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Skipped Showers, Paper Plates: Arizona Suburb’s Water Cuts Off

RIO VERDE, Arizona – Joe McCue thought he had found a desert paradise when he purchased one of the new stucco homes sprouting in the granite foothills of Rio Verde, Arizona. There were good schools, mountain views, and cactus-strewn hiking trails. back door.

Then the water was cut off.

Earlier this month, the community’s longtime water supplier, nearby Scottsdale, turned off the Rio Verde Foothills tap, blaming a crushing drought that threatens the future of the West. Scottsdale said it had to focus on conserving water for its own residents and could no longer sell water to about 500 to 700 homes, or about 1,000 people. That meant the unincorporated $500,000 strip of stucco homes, mansions and horse ranches outside Scottsdale’s borders would have to fend for themselves and buy water from other suppliers — if owners could find them and afford to pay much higher prices.

Almost overnight, the foothills of the Rio Verde transformed into a worst-case scenario of a hotter, drier climate, showing what happens when unregulated growth collides with a decrease in water supply.

For residents who put their savings into newly built homes that promised desert sunsets, peace and quiet (but relegated the water situation to the fine print), the hustle is also deeply personal. . The water disruption upset their routines and cast doubt on their financial future.

“Is it just a campground now?” Mr McCue, 36, asked on a 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 get dry by summer,” he said. “Then we will be in a very bad patch.”

In a rush for conservation, people are flushing their toilets with rainwater and carrying laundry to friends’ homes. They eat from paper plates, skip showers, and wonder if they’ve staked their fate on what could become a parched ghost suburb.

Some say they know what it might look like to outsiders. Yes, they bought houses in the Sonoran Desert. But they ask, are they such outliers? Arizona has no shortage of emerald green fairways, irrigated lawns or water parks.

“I’m surrounded by lavish golf courses, one of the biggest fountains in the world,” said Tony Johnson, 45, referring to the 500ft water feature in nearby Fountain Hills.

Mr Johnson’s family built a house in Rio Verde two years ago and landscaped the yard with rocks, not thirsty greenery. “We don’t install a pool, we don’t install grass,” he said. “We’re not trying to bring the Midwest here.”

Heavy rains and snow that have hit California and other parts of the western mountain over the past two weeks are helping to fill some reservoirs and soak the parched ground. But water experts say a single streak of wet weather won’t solve a 20-year drought that has nearly drained Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, and strained the overburdened Colorado River, which supplies about 35% of Arizona’s water. The rest comes from the state’s own rivers or from underground aquifers.

Last week, Arizona learned that its water shortages could be even worse than many residents thought. As one of her first actions after taking office, Governor Katie Hobbs unsealed a report showing the fast-growing West Phoenix Valley does not have enough groundwater to support tens of thousands of planned homes. for the region; their development is now in question.

Water experts say the Rio Verde Foothills situation is unusually dire, but it offers insight into the uphill battles and hard choices facing 40 million people across the West who depend on the Colorado River for showers, irrigate crops or run data centers and fracturing platforms.

“It’s a cautionary tale for homebuyers,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “We cannot just protect every person who buys a plot and builds a house. There is not enough money or water.

Ms. Porter said a number of other unincorporated areas in Arizona depend on water service from nearby major cities like Prescott or Flagstaff. They could end up in the Rio Verde Strait if the drought persists and cities start taking drastic conservation measures.

There are no sewers or water lines serving the foothills of the Rio Verde, so for decades homes that didn’t have their own wells received water by tanker trucks. (Houses that have wells are not directly affected by the cut.)

The trucks were filling up with water from Scottsdale at a hose 15 minutes’ drive from the foothills of the Rio Verde, then delivering the water directly to people’s front doors. Or rather, to 5,000 gallon storage tanks buried in their backyards – enough water to last about a month for an average family. When the tanks were low, the owners would call or send an electronic signal to the water carriers for another delivery.

