The clock is ticking for residents in New River and Desert Hills.
About 1,000 to 1,500 homes in these unincorporated communities north of Phoenix rely on water hauled by trucks, which refill at the city of Phoenix's fire hydrants. But Phoenix has said it will cut haulers off on December 31.
Residents of these communities are desperately trying to find a solution before the end of the year.
On Wednesday night, they moved closer to the most pragmatic option: constructing a water-hauling station in nearby Anthem.
The Anthem Community Council heard from New River-area residents and from water utility EPCOR as part of an attempt to hash out a deal. Under the current proposal, EPCOR would lease Anthem’s land to build a water-hauling station where trucks could refill en route to New River.
But can they get it done by January 1?
“It’s highly unlikely we would be able to get it completed by then,” EPCOR's Vice President of Operations, Troy Day, told Phoenix New Times last week.
And while the Anthem council appeared generally supportive of the deal — “We want to help our neighbors” was a common refrain — there were still unanswered questions, not to mention a few prickly exchanges between council members and the water company.
Anthem council director Rick Kesselman cautioned against an Anthem-EPCOR deal that could enable unchecked water-hauling and construction in New River and beyond, compounding the problem of people moving into homes that don’t have a sustainable water source.
“I’m not begrudging EPCOR — you’re also making a
profit from selling water,” Kesselman said.
In response, Day acknowledged that development in New River will almost certainly continue. “And I just don’t have an answer for it, and I don’t know what we can do about it," he said.
Kesselman also raised the possibility that haulers will truck water from an Anthem filling station to communities outside the Anthem-New River area. In other words, they could repeat the water-hauling process that the city of Phoenix has sought to end.
"It is sort of self-regulating because of the cost of gas," Day explained. "And water is expensive to haul, so I don’t know that we’re going to see water going off to other communities."
EPCOR still needs to work out a fee with the Arizona Corporation Commission in order to sell water to haulers. As of right now, EPCOR doesn't currently sell water to haulers, so the company needs to apply for a fee schedule, subject to approval by the ACC as the state agency that regulates utilities. According to Day, the ACC has been supportive.
The company claims it wants to keep costs down for the residents in New River.
“We’re hoping for minimal increase or no increase to the cost for the water haulers,” Day said, “And hopefully that means they won’t pass on costs to residents, who are really in a bind right now.”
Water-hauling companies have also been in the mix to strike a deal. (One company owner put the phone number of a Phoenix deputy city manager on a PowerPoint presentation earlier this month and urged hundreds of people in an auditorium to call the manager the next morning.)
Community members, however, are taking the lead to put pressure on legislators. They don't expect the water haulers to advocate on their behalf, said Julie Elliott, president of the advocacy group "No Water, No Life."
“This is our community, and we’re very concerned about its future," she said.
To be sure, the water haulers' use of water from Phoenix hydrants was legally dubious to begin with.
A spokesperson for Phoenix's Water Services Department said that five years ago, the city determined that water haulers were refilling at hydrants using permits that allowed them to haul for construction purposes, only to take that water to homes outside Phoenix — an unauthorized use of their permit, per the city code.
After learning of the practice, Phoenix issued revised, temporary permits that allowed water-hauling to homes outside the city. But Phoenix also warned haulers that time was running out, a spokesperson explained.
"Both the original and new permits were never authorizations to use Phoenix’s water supply as a permanent water source, but were always meant for temporary, short-term use only," a spokesperson wrote in an email to New Times.
Day said that EPCOR was willing to step in to assist the “fairly dire need that many of these residents in Desert Hills and New River have.” But he added that the underlying problem is not going away.
“For years, they’ve over-pumped this area and wells are going dry,” Day told New Times. “Not only are wells going dry, but the volume pumped is diminishing. Even people who have wells that haven’t gone dry, but have diminished capacity — they’re hauling water as well.”
The Anthem council pushed a final decision to their November 15 meeting. Anthem Council President Roger Willis assured the group of attendees wearing “No Water, No Life” shirts that his community wants to help. But Willis also urged them to continue working on long-term plans to solve the crisis.
“I think that is extremely important, not just for us, but for perhaps the city of Phoenix to hear that you’re doing some things here that are going to make a big difference in the future,” he said.
Members of the organizing committee are quick to say that they're working on these long-term solutions. There’s talk of appealing to the Rural Water Infrastructure Committee, which distributes federal and state loans and grants to help rural communities of 10,000 people of fewer meet their water needs.
Those dollars could allow New River to access a more sustainable source of water instead of relying on water-hauling trucks in perpetuity.
New River residents at the meeting on Wednesday said they were pleased with the deal moving ahead.
"Very supportive," said New River resident Jim Slezak of the council's response. "We are so appreciative of Anthem and EPCOR going to bat for us."
Residents also hope Phoenix will still offer an extension on the use of the fire hydrants to get the 1,500 residents through the first few months of 2018. However, that definitely seems to be a long shot.
“They’re not, right now, going to extend it, because they don’t know what the plan is," said "No Water, No Life" organizer Debby Rypkema.
Even in the best-case scenario, these communities might have to rely on an uncertain series of stopgap measures for the near future. After that? It's anyone's guess.
"If we get the extension from Phoenix, that's the short, short term," Slezak said. "If we have EPCOR help us out, EPCOR's going to be our short term. And we're working on long term."