The Water Wars Come to the Suburbs

The best gossip you’re likely to hear in Rio Verde Foothills, Arizona, is about water. Last month, when a few residents stopped by Karen Nabity’s sprawling, high-ceilinged home, the talk quickly turned to wells.

“My neighbor two lots to the east of me just got done putting in a nine-hundred-and-sixty-foot dry hole,” John Hornewer said.

Two women exchanged a horrified look. “How much did they put up, cost-wise?” Leigh Harris asked.

“I felt so bad I didn’t even ask,” Hornewer said. “I would venture to say it’s forty thousand dollars on a craps table that just crapped out.”

“Same thing with the lot across the street from me,” Cindy Goetz said. “Nine hundred feet, no water. And now the guy starts building.”

As the Southwest enters its second decade of megadrought, and the Colorado River sinks to alarmingly low levels, Rio Verde, a largely upscale community that real-estate agents bill as North Scottsdale, though it is a thirty-mile drive from Scottsdale proper, is finding itself on the front lines of the water wars. Some homeowners’ wells are drying up, while others who get water delivered have recently been told that their source will be cut off on January 1st. “It’s going to turn into the Hunger Games,” Harris said grimly. “Like, a scrambling-for-your-toilet-water-every-month kind of thing.” The fight over how best to address the issue is pitting neighbors against one another. “Water politics are bad politics,” Thomas Loquvam, the general counsel and vice-president of EPCOR, the largest private water utility in the Southwest, told me. “You know that saying, ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting’? That’s very true in Arizona.”

The Southwest’s water issues are at a point of crisis. “What has been a slow-motion train wreck for twenty years is accelerating, and the moment of reckoning is near,” John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told Congress earlier this year. Arizona is one of seven states that, along with parts of Mexico, draw water from the Colorado River, which accounts for about a third of the state’s supply. (In the nineteen-seventies, Arizona built an extensive aqueduct system to channel river water to the central and southern regions of the state, in part to allay fears that it was overtaxing its finite supply of groundwater.) But the agreement divvying up the Colorado’s water was made at a time when flows were higher than they are now. In recent years, states that rely on that supply have had to contend with shortages, and experts predict that the situation is only going to get worse.

The Foothills is a twenty-square-mile community of some two thousand houses and horse farms in Rio Verde. It’s unincorporated, so homeowners don’t pay city taxes, or receive city services, including water. Many homeowners see this as a plus. When I asked the people at Nabity’s house why they opted to live where they do, several replied, enthusiastically and in unison, “No H.O.A.!” Nabity’s house is off an unpaved road, surrounded by acres of brushland, and the property is regularly visited by roadrunners and hawks and, on occasion, a great horned owl. “Sometimes I’ll have a whole row of little baby quails,” she said. “They look like little cottonballs.”

Recently, the downsides have become more visible. “It’s been keeping me up at night,” EPCOR’s Loquvam said. “Multiple nights, actually. I wonder if these people really understand what they were doing when they bought these homes.”

Most Foothills residents draw their water from wells, but several hundred homes sit on land without reliable access to water, so the inhabitants rely on cisterns, which they fill with a delivery from a water truck every month or so. When Cindy Goetz moved to Arizona from Illinois, in 2012, she had never heard of hauled water. “But I did some research on it—you know, is a well better, or is hauled water better? And my decision was, hauled water is better,” she told me. “A well can get contaminated, it can run dry. How about just pay a little extra to have someone bring it in from the city? It’s already drinkable. I asked [my real-estate agent] and he said that it’s done a lot in Arizona. And it wasn’t like a homestead out in the middle of nowhere. There were streets and power and phone lines and all that. I assumed it would be O.K. It wasn’t presented as, ‘By the way, it could stop.’ ”

In 2018, Phoenix, concerned about its own supply, stopped selling water to haulers who serviced New River, an unincorporated community north of the city. Nabity grew worried that Scottsdale might make a similar decision and cut off supply to Rio Verde Foothills. If that happened, the water haulers could look for other sources, but trucking water in from farther away would cost significantly more. And what if other communities also stopped wanting to sell their scarce water to outsiders? Nabity, a real-estate agent, worried that water insecurity could prevent her from selling her home someday. But, when she and others began raising the issue, some of her neighbors accused her of fearmongering. Scottsdale promised to be a good neighbor, they insisted. The Foothills weren’t going to get cut off.

Then, last August, the Department of the Interior issued its first-ever formal water-shortage declaration for the Colorado River. A few months later, Scottsdale became the first city in Arizona to announce that it had entered Stage One of its drought-management plan. (Several other cities have since followed suit.) The city asked Scottsdale residents to decrease water consumption by five per cent. It also informed the water haulers that, starting in 2023, they could no longer buy Scottsdale water to deliver outside city limits—including to the Rio Verde Foothills.

Homeowners who didn’t have wells were suddenly uncertain that they’d be able to wash their dishes or flush their toilets. Some water haulers reassured their customers that they could find water for them, at least for now. Hornewer, who runs a water-hauling company, told me that not all haulers were scrupulous about the legality of their sources. “To them, it’s just kind of like the Old West,” he said. “If the water’s there, grab it. If you want to get it from Phoenix illegally, sure, you can do that. But that’s a short-term fix.”

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