Skipped Showers, Paper Plates: An Arizona Suburb’s Water Is Cut Off
Jack Healy – January 16, 2023
RIO VERDE, Ariz. — Joe McCue thought he had found a desert paradise when he bought one of the new stucco houses sprouting in the granite foothills of Rio Verde, Arizona. There were good schools, mountain views and cactus-spangled hiking trails out the back door.
Then the water got cut off.
Earlier this month, the community’s longtime water supplier, the neighboring city of Scottsdale, turned off the tap for Rio Verde Foothills, blaming a grinding drought that is threatening the future of the West. Scottsdale said it had to focus on conserving water for its own residents, and could no longer sell water to roughly 500 to 700 homes — or around 1,000 people. That meant the unincorporated swath of $500,000 stucco houses, mansions and horse ranches outside Scottsdale’s borders would have to fend for itself and buy water from other suppliers — if homeowners could find them, and afford to pay much higher prices.
Almost overnight, the Rio Verde Foothills turned into a worst-case scenario of a hotter, drier climate, showing what happens when unregulated growth collides with shrinking water supplies.
For residents who put their savings into newly built homes that promised desert sunsets, peace and quiet (but relegated the water situation to the fine print), the turmoil is also deeply personal. The water disruption has unraveled their routines and put their financial futures in doubt.
“Is it just a campground now?” McCue, 36, asked one recent morning, after he and his father installed gutters and rain barrels for a new drinking-water filtration system.
“We’re really hoping we don’t go dry by summer,” he said. “Then we’ll be in a really bad spot.”
In a scramble to conserve, people are flushing their toilets with rainwater and lugging laundry to friends’ homes. They are eating off paper plates, skipping showers and fretting about whether they have staked their fates on what could become a desiccated ghost suburb.
Some say they know how it might look to outsiders. Yes, they bought homes in the Sonoran desert. But they ask, are they such outliers? Arizona does not want for emerald-green fairways, irrigated lawns or water parks.
“I’m surrounded by plush golf courses, one of the largest fountains in the world,” said Tony Johnson, 45, referring to the 500-foot water feature in the neighboring town of Fountain Hills.
Johnson’s family built a house in Rio Verde two years ago, and landscaped the yard with rocks, not thirsty greenery. “We’re not putting in a pool, we’re not putting in grass,” he said. “We’re not trying to bring the Midwest here.”
The heavy rain and snow battering California and other parts of the Mountain West over the past two weeks is helping to refill some reservoirs and soak dried-out soil. But water experts say that one streak of wet weather will not undo a 20-year drought that has practically emptied Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, and has strained the overburdened Colorado River, which supplies about 35% of Arizona’s water. The rest comes from the state’s own rivers or from aquifers in the ground.
Last week, Arizona learned that its water shortages could be even worse than many residents realized. As one of her first actions after taking office, Gov. Katie Hobbs unsealed a report showing that the fast-growing West Valley of Phoenix does not have enough groundwater to support tens of thousands of homes planned for the area; their development is now in question.
Water experts say Rio Verde Foothills’ situation is unusually dire, but it offers a glimpse of the bitter fights and hard choices facing 40 million people across the West who rely on the Colorado River for the means to take showers, irrigate crops, or run data centers and fracking rigs.
“It’s a cautionary tale for homebuyers,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “We can’t just protect every single person who buys a parcel and builds a home. There isn’t enough money or water.”
Porter said a number of other unincorporated areas in Arizona rely on water service from larger nearby cities like Prescott or Flagstaff. They could find themselves in Rio Verde’s straits if the drought persists and the cities start taking drastic conservation measures.
There are no sewers or water mains serving the Rio Verde Foothills, so for decades, homes there that did not have their own wells got water delivered by tanker trucks. (The homes that do have wells are not directly affected by the cutoff.)
The trucks would fill up with Scottsdale water at a pipe 15 minutes’ drive from the Rio Verde Foothills, and then deliver water directly to people’s front doors. Or rather, to 5,000-gallon storage tanks buried in their yards — enough water to last an average family about a month. When the tanks ran low, homeowners would call or send an electronic signal to the water haulers for another delivery.
