Drive just north of Scottsdale, Arizona, and you’ll find a loose grid of dirt roads known as the Rio Verde Foothills. It’s home to around 2,000 families attracted by the rustic beauty of the desert and the freedom to live outside the city limits, but the town is poised to become a symbol of the West’s growing water crisis.
John Hornewer settled in the area 23 years ago. When he discovered that his new community had no water service, he started hauling water for himself and some of his neighbors.
“When my neighbor saw me coming up the road with the trailer, they said, ‘Hey, could you pull over and drop a load for me? ‘” Hornewer said.
More than a quarter of the Rio Verde depends on transported water.
Resident Karen Nabity, who moved to the area in 2014, said she refills her tank every four to six weeks.
“We had talked to a lot of neighbors and they had been doing it for 50 years,” she said. “It was okay. We weren’t worried at the time.”
But times have changed as the Colorado River system has dried up. The pipe where Hornewer gets its water belongs to the city of Scottsdale, and after years of warning Rio Verde to find another source, the city will officially shut off water to the city on January 1.
“I expected to live here for the rest of my life and now I’m wondering if here I’m going to stay here for the rest of my life,” Hornewer said.
Although he can make a two-hour round trip to another water source, it’s so far that state laws might not allow it.
According to Maricopa County Supervisor Thomas Galvin, a temporary solution has been found for the city: utility company EPCOR could send water through the Scottsdale system for Rio Verde’s use. The catch is that Scottsdale has to agree first.
“We just hope that Mayor Ortega can help these people in a spirit of cooperation, now that the solution has been found to facilitate it,” Galvin said, adding that he saw no other solution that would not involve the help from Scottsdale at the moment.
But Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega said the small town “should manage its own destiny with its own water” and that “it’s going to have to find its own solution.”
“Right now they’re trucking water, burning diesel for supply, which we don’t support,” Ortega said. And although Rio Verde residents potentially have to burn even more diesel because they will now have to fetch water from further afield, Ortega says “that’s their problem”.
Scottsdale also has its own problem. The northern part of the city gets 90% of its water from the narrowing Colorado River.
“The constant decline of the water source is a reality,” Ortega said. “We have to adapt, and then we have to adapt more, and we have to adapt more.”
By law, seven states and Mexico are allotted 16.5 million total acre-feet of water from the Colorado River each year. But these days, only about 11 million acre-feet actually flow. The major collection points of the river, Lake Mead and Lake Powellare essentially draining like bathtubs.
“If you look two years, Lake Powell could go so low that it’s basically dry,” said Tom Buschatzke, who heads the Arizona Water Department. “What it would mean if we hit this is that there is no water in the river through the Grand Canyon.”
For starters, he says, temporary and drastic cuts are needed to stabilize the system, but even then the reduced river flow is “highly unlikely” to be reversed.
The politics behind issues in multiple states like water pricing, construction, lawn watering and agriculture “complicate the ability to do something collaboratively,” Buschatzke said. This summer, the federal government asked the states to reach an agreement to reduce their water consumption by about 20%, but they could not reach an agreement.
“Farmers want to be here and they’re going to do whatever they can to hang on and stay here,” said farmer Nancy Caywood.
In many cases, farmers have the oldest water rights in the area and have already suffered reductions.
“We have to keep it in our country, we don’t want to start depending on other countries for our food and fiber,” Caywood said.
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