average water consumption from 200 liters a day last year to 30 liters a day in the first week of January as they anxiously await a solution for their community. As the cutoff deadline approached last year, some neighbors sold their homes and others have seen property values ​​drop.

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

“It would be crazy to buy our house at this point,” she said.

But the stay will become more and more strained the longer the Rio Verde foothills have to rely on distant sources of drawn water.

Cody Reim, who works for a company that installs metal roofing, usually 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, the new rates will put his next bill at $1,340 a month, he said. almost as much as his mortgage payment.

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

Reim has called or emailed all of his state and federal representatives, most of whom have ignored his requests, he said, and visited the state legislature last month to try to speak with Arizona’s former governor. On Tuesday, he attended a protest at City Hall in Scottsdale — the city where his children go to school, where his family does most of its shopping — to demand water for his community.

“I thought, this is the United States, we do so much in humanitarian aid to other countries that don’t have water, they’re not going to let tax-paying citizens of this county go without water,” he said.

“You don’t think this could happen,” he added. “You have this belief that there will be help.”

“Do you fill it all with water?”

The help for now is Hornewer and the other water carriers that service the Rio Verde Foothills.

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Until this year, the six trucks in his family-run business depended on the nearby Scottsdale gas station. It would take about 15 minutes, he said, to fill his 6,000-gallon tank, quickly punch a code into the automated system and receive his water flow.

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

“I will do what I have to do for my people,” he said. “But wow, this is getting stupid.”

As Hornewer waited, other people with trailer-filled personal water tanks pulled up and looked impatiently at his commercial hauler. One of those idling behind him, a man in a cowboy hat and checked shirt, finally got out of his pickup truck and strolled over. He rapped his knuckles on Hornewer’s tank.

“Do you fill it all with water?” he asked. “Serious?”

The tedious process has reduced the number of possible water loads that Hornewer’s company can undertake by 75 percent. Driving that far in a truck that consumes a gallon of diesel every 3.5 miles has dramatically increased his costs. In hot summer months, when water use increases, the math on how he can meet Rio Verde Foothills water needs simply doesn’t add up, he said.

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

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

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

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

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

Hornewer keeps a printout on his dashboard showing how much water each customer has left. As their tank drops, electronic monitors alert him so he can prioritize his deliveries. On Saturday, Britney Kellum was at the top of her list.

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

Kellum is a tenant, and her job in logistics for a trucking company gives her an appreciation for the new obstacles to finding water. She also sympathizes with Hornewer, who has faced attacks on Rio Verde Foothills’ social media pages from residents angry about the higher prices and his support for the effort to create a water district.

“It gets very personal,” Kellum said.

“It’s unfortunate, I think, that it got to this point,” she added. “This could be low or break for us.”


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