Parched: Some Maricopa County Communities are Running Dry Sooner Than You Think

Tom Carlson Photo-Illustration
About an hour's drive northeast from the bustle of downtown Phoenix, where single-lane roads allow animals to roam free across the sprawling wild desert, sits a quiet cluster of paradise with a view of the McDowells and the Superstitions.

The once-rural ranching community of Rio Verde Foothills is a 20-square-mile mecca where horses and wildlife are abundant. A slice of paradise.

But a dry slice. There is hardly enough water in the ground to go around. The story of the unfolding water crisis in Rio Verde Foothills is a cautionary one for the rest of the region. Years of scholarly warnings from water experts about the strain on the Colorado River are hitting home. Water shortages are no longer a far-off theoretical problem.

An extreme drought has lingered for a generation. Politicians wrestle over finding a sustainable water plan. White-hot market forces are driving up demand for homes and development. The public agencies charged with curbing wildcat development and ensuring adequate water supply say it's somebody else's job. Homeowners don't always know what they're buying and consumer protections are weak.

Rio Verde Foothills is hardly rural anymore, as the city of Scottsdale edges ever closer to the unincorporated community. Increasingly, the community is becoming suburban, with 2,100 homes there now.

It was not a master-planned community so there's no homeowner's association or company to provide utilities for all. And that suits many of the people there just fine.

"We are a gun-toting group of people who love our rights and our freedoms," said Karen Nabity, who has deep roots in the Rio Verde Foothills community.

Around 500 homeowners like Karen are able to survive in such a remote area because tractor trailer-sized trucks full of water visit their homestead once a month to fill their cisterns. Water-hauling businesses buy the liquid gold from Scottsdale's municipal water filling station nearby the intersection of North Pima and East Jomax roads, then deliver the water to customer properties often down lone dusty trails.

click to enlarge The road into Rio Verde Foothills. - ZEE PERALTA
The road into Rio Verde Foothills.
Zee Peralta

"The majority of people who move out here don't want an HOA or be told what they can do with their property," Nabity said. "They're not fearful but they don't care for the government, they want to be completely independent. So we're trying to create a [water] solution that fits everybody."

No Water in Paradise

While many properties were built with water wells or plans for them, many wells have run dry over the years.

As the demand for development in the Arizona desert intensifies, and the climate gets hotter and drier, there's less water for everybody.

And almost nobody knows how much water is left in the aquifer beneath the Rio Verde Foothills, which sits in hard mountain rock formations. That aquifer does not retain water in the ground as easily as more sponge-like rock formations in other communities across Maricopa County.

"Groundwater around the fringes of the [Maricopa County water basin] is not always reliable," said Alan Dulaney, a retired city of Peoria administrator with three decades of experience in Arizona water policy. "The more wells you put in, the more straws you put in, the quicker it can run dry."

click to enlarge The Scottsdale commercial water fill station near Jomax and Pima Roads. - KRISTEN MOSBRUCKER
The Scottsdale commercial water fill station near Jomax and Pima Roads.
Kristen Mosbrucker

Rio Verde Foothills residents fear that in the coming years more wells will have the same fate and their hard-earned lifestyle will wither away. The clock is ticking for the community faster than ever. The city of Scottsdale is enforcing its drought management plan and could punish any water hauling business which sells municipal water meant for Scottsdale residents to those outside city limits starting December.

Scottsdale's top water official, Brian Biesemeyer, repeatedly declined an interview for this story. The city's spokesperson, Valerie Schneider responded via email to submitted questions after first deferring comment to Maricopa County.

"Scottsdale is willing to discuss assisting Rio Verde. But until a [Domestic Water Improvement District], or formal entity, is established, our hands are tied," Schneider said.

Not an Isolated Case

This unincorporated community and its water problems may seem like an anomaly in Maricopa County, where residents didn't quite understand the rules before signing on the dotted line and purchasing their dream homes.

Tens of thousands of residents are expected to face the same issue as Arizona's extreme drought drags on, and people keep buying single-family homes on the edges of cities.

