Running on Empty

Jimmy MagahernMay 1, 2023
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Breathlessly heralded by The New York Times as “the worst-case scenario of drought,” Rio Verde Foothills is something much more banal – a tale of taxes, turf and reckless development in the classic Arizona tradition.

Photography by Mirelle Inglefield

John Hornewer pulls his 6,000-gallon Freightliner tank trunk up to a brown stucco house on a dusty dirt road in Rio Verde Foothills and grabs the 100-foot hose he’ll need to unspool to pump water to the tank behind the property.

“This is actually a small one… 2,000 gallons,” he says, attaching the heavy hose fitting to the top of the cistern, which looks like a medium-size above-ground pool made from galvanized steel. “Most people out here have 3,000-to-5,000-gallon tanks.” 

At best, it’ll last the family of five that lives here about a month – and then only with extreme conservation. Following a well-publicized interruption to their water supply, many residents in Rio Verde Foothills are aggressively tightening their taps, reducing their personal water usage to about 40 gallons per day, compared to the average of 146 in the city. But even at that rate, Hornewer can’t guarantee he’ll have water the next time they call. 

“It’s been 88 days,” he says, giving the running count since the City of Scottsdale made its municipal water supply off-limits to this unincorporated community just outside its northeast border. Officially, Scottsdale officials cited concerns about upcoming reductions to Arizona’s allotment of the drought-stricken Colorado River to justify shutting off the taps – but this being Arizona, taxes and buck-passing arguably also played a role. 

No matter. Sniffing a bona fide Arizona water crisis story, national media outlets were predictably helpless to resist. The New York Times and The Washington Post each ran stories in the spring, portraying Rio Verde as a boldface-headline climate parable with dire implications for the future. The coverage, however, tended to gloss over key facts – for instance, that most area residents happily survive on well water stored beneath the bedrock of this 20-square-mile stretch of the McDowell Mountain foothills. And that Rio Verde voters previously rejected their chance to create their own water district. 

Just another example of pesky facts not standing in the way of a good “Arizona is doomed” scold piece. (See sidebar, page 161.) 

Which isn’t to say that Rio Verde hasn’t been traumatized by the controversy – or that Hornewer, a longtime resident of the area who runs Rio Verde Foothills Potable Water Hauling, hasn’t had to alter his business model. 

The basic facts: Roughly 500 of the 2,000 scattered homes in Rio Verde lack private wells, and rely on water haulers like Hornewer. 

Prior to January 1, when Scottsdale mayor David Ortega cut off the tap to the community, it was a quick 15-minute drive to the nearest Scottsdale filling station. Now, Hornewer has to drive 45 to 60 miles each way to a dwindling number of remote public filling stations to refill his tanks. 

“It’s a seven-day-a-week business now,” says the Chicago-born former painting contractor, who started hauling water for himself after moving into Rio Verde Foothills in 1999 and gradually turned it into a business, running six tank trucks out of his home and enlisting his wife and two kids to help. “It used to be, ‘Call me and I’ll get somebody there within an hour or two.’ Now I might not be able to get to you for a day or two.” 

Prices have gone up accordingly: Hornewer used to charge 4 to 5 cents a gallon. Now it’s 11 to 12 cents. That’s effectively the difference between $160 and $440 for a typical, 4,000-gallon tank, not counting increased transport charges to account for the longer drives.

Not that the people of RVF can’t afford it. The median home price in this 20-square-mile area is around $800,000. And residents here don’t pay city taxes, nor do their property taxes fund Scottsdale’s water operations – a main reason the city feels justified in discontinuing serving the community. 

But money won’t save the homeowners here from what Hornewer sees coming.

“It’s not money that’s the problem,” he says. “It’s the sourcing of the water.”

Hornewer is worried that bulk-water dispensers in the other locations he’s using – he hesitates to disclose his sources because of fierce competition from other haulers – may follow Scottsdale’s drought-fearing lead and discontinue service to the community.

“I’ve already lost two sources since the beginning of this year,” he says. “And haulers are getting desperate. I’ve seen a police report of another water hauling company illegally sourcing water from a hydrant. It’s out
of control.

“I gotta be careful how I word this,” he adds, hoisting himself back up into the Freightliner to head down the road to his next stop. “But if all the water haulers were forced to source water legally, this community would be screwed in a couple of weeks.”

As the community’s literal Dry January began this year, the national media seized on the Rio Verde Foothills story as a cautionary tale about water scarcity in the age of cataclysmic climate change.

