Skipped Showers, Paper Plates: An Arizona Suburb’s Water Is Cut Off

RIO VERDE, Ariz. — Joe McCue thought he had found a paradise in the desert when he purchased one of the new plastered houses that have sprouted in the granite foothills of Rio Verde, Ariz. There are good schools out there, mountain views, and hiking trails covered with cacti. back door.

Then the water is cut off.

Earlier this month, the community’s longtime water supplier, neighboring Scottsdale, turned off the faucets of the Rio Verde Foothills, blaming a drought that was threatening the future of the West. Scottsdale said it must focus on saving water for its residents and Can’t sell water anymore for about 500 to 700 homes – or about 1,000 people. That means $500,000 homes, mansions and horse ranchs outside of Scottsdale’s borders will have to fend for themselves and buy water from other suppliers – if homeowners can find them and afford to pay much higher prices.

Almost overnight, the Rio Verde Foothills became a worst-case scenario for a hotter, drier climate, showing what happens when unchecked growth collides with depleted water supplies. narrow.

For residents who put their savings into newly built homes that promise desert sunsets, peace and quiet (but the water situation has been eliminated), the mayhem is also personal. deeply multiply. Water disruptions have unraveled their habits and put their financial future in doubt.

“Is it just a campsite now?” McCue, 36, asked one recent morning, after he and his father installed gutters and rainwater catchers for a new drinking water filtration system.

“We really hope we don’t get dry in the summer,” he said. “Then we’d be in a really bad position.”

In a scramble to save money, people are flushing toilets with rainwater and delivering laundry to friends’ homes. They’re eating on paper plates, skipping the shower, and wondering if they’re betting their fate on what could become a barren ghost suburb.

Some say they know what it might look like to outsiders. Yes, they bought a house in the Sonoran Desert. But they ask, do they have such an exception? Arizona doesn’t want emerald green ballparks, irrigated lawns, or water parks.

“All around me are luxury golf courses, one of the largest fountains in the world,” said Tony Johnson, 45, referring to the 500-foot-tall water feature in the neighboring town of Fountain Hills.

The Johnson family built a home in Rio Verde two years ago and landscaped the yard with stone, not thirsty greenery. “We’re not going to build the pool, we’re not going to install the grass,” he said. “We’re not trying to bring the Midwest here.”

The heavy rain and snow that has ravaged California and other parts of the Mountain West over the past two weeks is helping to fill some reservoirs and soak up arid soil. But water experts say a streak of wet weather won’t erase a 20-year drought that has drained Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, and strained the already overflowing Colorado River. , which provides approx 35 percent the country of Arizona. The rest comes from the state’s own rivers or from aquifers in the ground.

Last week, Arizona learned that water shortages could be worse than many people realize. As one of the first acts after taking office, Governor Katie Hobbs unsealed a report found that the rapidly growing West Valley of Phoenix does not have enough groundwater to support the tens of thousands of homes planned for the area; Their development is now in question.

Water experts say the situation for the Rio Verde Foothills is unusually dire, but it offers a glimpse into the bitter wars and tough choices 40 million people across the West make. are being faced across the West, who rely on the Colorado River to bathe, water crops, or run data centers and oil-shore.

“It’s a cautionary tale for homebuyers,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Water Policy Center at Arizona State University. “We can’t just protect people who buy land and build houses. There is not enough money or water.”

Some other unincorporated areas in Arizona rely on water service from nearby larger cities like Prescott or Flagstaff, Porter said. They could find themselves in the Rio Verde Strait if the drought persists and cities begin to implement drastic conservation measures.

There are no sewers or aqueducts to service the Rio Verde Foothills, so for decades homes without their own wells had to get water by tank trucks. (Homes with wells are not directly affected by the power cut.)