Like other Southwestern states, Arizona relies on water from the Colorado River to thrive. The river, via the Central Arizona Project, brings water to millions statewide.

click to enlarge John Hornewer, co-founder of Rio Verde Water, connects his water hauling truck to the Scottsdale water station. - ZEE PERALTA
John Hornewer, co-founder of Rio Verde Water, connects his water hauling truck to the Scottsdale water station.
Zee Peralta

But 27 years of drought means water is increasingly scarce. The city of Phoenix raised its water rates on city residents to drill groundwater wells several years ago because it projected a shortage from its share of the Colorado River.

"Now that we're looking at an official Tier 1 shortage on Colorado, that is one portion of any city's water sources portfolio that can be seen to be in a little bit of trouble," Dulaney, the water expert said. "But a lot of cities have access to Salt River Project water so they can offset that to some extent, and then there's groundwater."

Dulaney predicted that if the Colorado River levels prompt a Tier 2 shortage, cities across Arizona will likely limit how many people are using water stations dedicated for their taxpayers.

The city of Phoenix cut off water to New River and Desert Hills residents several years ago. Individuals could face criminal charges from the city if the water purchased at its water stations is trucked outside of city limits. Cave Creek is looking to limit providing water outside of its city limits too.

Rio Verde Foothills drew in Nabity more than a decade ago after her long career in finance.

"The wide-open spaces, horses, and chickens. Hearing the coyotes serenade you at night. It's just a great life," she said.

click to enlarge John Hornewer lifts the mouth of a cistern next to an agave plant in the Rio Verde Foothills. - ZEE PERALTA
John Hornewer lifts the mouth of a cistern next to an agave plant in the Rio Verde Foothills.
Zee Peralta

Now she is spearheading one option for the community to keep the water flowing — a homegrown Domestic Water Improvement District — which is not without controversy due to the specter of big government rules.

The Rio Verde Foothills community paid water haulers to bring 48 million gallons to their homes each year, according to water hauler estimates.

Nabity has paid about $80 each month for the past six years for water trucked to her property from the Scottsdale fill station. Years ago, she didn't bother to drill a well because she felt it was too much money — upward of $20,000 — to sink into a potentially dry hole in the ground.

"I thought, there's no way Scottsdale is going to cut us off, that was my initial gut reaction," she said. "But I quickly learned we have no right to [Scottsdale's water]. And so many [Rio Verde Foothills] wells have dried up over the last 20 years."

Lack of Regulation

Despite its precarious future, new custom homes are still sprouting up amongst the saguaros and mesquite trees where the birds and rattlesnakes live.

In theory, there shouldn't be a single-family home in Arizona without reliable access to water for at least 100 years, according to state rules.

But that's not what happens in practice. All the government officials contacted for this story claim there's nothing they can do about that reality. Nothing they are willing to do, at least.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors controls the fate of Rio Verde Foothills residents' future access to water, not Scottsdale, nearly everyone interviewed for this story concurs.

click to enlarge The view from the cabin of a water hauling truck in the Rio Verde Foothills. - ZEE PERALTA
The view from the cabin of a water hauling truck in the Rio Verde Foothills.
Zee Peralta

More than 500 people have signed a petition to create the water district, a governmental entity with powers critics say are too far-reaching. Community organizers submitted a proposal to Maricopa County in mid-February 2021 but a decision was pushed back for months while residents in opposition presented their concerns to the board.

In October 2021, then-District 2 board member Steve Chucri resigned suddenly, after recordings of him supporting the partisan sham audit of the November 2020 presidential election were released to the public.

But his replacement, Thomas Galvin, skipped the most recent community-wide meeting with hundreds of residents in attendance. Galvin did not even appear to send members of his staff to the mid-January meeting.

Galvan, who was appointed in early December, claims he didn't need to attend the meeting because he met with organizers directly beforehand and had prior commitments that night.

"I do not want folks to be without water for one day, one hour, one minute," Galvan said in an interview with Phoenix New Times. "I do not have an opinion or have decided on what should happen here. I am working through this process. I do know that we are running up against deadlines."

But Galvan declined to offer further details about when organizers might have another chance to have the water district on the county's agenda for potential approval. Galvan wouldn't even estimate how long his research may take.

He's not interested in developing a county-wide proposal to help rural residents ensure access to water. Nor would he review how many parcels of land the county has approved for residential development.