It was a tenuous arrangement in the middle of the desert, but homeowners said the water always arrived, and had come to feel almost as reliable as a utility hookup.
Now, though, the water trucks can’t refill close by in Scottsdale, and are having to crisscross the Phoenix metro area in search of supplies, filling up in cities a two-hour round trip from Rio Verde. That has meant more driving, more waiting and more money. An average family’s water bill has jumped to $660 a month from $220, and it is unclear how long the water trucks will be able to keep drawing tens of thousands of gallons from those backup sources.
Heavier water users like Cody Reim, who moved into a starter house in Rio Verde two years ago, are being hit even harder. He said his water bills could now exceed $1,000 a month — more than his mortgage payment. Reim and his wife have four young children, which in normal times meant a lot of dishwashing, countless toilet flushes and dozens of laundry cycles to clean soiled cloth diapers.
Reim, who works for his family’s sheet-metal business, is planning to become his own water hauler, lashing large containers to his pickup and setting out to fill them up. He guesses that fetching water will take him 10 hours every week, but he said he would do anything to stay in Rio Verde. He loves the dark skies and the baying coyotes at night, and how his children can run up and down a dirt road that with views of the Four Peaks Wilderness.
“Even if this place went negative and I’d have to pay somebody to take it, I’d still be here,” he said of his house. “There’s no other option.”
Cities across the Southwest have spent years trying to cut down on water consumption, recharge aquifers and find new ways to reuse water to cope with the drought.
Experts say that most Arizona residents do not have to worry about losing their drinking water any time soon, though deeper cuts loom for agricultural users, who use about 70% of Arizona’s water supply. Phoenix and surrounding cities have imposed few water restrictions on residents.
Rio Verde Foothills once felt like a remote community far from the urban centers of Scottsdale or Phoenix, residents said, a quilt of ranches and self-built houses scattered among mesquite and palo verde trees.
But over the past few years, there has been a frenzy of home construction in the area, fueled by cheap land prices and developers who took advantage of a loophole in Arizona’s groundwater laws to construct homes without any fixed water supply.
To prevent unsustainable development in a desert state, Arizona passed a law in 1980 requiring subdivisions with six or more lots to show proof that they have a 100-year water supply.
But developers in Rio Verde Foothills have been sidestepping the rule by carving larger parcels into sections with four or five houses each, creating the impression of a miniature suburbia, but one that did not need to legally prove it had water.
“It’s a slipped-through-the-cracks community,” said Porter, with the Kyl Center for Water Policy.
Thomas Galvin, a county supervisor who represents the area, says there’s not much the county can do if builders split their parcels into five lots or less to get around the water supply requirement. “Our hands are tied,” he said.
People in Rio Verde Foothills are bitterly divided over how to resolve their water woes.
When some proposed forming their own self-funded water provider, other residents revolted, saying the idea would foist an expensive, freedom-stealing new arm of government on them. The idea collapsed. Other solutions, like allowing a larger water utility to serve the area, could be years off.
On Thursday, a group of residents sued Scottsdale in an effort to get the water turned back on. They argued the city violated an Arizona law that restricts cities from cutting off utility services to customers outside their borders. Scottsdale did not respond to the lawsuit.
Rose Carroll, 66, who is a plaintiff in the suit, said she would support any idea that would keep her from having to kill her donkeys.
She moved to Rio Verde Foothills two years ago, and runs a small ranch for two dozen rescued donkeys who had been abandoned, left in kill pens or doused with acid. The donkeys spend their days in a corral on her seven-acre property, eating hay and drinking a total of 300 gallons of water every day.
Carroll collected rainwater after a recent winter storm, enough for a few weeks’ worth of toilet flushes. The new cost to get water delivered to the ranch could reach an unaffordable $1,800 a month, she said, so she is putting some of the donkeys up for adoption and said she might have to euthanize others if she does not have enough water to keep them alive.
She said she got a call a few days ago, asking her to take in two more abandoned donkeys, but had to say no.
“I didn’t have the water,” she said.