RIO VERDE, Ariz. — Joe McCue thought he had found paradise in the desert when he bought one of the new stucco homes rising in the granite foothills of Rio Verde, Arizona. It had good schools, mountain views, and cactus-studded hiking trails out the back door.
Then the water was cut off.
Earlier this month, the community’s longtime water supplier, the neighboring city of Scottsdale, turned off the Rio Verde Foothills faucet, blaming a severe drought that threatens the future of the West. Scottsdale said it needs to focus on conserving water for its own residents and he could no longer sell water to approximately 500 to 700 homes—or about 1,000 people. That meant unincorporated houses, mansions and horse farms worth $500,000 outside Scottsdale’s borders would have to fend for themselves and buy water from other suppliers — if the homeowners could find them and afford to pay a lot higher prices.
Almost overnight, the foothills of the Rio Verde became a worst-case scenario of a hotter and drier climate, showing what happens when unregulated growth collides with dwindling water supplies.
For residents pouring their life savings into newly built homes that promise desert sunsets, peace and quiet (but relegate the water situation to the fine print), the upheaval is also deeply personal. The water cut unravels their routines and puts their financial future in doubt.
“Is it just a campsite anymore?” Mr. 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 dry out until the summer,” he said. “Then we’ll be in a really bad position.”
In a battle to conserve, people are flushing their toilets with rainwater and hauling laundry to friends’ homes. They eat off paper plates, skip showers and worry about whether they’ve staked their fortunes on what could become a desiccated ghost suburb.
Some say they know what it might look like to outsiders. Yes, they bought homes in the Sonoran desert. But they ask, are the extraordinary like that? Arizona doesn’t want emerald green fairways, waterlogged lawns or water parks.
“I’m surrounded by plush golf courses, one of the biggest fountains in the world,” said Tony Johnson, 45, referring to the 500-foot water feature in the neighboring town of Fountain Hills.
Mr. Johnson’s family built a house in Rio Verde two years ago and landscaped the yard with rocks rather than thirsty greenery. “We’re not going to put in a pool, we’re not going to put in grass,” he said. “We’re not trying to bring the Midwest here.”
The heavy rain and snow that has lashed California and other parts of the Mountain West over the past two weeks is helping to fill some reservoirs and soak parched soil. But water experts say a streak of wet weather won’t reverse a 20-year drought that has virtually emptied Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, and strained the overburdened Colorado River, which supplies about 35 percent from the water of Arizona. The rest comes from the state’s own rivers or from aquifers in the ground.
Arizona learned last week that water shortages may be even worse than many residents realized. As one of her first actions after taking office, Gov. Katie Hobbs unsealed a report showing that Phoenix’s fast-growing West Valley 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 the situation in the foothills of the Rio Verde is unusually dire, but it provides a glimpse into the bitter battles and tough choices facing the 40 million people in the West who rely on the Colorado River for the means to shower, irrigate cultures or data center management and fracking facilities.
“It’s a cautionary tale for homebuyers,” said Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. “We can’t just protect every single person who buys a plot and builds a home. There is not enough money or water.”
Ms. Porter said a number of other unincorporated areas in Arizona rely on water supplies from larger nearby cities such as Prescott or Flagstaff. They could end up in the Rio Verde straits if the drought continues and cities begin taking drastic conservation measures.
There is no sewer or water main serving the foothills of the Rio Verde, so for decades homes there that don’t have their own wells have had water delivered by tanker trucks. (Homes that have wells are not directly affected by the outage.)
The trucks will fill with water from Scottsdale in a pipe a 15-minute 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 for about a month. When tanks run low, homeowners call or email water carriers for another delivery.
It was a fragile arrangement in the middle of the desert, but the homeowners said the water always arrived and felt almost as reliable as utilities. However, Scottsdale warned back in 2015 that the arrangement could end.
Now, however, water trucks can’t fill up nearby in Scottsdale and must criss-cross the Phoenix metro area in search of supplies, filling up in towns a two-hour drive from Rio Verde. That means more driving, more waiting, and more money. The average family’s water bill has jumped to $660 a month from $220, and it’s unclear how long water trucks will be able to continue drawing tens of thousands of gallons from these backup sources.
More serious water users like Cody Reim, who moved into a starter home in Rio Verde two years ago, are hit even harder. He said his water bills can now exceed $1,000 a month — more than his mortgage payment. Mr. Reim and his wife have four young children, which in normal times meant a lot of washing dishes, countless toilet flushes and dozens of laundry cycles to clean soiled cloth diapers.
Mr. Reim, who works for his family’s sheet metal business, plans to become his own water carrier by strapping large containers to his pickup truck and setting about filling them. He figures fetching water will take him 10 hours each week, but said he’ll do anything to stay in the Rio Verde. He loves the dark skies and barking coyotes at night and how his kids can run up and down a dirt road overlooking the Four Peaks Wilderness.
“Even if this place goes negative and I have to pay someone to take it, I’ll still be here,” he said of his house. “There is no other option.”
Cities in the Southwest have spent years trying to reduce water use, recharge aquifers and find new ways to reuse water to cope with the drought.
Experts say most Arizonans shouldn’t worry about losing their drinking water anytime soon, even as deeper cuts loom agricultural users, which use about 70 percent of Arizona’s water supply. Phoenix and surrounding cities have imposed few water restrictions on residents.
The Rio Verde Foothills once felt like a remote community, far from the urban centers of Scottsdale or Phoenix, locals said, a quilt of ranches and self-built homes scattered among mesquite and palo green trees.
But in the past few years, there has been a housing-building frenzy in the area, fueled by cheap land prices and developers taking advantage of a loophole in Arizona’s groundwater laws to build homes without a fixed water supply.
To prevent unsustainable development in the desert state, Arizona passed a law in 1980 requiring subdivisions with six or more lots to show proof they have a 100-year water supply.
But developers in the foothills of the Rio Verde get around the rule by dividing larger lots into sections of four or five houses each, giving the impression of a miniature suburb, but one that doesn’t have to legally prove it has water.
“This is a community that slipped through the cracks,” said Ms. Porter of 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 developers divide their lots into five lots or fewer to get around the water requirement. “Our hands are tied,” he said.
People in the foothills of the Rio Verde are deeply divided over how to solve their water problems.
When some suggested forming their own water utility, other residents rebelled, saying the idea would impose an expensive, freedom-stealing new arm of government on them. The idea collapsed. Other decisions, such as allowing a larger water company to serve the area, may be years off.
On Thursday, a group of residents sued Scottsdale in an attempt to turn the water back on. They argued that the city violated an Arizona law that restricts cities from disconnecting utility service to customers outside their borders. Scottsdale did not respond to the lawsuit.
Rose Carroll, 66, who is the plaintiff in the case, said she would support any idea that would save her from having to kill her donkeys.
She moved to the foothills of the Rio Verde two years ago and runs a small ranch for two dozen rescued donkeys that have been abandoned, left in kill pens or doused with acid. The donkeys spend their days in a fence on her seven-acre property, eating hay and drinking a total of 300 gallons of water each day.
Mrs. Carroll collected rainwater after a recent winter storm, enough for several weeks of toilet flushing. The new cost of delivering water to the ranch could reach a whopping $1,800 a month, she said, so she’s giving some of the donkeys up for adoption and said she may have to euthanize others if she doesn’t have enough water to raise them. alive.
She said she was called a few days ago and asked to take in two more abandoned donkeys, but had to decline.
“I had no water,” she said.
Erin Schaaf contributed to the reporting of this story.
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