"I don't want to create any false hopes or expectations," Galvan said. "The problem here is that the county can't violate state law. The county cannot issue a moratorium to preemptively block state law."

Adventurous homesteaders left Rio Verde Foothills after World War II when they discovered there wasn't enough water, county historic records detail. It took 20 years for the community to add 330 homes but the pace of development picked up rapidly since the early 2000s, according to the county.

Now the median home price in the area is $674,000, up 22.5 percent from last year. But residents worry the value of their homes could plummet if there's no water when Scottsdale turns off their faucets.

Where the Water Runs

On a recent weeknight, a discussion of the water crisis brought hundreds of people. They hiked along dimly lit dirt paths in the moonlight to Reigning Grace Ranch to gather in a horse-riding arena. Residents brought lawn chairs and wrapped themselves in blankets to stave off the chilly winter night air.

The crowd was a mix of weathered Carhartt work jackets and dusty leather boots inside the horse corral, while others donned cozy wool sweaters and bootcut jeans, with their cowgirl boot heels digging into the soft ground.

The proposed water district would levy taxes and fees upon only residents who sign up in a piecemeal non-contiguous service area. Organizers estimate it would cost $1,000 per land parcel every year in addition to $16 a month. And then $10 per 1,000 gallons each month for water, which doesn't include the delivery cost by a water hauler. The district would take out a low-interest loan from a bank or credit union to purchase 200 acre-feet of water from the Harquahala Valley to provide the community water for 99 years.

The Harquahala Valley water would be added from its West Valley reservoir and transported along with the Central Arizona Project before reaching Scottsdale's water treatment plant. Scottsdale could process the district's water to make it clean enough to drink. Eventually, the district would build its own pipelines, water station for businesses and residents. Cost: upward of $2 million.

But even that potential water source has competition. The city of Queen Creek already approved purchasing 5,000 acre-feet of water from the Harquahala Valley.

Sam Henson, who has lived in Rio Verde Foothills for the past 13 years, feels stuck and doesn't know who to trust.

Henson has a shared well but is cautiously optimistic about his future. Still, he's watching his neighbors begin to sell homes and leave.

"There's no monitoring of the aquifer here so you don't know if the water level is dropping from being pumped out too much or not," he said. "We have no way of knowing what's going to happen with our aquifer even a year from now. There's a lot of people out here fighting."

Scottsdale ensures water for its future residents. Scottsdale approved hundreds of new homes nearby Rio Verde Foothills on a six-acre plot and is willing to run water pipelines to that location. But there are people less than a mile away who are left parched.

"The city of Scottsdale is not cutting back on building out here, but they are cutting back on giving water," he said. "I'm nervous and may end up moving. I love where I live but I'm just very concerned."

There's no consensus on the solution for water in Rio Verde Foothills. Hundreds of residents have signed a petition to join the district, but opponents are pushing for alternatives with less government authority such as a rural water cooperative, and want the county to deny a new water district.

Amy Wolff, a 16-year resident of the area, had her well collapse due to shoddy workmanship years ago, so she and her husband, Larry, rely on hauled water.

"We just don't need a taxing district, there are so many unknowns you're essentially signing a blank contract," Wolff said.

Those who oppose the district want to see the board of supervisors deny the district proposal and want to pursue a rural cooperative and nonprofit structure.

Can't Change the Law

Republican State Senator John Kavanagh of Fountain Hills did attend the community meeting and cautioned the crowd that "everyone's watching" what happens with water in that area. Similar issues are playing out in the West Valley and "all over" Pinal County, he noted.

Kavanagh offered residents that he would propose to change any laws they need — except the one folks asked for — to curb wildcat development.

"I'm pretty good at passing laws...but I could never get that passed. Over half the legislators are rural and then you've got others influenced by builders and developers. We've been trying to pass that for decades and you can't get it done," he said.

click to enlarge Republican State Senator John Kavanagh of Fountain Hills speaks during a community meeting in Rio Verde Foothills. - KRISTEN MOSBRUCKER
Republican State Senator John Kavanagh of Fountain Hills speaks during a community meeting in Rio Verde Foothills.
Kristen Mosbrucker

Ultimately, the decision will be up to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which keeps passing the buck to the state on water issues.