The trucks will fill Scottsdale with water at a pipeline 15 minutes’ drive from the foothills of Rio Verde, then deliver the water directly to people’s doorsteps. Or rather 5,000-gallon tanks buried in their yards—enough water for the average family to use for about a month. When the containers are almost empty, the landlord will call or send an electronic signal to the water carriers to deliver other water.

It’s a difficult arrangement in the middle of the desert, but homeowners say the water always comes in and feels almost as reliable as a utility connection.

Now, however, water tankers can’t refill water near Scottsdale, and have to travel across the Phoenix metro area in search of supplies, filling cities two hours away from Rio Verde. That means more driving, more waiting and more money. The average household’s water bill has increased from $220 to $660 a month, and it’s unclear how long the water trucks will be able to continue drawing tens of thousands of gallons from those backup sources.

More water users like Cody Reim, who moved into a starter home in Rio Verde two years ago, have been hit even harder. He says his water bill can now exceed $1,000 a month – more than his mortgage payment. Mr. Reim and his wife have four young children, which in what normal time means loads of dishes, countless flushes in the toilet and dozens of wash cycles to clean dirty cloth diapers.

Mr. Reim, who works for his family’s sheet metal business, is planning to become his own water carrier, strapping large containers to his truck and starting to fill them up. He guessed that going to the water would take him 10 hours a week, but he said he would do anything to stay in Rio Verde. He loves the dark sky and the coyotes flying at night, and the way his children can run up and down a dirt road with views of the Four Peaks wilderness.

“Even if this place goes negative and I have to pay someone to get it, I’ll still be here,” he says of his home. “There is no other choice.”

Cities across the Southwest have spent years trying to cut water consumption, replenish aquifers, and find new ways to reuse water to cope with drought.

Experts say most Arizona residents don’t have to worry about early water loss, though deeper cuts are possible. agricultural users, who use about 70 percent of Arizona’s water supply. Phoenix and surrounding cities have imposed some water restrictions on residents.

Residents say the Rio Verde Foothills used to be like a remote community away from the urban centers of Scottsdale or Phoenix, a series of farms and self-built homes scattered among mesquite and palo verde trees.

But over the past few years, there’s been a wave of home construction in the area, fueled by cheap land and developers who have taken advantage of loopholes in Arizona’s groundwater law to build homes without 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 had a 100-year water supply.

But developers in Rio Verde Foothills have circumvented the law by cutting larger parcels of land into sections with four or five houses, each giving the impression of a miniature suburb, but without the need for legal proof. there is water.

“It’s a community that breaks through the cracks,” said Ms. Porter, of the Kyl Center for Water Policy.

Thomas Galvin, a county supervisor representing the area, says there’s not much the county can do if builders divide their lots into five lots or less to meet water requirements. “Our hands were tied,” he said.

People in the Rio Verde Foothills are bitterly divided over how to deal with their water problems.

When some proposed setting up their own self-funded water supplier, other residents objected, saying the idea would create an expensive new government arm that robs them of their freedom. . The idea collapsed. Other solutions, such as allowing a larger water company to service the area, could take years.

On Thursday, a group of residents sued Scottsdale in an attempt to reopen the water. They allege the city violated Arizona law that restricts cities from cutting utility services to customers outside their borders. Scottsdale did not respond to the lawsuit.

Rose Carroll, 66, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, 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 farm for two dozen rescued donkeys that have been abandoned, abandoned in slaughterhouses or splashed with acid. The donkeys spend their days in the barn on her seven-acre property, eating hay and drinking a total of 300 gallons of water a day.

Ms Carroll collected rainwater after a recent winter storm, enough to flush the toilet for several weeks. The new cost to bring water to the farm could be as high as $1,800 a month, she said, so she is putting some donkeys up for adoption and says she may have to give other donkeys up. die if there is not enough water to feed them. alive.

She said she received a call a few days ago, asking her to pick up two more abandoned donkeys, but had to refuse.

“I have no water,” she said.

Erin Schaff contributed reporting to this story.


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