The New York Times framed its story as “a worst-case scenario of drought in the West,” describing residents flushing their toilets with rainwater, skipping showers and eating off paper plates to conserve their diminishing supply of the scarce resource. The Washington Post characterized the community’s plight as “the first domino to fall as the Colorado River tips further into crisis.” The New Yorker proclaimed, “The Southwest’s water issues are at a point of crisis.”

The reality is a little different.

“The narrative outside of Arizona is, ‘Oh, that’s one of those flyover desert states that doesn’t know how to deal with water,’” says Thomas Galvin, the Maricopa County supervisor who represents the district encompassing Rio Verde Foothills. “But that’s not what it is. Frankly, Arizona is better than most states in the country at conserving and taking care of water.” 

The Times piece didn’t mention that Colorado River water, transported to the Phoenix area via the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal, has never sustained Rio Verde wells. That water comes from the Fountain Hills Sub-basin, which covers approximately 360 square miles and connects to the Verde River originating north of Prescott, with reservoirs operated by the Salt River Project. The town of Fountain Hills, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and the developments of Rio Verde and Tonto Verde all draw their water from there.

The national press also ignored the fact that Scottsdale’s allotment of CAP water is nowhere near crisis level. Galvin points to statements by Scottsdale water director Brian Biesemeyer, who said in a 2022 city council meeting that the city “recharges” around 10,000 acre feet of CAP water per year – basically banking it for later use. 

“[Rio Verde Foothills] uses 126 acre feet of water per year,” Galvin says – approximately 0.01 percent of what Biesemeyer says Scottsdale typically sets aside annually. “That’s a relative drop in the bucket. This is really just a local jurisdictional turf fight.”

Rio Verde Foothills water hauler John Hornewer refills a tank on his route
Rio Verde Foothills water hauler John Hornewer refills a tank on his route

The combatants: Maricopa County and the City of Scottsdale, battling over who’s responsible for supplying water to residents who’ve proudly lived between the jurisdictional cracks for years, with Galvin and Ortega leading the opposing teams – although that’s another narrative that Galvin would like to retire.

“It’s not politician versus politician,” he insists. “I really see myself as a mediator between the Rio Verde Foothills residents and Scottsdale. And what I’ve tried to do from day one was to help broker a win-win for both sides.”

To recap: In October 2021, RVF residents received a notice from the City of Scottsdale stating that the city would begin restricting water hauling to only residents within city limits as of January 1, 2023, laminating a policy it had been considering since at least 2016. In response, a group of residents proposed forming a Domestic Water Improvement District, or DWID – essentially a separate tax district that would allow the residents to purchase water rights and extract groundwater from the nearest available basin.

But the DWID needed approval from the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, and Galvin – along with a majority of RVF residents – saw “a lot of problems” with it. For starters, the group hadn’t confirmed a water source, and estimated it could take up to seven years to build the necessary infrastructure. Additionally, the district would be gerrymandered by design, since its boundaries would need to skirt around the houses that have wells and only include those that depend on hauled water.

“A lot of the national reporters don’t get this, but it’s not like an entire community is without water,” Galvin explains. “You have a checkerboard of homes that either have well water or have to rely on hauled water. So the proponents of the DWID came up with this ‘non-contiguous district,’ where they would pick and choose which houses are within it.”

However, if for any reason the DWID lost its access to water, Galvin says, it would have the “power of eminent domain” to tap into the existing wells within the rectangular overlay. “That was another big sticking point.” The board voted against the plan in August 2022.

As an alternative, Galvin worked out a deal with the Phoenix subsidiary of Canadian-based private water utility company EPCOR, which had already solved a similar dilemma in 2017 for the unincorporated community of New River when Phoenix cracked down on water haulers tapping its city hydrants. In that case, EPCOR was able to simply expand to New River the service it was already providing to nearby Anthem through a leased portion of the Ak-Chin Indian Community’s CAP allotment.

For Rio Verde, it’s a bit more complicated. EPCOR will need to acquire land on which to place a new standpipe, obtain adequate water rights to provide the service, drill a new well and build any other infrastructure needed – a process the company estimates will take two years. At press time, EPCOR’s application was still awaiting approval from the Arizona Corporation Commission, but Galvin said it was “moving along quite nicely.”

Meanwhile, for the short term, Galvin proposed what he thought was that win-win deal: EPCOR could pay Scottsdale to use its existing infrastructure and transport its own sourced water to RVF water haulers through Scottsdale’s piping system.

But Ortega rejected that idea, doubling down on his commitment to protecting Scottsdale water from “those who would commandeer our facilities” and delivering his final hard “no” in a written statement to The Arizona Republic that the paper published just 12 days before the cut-off, and six days before Christmas.

“There is no Santa Claus,” Ortega wrote. “The megadrought tells us all – water is not a compassion game.”