"I can help with legal advice, I can draft a bill for you, but I can't resolve this because I'm not at the level of government," Kavanagh said. "Unfortunately, I have no idea what they are doing because I cannot get a word into the new supervisor Galvan. I had a phone appointment with him two weeks ago and he canceled. He never called."

But Galvan claims that the pair were able to connect and have discussed the issue since then.

On January 28, after New Times spoke with him, Galvan proposed two new community meetings. He wants to meet with each side of the water district debate separately on February 4 at the same ranch in Rio Verde Foothills.

Meantime, Maricopa County officials claim they can't deny building permits to subdivisions with fewer than six homes and are not able to deny any proposed homes for lack of water. Essentially, they cannot curb the underlying issue which contributes to the sprawl of homes without water.

But Maricopa County isn't even keeping track of how many single-family home permits have been approved without access to water, officials claim it's not their job.

"Maricopa County does not track lot splits because it does not regulate lot splits," said Fields Moseley, Maricopa County communications director, in a recent email. "By statute, they are unregulated land divisions. The County also does not provide water service, so wells and hauled water are common here and throughout Arizona, as are lot splits."

Meanwhile, The Arizona Department of Water Resources claims it can't get tangled up in any zoning for subdivisions with fewer than six parcels. The agency is already busy making sure new master-planned developments are truthful about having access to 100 years of water, state officials said.

But don't suggest that the state law has a "loophole" enabling wildcat housing developments, Tom Buschatzke director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources said. That's just the way the law was written and approved by Arizona representatives, he said.

"I do not believe that this is this department's responsibility," Buschatzke said about Rio Verde Foothills, except beyond offering expertise, insight, and resources to interpret water law.

The state has a hard enough time when there's a dispute over water well ownership and cannot even dictate to cities what the drought management plan must be, he said.

"Counties don't have a lot of authority (about water) other than flood control," he said. "We focus our efforts on the regulated subdivisions and we are swamped, from a workload perspective, just trying to maintain the assured water supply both inside the active management areas."

The department hired three new workers just to handle such a task several months ago.

"We have no legal authority to stop outside [water pumpers]," he said, adding that it's not all bad. "We've never had to tell anybody you can't take a shower today you, or you can't turn on your tap altogether."

Bidding Wars for Land

John Angelo, a longtime Arizona Realtor with two decades of experience, has sold homes in Rio Verde Foothills. Angelo said it's often up to the agent to fully disclose the water situation.

Sometimes house hunters know what they want and what they are getting into, but not always.

One of Angelo's clients was looking for a property in the desert where individuals could easily drive their ATVs across the open trail system without having to transport them. In that case, the property owner didn't mind buying land which relied on a well and water access concerns were not a surprise.

Other homebuyers would rather turn on the tap and have water flowing out without extra work.

Under state law, it's up to a seller to fully disclose any condition of the property that negatively affects its value. The seven-page "Seller's Property Disclosure Statement" provided by the Arizona Association of Realtors itemizes dozens of required facts, including the source of water. It does not require sellers to detail how much water is available.

A notice in the statement advises potential buyers that if the property is served by a well or private water provider, "the Arizona Department of Water Resources may not have made a water supply determination."

The real estate industry has borne the brunt of blame among residents and sometimes officials in Rio Verde Foothills and in other unincorporated enclaves across the county. There are lots of different types of real estate agents. Some agents may sell one or two homes a year as a part-time gig, while others sell hundreds annually.

The Arizona Department of Real Estate is responsible for investigating any illegal subdivision activity across the state, such as when the land is split more than six times by the same owner.

Louis Dettorre, Commissioner of the Arizona Department of Real Estate, did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.

Regulated subdivisions, those bigger than six lots, have to demonstrate to the state water department that a would-be development has 100 years of water supply before they can be approved. The master-planned Trilogy community in Rio Verde is a case in point.

There, lots are being snapped up by homeowners who want properties with utilities that are more turnkey. Those homes might have swimming pools as opposed to relying on hauled water to fill a pool every month.

Rio Verde Foothills residents are seeking water for 99 years so they don't get a big investor to buy up land and change the fabric of the landscape without their consent. Demand for real estate in Arizona is hotter than ever.

