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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘We will run out’: Arizona community desperate for water solution

Solving Rio Verde Foothills' water crisis is a waiting game, but the people can only wait for so long.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (CN) — Politicians and other state officials say they’re working diligently toward both short- and long-term solutions for the Rio Verde Foothills, which entered its second month without a reliable water source on Wednesday.

But the community can’t wait forever.

“As soon as we hit 90 degrees, we’re screwed,” said Christy Jackman, a 13-year Rio Verde Foothills resident. “That’s when it’s gonna really, really be bad. You have to keep drinking water. Your horses have to keep drinking water.

“We will not be able to conserve the way we do now, and we will run out.”

Before Jan. 1, the more than 1,000 people living in the unincorporated area north of Scottsdale received water for over 30 years from water haulers from the city. But Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega followed through on a November warning, cutting the community off to prioritize city residents as part of Scottsdale’s drought management plan.

“It’s scary,” Jackman said after a Jan. 29 evening town hall meant to discuss potential solutions. “There’s already people not doing laundry unless they have a friend in Scottsdale. There’s already people that literally are flushing toilets from water they’ve collected from the rain. There are people that aren’t using toilets, having to pee outside. There are people that joined a health club so they can shower in town. There are people whose kids get one bath a week.”

Because water delivery trucks now have to travel outside even farther to get water, Jackman said the community receives about 25% of the water it did before. 

She said she knows one woman who used only 600 gallons of water in January. For reference, the United States Geological Survey estimates the average person uses 80 to 100 gallons of water per day, or about 2,700 per month.

She and other Rio Verde Foothills residents sued Scottsdale in Maricopa County Superior Court last month, claiming Ortega’s decision violated state law and asking a judge to issue a temporary stay, which would force Scottsdale to continue providing water to the roughly 500 homes. The judge denied the stay, finding that the plaintiffs “have not provided evidence of irreparable harm.”

“The plaintiffs have not shown that they are unable to access water at all,” wrote Superior Court Judge Joan M. Sinclair in her Jan. 20 ruling. “They just cannot access it from the Scottsdale standpipe at this time.”

Residents are now banding together to help one another as they desperately await a solution.

Jackman said she keeps a list of people with reliable wells and private water trailers, asking people to come to her if they or their loved ones need help.

“We can’t fill you up, but we can give you what you need,” she told the nearly 200 people gathered at the Reigning Grace Ranch. Horses whinnied and birds chirped behind her as she spoke to the frustrated crowd. “Please do not go without water.”

Nearly 200 Rio Verde Foothills residents met Jan. 29 at Reigning Grace Ranch to discuss solutions to the community's water crisis. (Joe Duhownik/Courthouse News)

Dozens approached her after the two-hour town hall to thank her for her work.

“This is my life now,” she said. “This is all I’ve done for two years.”

Plans in place, but it’s a waiting game

Anticipating Rio Verde Foothills losing Scottsdale water access, the private water company EPCOR applied for a certificate of convenience and necessity from the Arizona Corporation Commission to build a new standpipe that would provide water directly to the Foothills. The five commissioners approved EPCOR’s request to waive certain requirements of the application “given the unusual circumstances surrounding water service to the residents.”

But the process has a few more steps. There are five separate hearings set from April 10 to April 19. After those hearings, it may take until June for the commissioners to issue a ruling.

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Assuming the commissioners approve the plan, which state Senator John Kavanagh, a Republican from nearby Fountain Hills, has assured residents will be approved, it can take anywhere from six months to three years before a standpipe is operational.

State Representative David Cook, a Republican from Scottsdale, sent a letter to the commissioners on Jan. 25 urging them to expedite the process, but the commissioners aren’t permitted to comment because it’s an active case. 

Cook sent a letter to Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes the next day requesting a legal opinion on whether the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors can enter a short-term agreement with another government entity or a private company to provide water to the community while it awaits a long-term solution. In such an agreement, the water would still go through Scottsdale’s water treatment system.

Finally, Cook wrote Ortega asking that he lift the water moratorium “for at least 30 days to await the attorney general’s opinion.”

In the meantime, Kavanagh hopes his proposed bill will force Scottsdale to continue providing water until EPCOR can build and operationalize the new standpipe.

State Senator John Kavanagh, a Republican from Fountain Hills, proposed a bill that would force Scottsdale to continue giving Rio Verde Foothills water until a permanent solution can be enacted. (Joe Duhownik/Courthouse News)

SB1093 would require a city, if it did so before Jan. 1, to provide water to residents outside the city’s water service area who don’t have access to sufficient water otherwise. It stipulates that the community must be less than 750 houses without another water source within 10 miles of the houses. 