City manager Jim Thompson quickly clarified the mayor’s brusque statement, saying the city’s main concern was the “unlimited and unregulated growth” that continues in the area, despite the lack of water. If developers are allowed to keep expanding the community at its current growth rate, Scottsdale officials say continuing to supply RVF water could leave the city up to 265 million gallons short of what it needs by 2055, the timeframe of its drought management plan.

As a counteroffer, in late February the Scottsdale City Council unanimously agreed on a proposed resolution to temporarily supply water to the community, stipulating that the county would need to establish a moratorium on building permits in the impacted area.

But Galvin says state law doesn’t allow the county to reject building permits solely based on the development’s access to water, as long as the subdivisions contain fewer than six lots – a loophole in the 1980 Groundwater Management Act many so-called “wildcat” developments have exploited. The board also has questions about where the water in Scottsdale’s plan will come from, and how much it will cost. In interviews with 12News, Ortega said the water would be sourced through the Colorado River Indian Tribes, but a spokesperson for the tribes said they hadn’t been approached. Ortega later emailed the news outlet saying, “the source of the water has not yet been determined.”

“The whole thing is a shell game,” Galvin says. The county rejected the resolution.

In an email to PHOENIX, Ortega wrote that he is no longer talking about the proposal, recommending instead that RVF haulers go to other standpipes.

“Prior to January 1, 30 times every day, diesel-guzzling water tanker trucks pounded Scottsdale streets intruding on neighborhoods to sell water in the county,” he writes. “Back in December, I pointed out that bulk sales of water are available in the near vicinity, outside Scottsdale. At least four bulk water dispensers, loading daily, are owned by EPCOR, which serves three adjacent water districts – all authorized by Maricopa County.”

Ortega suggests EPCOR can sell water to the haulers through those admittedly more distant locations, concluding, “As mayor, I will continue to protect Scottsdale and call on Maricopa County to uphold their responsibility to their constituents.”

Maricopa County Superior Court judge Joan Sinclair sided with Ortega, dismissing a lawsuit brought by RVF residents to force Scottsdale into helping the community temporarily secure a water supply, concluding “the plaintiffs have not shown that they are unable to access water at all. They just cannot access it from the Scottsdale standpipe at this time.”

Still, Galvin, recalling Ortega’s Scrooge-like holiday message to the residents, can’t help thinking the Scottsdale mayor secretly wants to see the outsider community fail.

“That whole month of December, people were really freaking out. They’re like, ‘Tom, the deadline is coming. We need Scottsdale to make a deal with EPCOR to let us get water as of January 1.’ And then, practically on Christmas Eve, he says, ‘I’m not Santa Claus.’

“I was like, ‘Holy cow, we’re dealing with another level here.’”

Like many of her neighbors, Christy Jackman just wishes the two sides could work something out – and quick.

“Ortega has been incredibly cruel throughout this, saying, ‘They’re not our stepchildren,’ and that kind of stuff,” she says. “Incredibly cruel.”

Harsher still have been the reactions from regular people outside the community, who reliably flood the online comments sections of articles updating the community’s water woes with judgy jibes – and occasionally valid points.

“I have zero pity,” wrote one below a recent report on the situation posted on The Arizona Republic’s website. “They didn’t want to pay taxes, they aren’t entitled to the benefits.”

“No real sympathy for these folks,” echoed another. “I don’t even understand why people would buy or build homes in this community knowing the reality of the availability of water resources.”

Some veer into social commentary, noting the irony of affluent, insular, independence-flaunting homesteaders “demanding a safety net from Scottsdale.” The optics have not been particularly GoFundMe-worthy: News coverage of community meetings show gatherings of outraged boomers complaining about not having enough water for the horses on their multi-acre ranches, or being forced to shower at their Carefree health spas. A story in The Washington Post featuring a photo of a resident eating off paper plates to conserve water glances over the fact that the man is a comfortably retired chief of emergency medicine at a regional health-care corporation – slumming on Chinet Classic compartment plates, no less.

Jackman understands the dearth of public support.

“We’re in a political climate where there is very little compassion left,” she concedes. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, why the hell did you buy a home that didn’t have water? You got yourselves into this.’ And I get that. But I also get that they didn’t sit in on that sales call. They don’t understand what these people were told.”

Jackman is one of the lucky ones: 14 years ago, she bought a house with a well, which pumps water directly from an aquifer connected to the plentiful Fountain Hills Sub-basin. Some East Coast reporting has indicated the area’s wells are also in danger of drying up, after years of drought conditions lowering the water table. But Jackman, who also owns a donkey ranch on her 5-acre property, says her well is doing just fine.