"Phoenix is like the center of the [real estate] universe right now. With all growth in the infrastructure and the pandemic it just seems to be that everybody is focused on this place to move here," Angelo said."They are trying to get out of the congestion of these really big cities and they are moving here."

That means, in practice, bidding wars for available homes are more common than not. Buyers might not have time to read the fine print before submitting a bid and closing on a home. If a home has a well, there must be an inspection so homebuyers would be aware of that, no matter who the Realtor might be, Angelo said.

"Most people in Phoenix don't understand this [water issue] as well as some another area," he said. "You have Trilogy out there which is absolutely beautiful and EPCOR handles their water. Then across the street, you are going to have a well. I guess you have cases where buyers think, the utilities are at my property. There are times when there is no water and no power. I guess there is a little bit of buyer beware in all of this."

Living Beyond Our Means

Rio Verde Water co-owner John Hornewer has customers across the county, but primarily in Rio Verde Foothills. He settled there after enjoying motorcycle tours across the barren desert in the late 1990s.

Rio Verde Water sells water for about 4 cents per gallon, so a household that uses 5,000 gallons — possible for those without lush irrigation — and each month the bill is $200. But he expects the price of water to skyrocket as the drought intensifies and has watched cities raise the price of wholesale water for years.

"Our lifeline is going to be cut off, so we have to secure outside water," Hornewer said. "They [real estate developers] are going to keep building homes with or without assured water, which is kind of amazing to me. There are a lot of people who moved out here who knew nothing about the water situation."

click to enlarge John Hornewer raised his hands in exasperation when explaining the water situation in Rio Verde Foothills. - ZEE PERALTA
John Hornewer raised his hands in exasperation when explaining the water situation in Rio Verde Foothills.
Zee Peralta

During times when water is plentiful, cities are not hard-nosed about restricting water haulers from selling their water to individuals outside city limits, he said.

"Enforcement is going to become an issue and cities are going to look out for their own citizens," Hornewer said.

Some members of the Rio Verde Foothills community have pushed for EPCOR, a private water business that drills wells and sells groundwater across Arizona to step in as the company did for communities just north of Phoenix.

EPCOR, headquartered in Edmonton, Canada, is a major publicly-traded utility owned by investors with operations in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. As such, the company is beholden to both its customers and investors alike.

Asking EPCOR to expand water services to Rio Verde Foothills would be the "easy button," Hornewer said.

EPCOR would need to ask for permission from the state to service Rio Verde Foothills, just like it did for the New River and Desert Hills communities. That would empower EPCOR to control future water rates, not the community-created entities of rural cooperatives or a water improvement district.

EPCOR asked the Arizona Corporation Commission to let it raise water rates on New River and Desert Hills residents. A decision is pending. The company claims that its solution in that community was not "temporary."

"We don't view the pump station as a temporary solution," said Rebecca Stenholm, EPCOR USA director of public affairs, in an email.

EPCOR is regulated and the state "reviews our current costs and any infrastructure costs that were necessary to provide service before determining what rates we are to charge," Stenholm said.

The company doesn't set retail prices water haulers charge to residents, only the wholesale rate of water.

As for whether the company would consider expanding to Rio Verde Foothills, it's not "quite as simple as installing a pipeline," she said.

"We would need permission from the Arizona Corporate Commission and Rio Verde Foothills would need to have a source of water that is not already part of our dedicated water resources for existing customer groups," she said. "We haven't been asked to explore any costs at this time and without knowing where the water would come from, it's hard to project the numbers. But certainly, a significant cost to build the infrastructure that would be needed to treat and carry the water."

As it stands, there are three potential outcomes for the Rio Verde Foothills community as a microcosm of Arizona's water woes.

One: Maricopa County could ignore their pleas for a decision on whether to allow a water improvement district to be created.

Two: the county could decide to deny their petition for a new district and opponents would propose alternatives.

Three: EPCOR could step in as a new corporate water provider.

The outcome remains unclear, but if the stalemate with Maricopa County doesn't stop, hundreds could face a very parched future.

"There's no question that we've been living beyond our means," Hornewer said.