Arizona lawmakers reject bid to bring water to parched Rio Verde Foothills
Rio Verde Foothills just lost a potential water solution, but officials are pining for another they say is the obvious choice.
The unincorporated community north of Scottsdale, home to about 1,000 Arizonans, has now gone more than two months without a reliable water source. Scottsdale previously sold water to private water haulers who delivered it to Rio Verde Foothills, but the city cut the community off on Jan. 1 as part of its drought management plan. Now residents collect rainwater to bathe, wash dishes and flush toilets.
While the community awaits a long-term solution, state and local governments have been working to provide a short-term fix in the interim. Those plans involve an intergovernmental agreement between Scottsdale and Maricopa County — plans that both the Arizona House and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors rejected this week.
Instead, both county officials and Rio Verde Foothills residents want Scottsdale to work with EPCOR, the private water company that’s already in the process of providing a long term solution. EPCOR has already gone on record saying it would pay Scottsdale to use pre-existing infrastructure to give water to Rio Verde Foothills in the meantime. The Arizona Corporation Commission will begin hearings on EPCOR’s application to be the community’s long term water provider in April.
The House voted Thursday against HB2561, which 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, through an agreement with the county.
“It is wild that there are representatives that would knowingly and willingly deny access to drinking water to the homes of over 700 families in the state of Arizona,” said Cody Reim, a Rio Verde Foothills resident who’s spoken on behalf of his community at protests and public meetings for months now.
State Representative Alexander Kolodin, a Republican from Scottsdale, introduced the legislation intending to add an emergency clause, but it didn’t receive sufficient votes in a House committee in February. It did receive a do-pass recommendation, though.
Democrats voted against the bill because it doesn’t address the underlying problem — wildcat subdivisions. To develop a subdivision of six or more houses in Arizona, builders must ensure that there’s at least 100 years of water available to the houses. This opens a loophole to allow multiple groups of five homes or less that together form an unincorporated community.
Rio Verde Foothills is a prime example.
"Democrats have repeatedly tried to work with Republicans on closing the wildcat subdivision loophole that created this problem in the first place and we are either met with resistance or straight-up silence every time," state Representative Stephanie Stahl Hamilton said in a statement by House Democrats.
The Democrat from Tucson blamed amendments, like one removing language that would temporarily prohibit Maricopa County from issuing more building permits in Rio Verde Foothills until a long-term solution is in place, for the bill’s failure.
“This was ostensibly the best reform in this bill and it has now been removed,” she said.
Christy Jackman, a 13-year Rio Verde Foothills resident who initially supported the bill, said she’s glad it didn’t pass.
“The House bill was good at the beginning,” she said, “but then Scottsdale’s lobbyist got ahold of it and created a mirror of Scottsdale’s demands. It’s good it didn’t continue.”
Jackman said in January that the community won’t last long once the temperature hits 90 degrees. Temperatures now are reaching the high 70s.
“So far, no one has been without enough for basic needs,” she said. “But that time is ending. It’s about to get hard up here.”
State Senator John Kavanagh, a Republican from Fountain Hills, proposed mirror legislation in the Senate with SB1093. It received a do-pass recommendation in a Senate committee in February, but hasn’t moved since.
"No bill is dead until we conclude the session," Kavanagh said in an email.
Kolodin moved for the House to reconsider the bill, but even if it does, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has already said no.
Scottsdale proposed an agreement much like the one described in Kolodin’s bill, and the supervisors unanimously rejected it.
If executed, the agreement would see Scottsdale sell hauled water to the county for $21.25 per 1,000 gallons plus an additional $1,000 per month. The county would then distribute it to Rio Verde Foothills residents from the Pima Road filling station.
Increased costs and language that would prohibit private haulers from getting their own water (the agreement only allows for a limited number of certified haulers to deliver water) made the agreement unattractive to some.
“Cutting 75 self-hauling homes off from continued ability to provide for themselves is nothing but cruelty,” Jackman said.
County Supervisor Tom Galvin, who represents Rio Verde Foothills, said the intergovernmental agreement was “government bureaucracy at its worst.”
“If there’s another source of water, and you have the pipes, just send the water to Rio Verde," Galvin said in a statement. “You don’t need the county. You don’t need an IGA.
“If you don’t have the water, then allow EPCOR to sell the water. Let them pay you. Be the good guys.”
Supervisors passed a resolution Tuesday calling once again for Scottsdale to negotiate a short-term solution with EPCOR. Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega has declined to work with EPCOR in the past.
Supervisors dismissed Kavanagh’s bill in the press release, but suggested that if the bill does move forward, Kavanagh should add an amendment telling Scottsdale that it “can and should work with EPCOR to solve this problem.”
Neither Kolodin, Kavanagh nor Mayor Ortega returned phone calls for comment.