It was a tenuous arrangement in the middle of the desert, but the owners said the water was still coming and it had become almost as reliable as an electrical hookup.

Now, however, water trucks can’t fill up near Scottsdale and have to crisscross the Phoenix metro area for supplies, filling up in towns two hours round trip from Rio Verde. That means more driving, more waiting, and more money. The average family’s water bill has jumped from $220 to $660 a month, and it’s unclear how long tankers will be able to continue pulling tens of thousands of gallons from these backup sources.

Bigger water users like Cody Reim, who moved into a start-up house in Rio Verde two years ago, are even harder hit. He said his water bills could now top $1,000 a month, more than his mortgage payment. Mr. Reim and his wife have four young children, which normally meant a lot of washing up, countless toilet flushes and dozens of wash cycles to clean soiled cloth nappies.

Mr. Reim, who works for the family’s sheet metal business, plans to become his own water hauler, strapping large containers to his van and driving off to fill them. He figures fetching water will take him 10 hours a week, but he said he would do anything to stay in Rio Verde. He loves dark skies and howling coyotes at night, and how his kids can walk up and down a dirt road that offers views of the Four Peaks Wilderness.

“Even if this place went negative and I had to pay someone to take it, I would still be here,” he said of his home. “There is no other option.”

Southwestern cities have spent years trying to reduce their water use, recharge aquifers and find new ways to reuse water to deal with drought.

Experts say most Arizonans don’t have to worry about losing their drinking water anytime soon, though deeper cuts are looming for agricultural users, who use about 70% of the Arizona water supply. Phoenix and surrounding cities have imposed few water restrictions on residents.

The Rio Verde foothills once looked like a community far removed from the urban centers of Scottsdale or Phoenix, locals said, a quilt of ranches and self-built homes scattered among mesquite and palo verde trees.

But in recent years there has been a homebuilding frenzy in the area, fueled by cheap land prices and developers who have taken advantage of a loophole in Arizona’s groundwater laws to build houses without any fixed water supply.

To prevent unsustainable development in a desert state, Arizona passed a law in 1980 requiring subdivisions with six or more lots to prove they have a 100-year-old water supply.

But Rio Verde Foothills developers bent the rule by cutting larger plots into sections of four or five houses each, creating the impression of a miniature suburb, but one that didn’t need to legally prove it had some water.

“It’s a community falling through the cracks,” said Ms. Porter, of the Kyl Center for Water Policy.

Thomas Galvin, a county supervisor who represents the area, says there is little the county can do if builders divide their plots into five or fewer lots to circumvent the water supply requirement. “Our hands are tied,” he said.

Residents of the Rio Verde foothills are bitterly divided over how to solve their water problems.

When some proposed forming their own self-funded water supplier, other residents revolted, saying the idea would impose a costly and freedom-robbing new branch of government on them. The idea collapsed. Other solutions, such as allowing a larger water utility to serve the area, could take years.

On Thursday, a group of residents sued Scottsdale in a bid to restore the water. They argued the city violated an Arizona law that prohibits cities from cutting off utility services to customers outside their borders. Scottsdale did not respond to the lawsuit.

Rose Carroll, 66, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said she would support any idea that would prevent her from having to kill her donkeys.

She moved to Rio Verde Foothills two years ago and runs a small ranch for two dozen rescued donkeys that had been abandoned, left in pens or doused in acid. The donkeys spend their days in a corral on his seven-acre property, eating hay and drinking a total of 300 gallons of water each day.

Ms. Carroll collected rainwater after a recent winter storm, enough for a few weeks of toilet flushing. The new cost of getting water delivered to the ranch could reach an unaffordable $1,800 a month, she said, so she is putting some of the donkeys up for adoption and said she may have to euthanize some. others if she didn’t have enough water to keep them. alive.

She said she received a call a few days ago, asking her to take two more abandoned donkeys, but had to say no.

“I had no water,” she said.

Erin Schaff contributed to the reporting of this story.

nytimes Gt

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