Long road ahead for Rio Verde Foothills water solution
Only a week after Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes confirmed its legality, an intergovernmental agreement that could give much-needed water to Rio Verde Foothills sits in the hands of Maricopa County.
The city of Scottsdale, which sold hauled water to the unincorporated community to the north for decades before it shut the taps off on Jan. 1, unanimously approved the agreement in a city council meeting Tuesday evening.
If executed, the agreement would see Scottsdale sell hauled water to the county, who would then distribute it to Rio Verde Foothills residents at a filling station. The county would pay Scottsdale for the water — up to 126 acre-feet, or more than 41 million gallons per year — which can’t be taken from Scottsdale’s preexisting supply. Instead, the city would have to front the costs from a third-party source before being reimbursed by the county.
The deal would last two years with the option to add a third.
“I think it’s a great starting point, and I’m so very glad that it’s happening,” said Christy Jackman, a 13-year Rio Verde Foothills resident, about the proposed agreement. “We need water. Let’s get it done.”
The more than 1,000 people living in the Foothills have been without a reliable water source for nearly two months. Scottsdale cut off water to the community as part of its drought management plan, and Mayor David Ortega has said for years that he must prioritize his city’s residents.
Meanwhile, Foothills residents flush their toilets daily at most and use rainwater to shower and wash their dishes. And residents have said before that as warmer weather approaches, the situation could become life or death.
“In a very short time, people are going to start running out of water,” said John Hornewer, a 20-year Foothills resident, during the City Council meeting. “Mayor Ortega, we’re not asking for a Santa Claus. We know there’s no Santa Claus.
“Please, please, please, negotiate with the county as quickly as you can.”
A short-term solution is in sight, but it still has a long way to go.
Supervisor Thomas Galvin, who represents the Foothills, already told Ortega in a letter this week that he has “concerns and questions about the proposed agreement, which will need to be discussed, addressed, and rectified, as part of a negotiation process, if the proposal is to move forward.”
His three biggest concerns are the source, the price and transportation.
Maricopa County spokesperson Fields Mosely said he considers some things in the agreement “non-starters.”
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors met with its attorneys Thursday in executive session to hear legal advice on both the proposed agreement and the attorney general’s opinion, but took no action.
Mosely said the agreement came “much to our surprise,” and he can offer no timeline on when the county might approve.
Even if the county agrees, the deal is contingent on Scottsdale locating a third-party water source and securing 600 acre-feet of water, even though it would only provide up to 378 acre-feet over the potentially three-year deal. And until Maricopa County agrees, “no substantial work will begin” on locating that source, Scottsdale spokesperson Kelly Corsette said in an email.
Galvin reminded Ortega in his letter that the private water company EPCOR offered to be a part of the interim solution — an idea Ortega shot down last year. Ortega didn't respond to a request for comment.
EPCOR is on the County Corporation Commission docket to provide water to the Foothills as a long-term solution, but even if the commissioners approve it in June, it could be three years before the infrastructure is in place.
The agreement nobody seems to be happy about
Scottsdale City Council approved the agreement, but they may be running out of patience.
“Our biggest priority is to our residents,” Councilmember Barry Graham said. “We have been very generous with playing our role in supplying water to the area.”
Councilmember Solange Whitehead said she felt “blindsided” by the county’s decision not to move forward with the Domestic Water Improvement District plan, which would have created a new taxing district responsible for the costs.
“If there was a solution, we would not be here today,” she said.
Ortega reiterated his previous statement Tuesday night that Rio Verde Foothills “isn’t the stepchild of Scottsdale.”
Regardless, the city is willing to make a deal though Galvin’s letter forecasts anything but smooth sailing moving forward.
Under the agreement, the county would pay Scottsdale $1,000 a month plus $21.25 per 1,000 gallons delivered to the Pima Road filling station. Over three years, that total could add up to more than $2.6 billion.
“The pricing that’s being proposed today is severely elevated in comparison to what we were paying prior,” said Cody Riem, a Foothills resident who, alongside Jackman, has organized community protests and spoken for other residents at countless public meetings.
Before Jan. 1, Scottsdale charged only $7 per 1,000 gallons of water.
“What on Earth could possibly be justifying a 313% increase in cost?” Riem asked the council.
The agreement also stipulates that water may only go to residents who lived in the community before Jan. 3. Anyone who moved in after that date is out of luck.
Jackman worries that the cutoff date will render the community’s nearly 100 vacant homes unsellable. Prolonged vacancy could attract squatters, vandalism and theft, Jackman said.
Ortega didn’t seem likely to budge.
“We are talking about people affected by this now,” Ortega said after public comments. “Not future residents.”
Before Jan. 1, private and commercial water haulers could fill up at the Pima Road station and take water back to the Foothills. That ends if the agreement is executed.
Under the proposed deal, only county officials and up to five county-authorized haulers would be allowed to use the station. That would mean the roughly 70 people who haul their own water would instead have to pay for commercial hauling.
Casey Rieder has paid about $80 a month to haul water to her home for the last eight years. If she isn’t allowed to haul the water herself, she said her monthly water expense could reach more than $1,000.
“This is unacceptable,” she said at the meeting. “It’s obscene and insurmountable. I can’t do it.”
Ortega said he isn’t sure how the future prices were “extrapolated into the stratosphere” but didn’t say what he thinks actual cost increases for residents would look like.
Jackman said the price especially hurts considering that some of it is paying for water Rio Verde Foothills will never see.
“It’s unfair for us to have to supplement the best water conservation and strongest water city in the state with a water-insecure community,” she said after the Tuesday night meeting. “But if it gets water, it gets water.”
The agreement’s final stipulation would see the county attempt to place a building moratorium on the community “to the extent permitted by law.” If it does issue new building permits, those homes cannot receive water obtained through the agreement.
Rio Verde Foothills is a collection of what are known as “wildcat subdivisions.” Typically, a subdivision is split into six or more properties, in which case builders must ensure there are at least 100 years of water available to the houses. But a legal loophole allows multiple smaller groups of five homes or less to be built without water requirements.
Lawmakers say this loophole is the reason for the situation at hand, and Arizona should be working to close it rather than just fighting symptoms of it.
“We all think the wildcat needs to stop, but it’s a different issue,” Jackman said. “There’s water, then there’s wildcat. Both need to be solved.
“Separate the issues. Let’s get water flowing again.”