“I’m in good shape,” she says. “In fact, I’m sharing. I have many people that are filling up their trucks right out of my well. Truthfully, the majority of the wells that are up here are good. The ones that are not – and I’m just gonna be honest – they’re the homes being put up by the wildcat builders who come in and drill a well that pumps maybe a gallon an hour or something, and then tell buyers of the five homes that are hooked up to it that they have a well. And then they don’t support the homes.”

If there’s one thing the city, the county and all of the longtime residents of Rio Verde Foothills agree on, it’s this: The area can’t sustain any further development until a long-term solution to its water supply is found.

And yet, new construction can be seen all over the place. City of Scottsdale data says the number of homes in RVF grew by 500 percent between 2000 and 2020, adding about 200 new residents each year. “Wildcat” developers skirt around the Groundwater Management Act’s rule that land subdivided into six or more lots must demonstrate a 100-year water supply before any homes can be built by constructing mini-subdivisions of five homes, burying the hauled water requirement in the fine print while offering the homes for sale at considerably less than the going rate within Scottsdale’s city limits just a mile away.

“I have a friend that just bought a 1,400-square foot home without water for $400,000,” says Jackman, whose friend clued her in to how the sales pitch goes. “We have realtors who don’t know the area at all, selling to out-of-state people who also don’t know the area. The homes have Scottsdale addresses – you have to really dig into your tax documents to understand that they’re not actually in Scottsdale. And they gloss over the hauled water issue as just, ‘It’s a different method of getting your water.’ So, no worries – until you move in.”

News stories about the area’s water problems have increased awareness lately, resulting in a lot of vacant new houses. Jackman says that’s actually where a lot of the water theft is happening.

“There’s about 100 unsold homes out here right now,” she says, citing Morgan Taylor Realty as the broker with the most signs up. “The Morgan Taylor people fill up one tank of water and it gets siphoned out the next day.”

But it’s not just the new developers underselling the problem. Even residents who moved into the area a decade ago were a little fuzzy on the water situation.

“When we bought our house 11-and-a-half years ago, I talked to my realtor about what being on hauled water meant,” says Meredith DeAngelis, who’s protested outside Scottsdale city council meetings with other RVF residents demanding action. “And they were like, ‘Oh, you’re fine. It’s City of Scottsdale water and you have SRP. So, never did I think I should have called them to ask, ‘In the future, if there’s a drought, would we not be able to get water anymore?’”

Like other residents, DeAngelis is doing her best to conserve the water they have.

“My husband and I are showering at health clubs, only flushing toilets when we absolutely have to,” she says. “My family and I stopped watering any of our landscape plants a long time ago. We had some fruit trees and we just had to let everything go. That’s just not a luxury we can have any more.”

She tries to find the humor in their situation. “My parents live up the road from us in Scottsdale, so it might go back to the way it was in our college days, where you’re doing your laundry at your parents’ house!” And she knows their troubles pale next to others who live with sacrifice every day.

“We’ve got 4 acres of land and the area out here is gorgeous,” she admits. “There are tons of trails for horses and running and mountain bike riding. It’s like a little paradise right next to Scottsdale.”

But DeAngelis wonders when, if ever, the problems of Rio Verde Foothills will rise to the level when people outside the community will rally in their support.

“When you hear the water’s there and it’s just tied up in laws and politics, it’s incredibly frustrating,” she says. “How does a group of residents have the influence to change that? And how do we get other people to care?”

Flyover Journalism

Rio Verde is not the first Arizona story exploited and/or exaggerated by national media to prove a point about our desert state.

1912: Imagining Arizona as a desolate backwater, critics seize on issue of judge recall to oppose statehood, as illustrated  in this Washington Post cartoon depicting Arizona and New Mexico as chaparajos-wearing Mexican gnomes with a pet iguana. 

2017: CNN proclaims “The Southwest is facing a ‘new normal’ of drought conditions,” citing Phoenix and its 2.6 inches of rain that year. It was an anomaly: rainfall subsequently recovered to near-average levels in 2017 and over-average rainfall in three of the six years since. 

2018: The Guardian publishes an article titled “Arizona’s heat is getting worse – and it’s killing people,” highlighting the state’s predilection for heat-related deaths.

Illustration courtesy U.S. National Archives
Illustration courtesy U.S. National Archives

The Arizona Republic challenges the reporting, pointing out that several other states, including California and Texas, had higher rates.

2022: A New York Times op-ed asks What’s the Matter with Arizona? citing the rise of Kari Lake, Mark Finchem and other arch-right candidates who were ultimately rejected at the polls. Meanwhile, congressional con man George Santos is elected in the NYT’s back yard.


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