Rio Verde Foothills fits those requirements. 

It would also require reimbursement for the city for the water, and the process can’t jeopardize water allotted to residents within city limits. 

Included in the bill is a provision that it be repealed when the corporation commission approves EPCOR’s plan by or on Jan 1, 2026 — whichever comes first.

The bill doesn’t specify where reimbursement for the water would come from.

Cook proposed in HB2411 that if a city that provided water to residents outside city limits before Jan. 1 terminates that service, the city is then to be held liable for fire damage to personal property, health problems incurred by children as a result of the termination and attorneys fees of any lawsuit filed in retaliation to the termination. 

Neither bill has been scheduled for discussion yet. Kavanagh said he plans to add an emergency order to his bill so that it goes into effect as soon as Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs signs it rather than waiting 90 days. Still, it may take six weeks or longer before that happens.

Neither Kavanagh nor Cook was available to provide further comments on their proposed plans. 

Ortega declined to comment for this story.

‘It all has to happen really quick’

Jessica Mehlman didn’t know her community was in danger of losing its water when she moved there with her husband this past July. 

Now she uses rainwater to flush her toilet, and she can’t flush it very often. To avoid using the dishwasher too often, she only eats off of paper plates. 

Her sister lives in Scottsdale, only eight miles away from Rio Verde Foothills.

“I have not yet gotten to the point that I am bringing laundry to her house, but if this continues and I run low on rainwater, I’ll start doing that,” Mehlman said in her home Thursday evening.

Since Jan. 1, the price of filling her 5,000-gallon water tank rose from $120 to $360 because delivery trucks travel so far to get water.

“It sucks, but we can do it,” Mehlman said. “And I know that I have neighbors that can’t. That's what’s really sad and scary.”

Many residents declined to be interviewed, but each of them said they’re conserving water in their own way. 

A few blocks from Mehlman, John Carroll lives with his wife. He lived there only a year when Scottsdale told Rio Verde Foothills that it would lose water access. This was rumored as early as 2015, Carroll said, but everyone he knew who lived there told him it wouldn’t happen.

“I only run the dishwasher every other day now if I can help it,” he said. “Take a shower every other day unless you’re working out. Make sure the damn laundry machine is full. It’s the little things you never thought about.”

Rio Verde Foothills resident John Carroll stands in front of his home. He said he and his wife are using less than 30 gallons of water a day. (Joe Duhownik/Courthouse News)

He and his wife use only 25 to 30 gallons of water a day now, he said, which is less than half of what they used before. He doesn’t know where his next water delivery will come from if there is one.

Mehlman said the community has leaned on one another; those with wells are giving water to neighbors who need it. But it won’t last forever. 

“They don’t get a lot of water out of them,” Carroll said. “I don’t know how much people can do. You’ll pump your well dry out here.”

He said most of the community action has come in the form of attending public meetings to demand action from officials.

“Trying to get them to do something rather than just sit around and twiddle their thumbs,” he said. 

With neither water bill on a schedule and no hearings on EPCOR’s proposal until April, it’s unclear what else, if anything, is being done to remedy the situation. Currently, no items related to water are on the agenda for Scottsdale’s next City Council meeting. 

Mehlman said she believes the solutions proposed by Kavanagh and EPCOR will work, but she worries they won’t come soon enough.

“It all has to happen really quick,” she said. “At some point, we’re gonna run out of rainwater. The hotter it gets, the worse it’s gonna get.”

“We can go to (my sister) if we have to. But not everybody has that luxury and that’s what I’m concerned about.”

Carroll said he’s ready to leave before things get too bad. 

“I got enough water to last another two months easily, but after that, if I can get water, I guess I’ll survive. If I can’t…” he trailed off. “I’ll pack up my motorhome and leave. I’ll go live at the campground by the casino. They have water.”

John Carroll said his water tank holds 5,000 gallons of water, which can potentially last him and his wife another two months. (Joe Duhownik/Courthouse News)

While waiting for a solution, Jackman and the rest of the community demand attention. 

“We’re not gonna quit fighting,” Jackman said at the town hall. “This is not the end.”

There are plans for four protests next week to bring attention to the water crisis. Two will be outside the Waste Management Phoenix Open golf tournament on Feb. 8 and 9, and two outside the Super Bowl in Glendale the day before and during the game.

“We need to stay in the national media,” Mehlman said. “The pressure needs to stay on the mayor of Scottsdale. The pressure needs to stay on the state of Arizona.”

Follow @JournalistJoeAZ
Categories / Environment, Regional

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