EXPLAINER: What makes the Rio Verde Foothills water situation unique

While the unincorporated community has recently made national headlines, discussion about it’s water supply has been going on for years.
On Tuesday, the Scottsdale City Council agreed on a proposal to treat water and deliver it to the community for three years
Published: Feb. 22, 2023 at 6:43 AM MST|Updated: Feb. 22, 2023 at 9:26 AM MST
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RIO VERDE FOOTHILLS, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - It’s a story that’s making national headlines. On January 1, 2023, about 1,000 people who live in the Rio Verde Foothills had their water supply cut off by the City of Scottsdale.

On Tuesday, the Scottsdale City Council agreed on a proposal to treat water and deliver it to the community for three years. However, it’s not a done deal and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors still has to approve it. It also comes with caveats. If Scottsdale’s water supply is reduced for any reason, the Rio Verde community will lose its access to water. The agreement is also contingent on the city actually getting additional water resources.

Discussions about the Rio Verde Foothills water supply began years ago as the city has been warning the people in the community this would happen under Scottsdale’s state-mandated drought regulation plan. Before the 2023 deadline passed, the unincorporated community proposed a domestic water management plan to solve the problem, but most people were not on board. Then the Maricopa Board of Supervisors struck it down in late August.

The community and state lawmakers have been working on solutions.

Sarah Porter is the director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. She calls this an “unusual” situation and people in big Arizona cities like Phoenix don’t have to worry about their taps being turned off overnight.

What makes Rio Verde different? It’s an unincorporated community adjacent to a city that uses Colorado River Water, and that supply is facing deep cuts from the federal government. About two-thirds of Scottsdale’s water supply comes from the Colorado River through the Central Arizona Project, compared to about 36% in the city of Phoenix, Porter said. When six or more homes are built in our state, Porters says the development needs to prove a 100-year water supply. Cities like Scottdale have to go through even more rigorous work, proving to the Arizona Department of Water Resources it has that supply every 15 years. It’s called an assured water supply designation.

“Rio Verde development occurred below the radar, below the six-home threshold that would have required the developers to prove that they have a 100-year supply of water,” Porter explained. “And that’s why people that live there are so vulnerable.”

Porter says there are water-hauling communities around the state that take advantage of municipal supplies, but the municipal supplier isn’t using Colorado River water in most of those cases.

“We probably need to think about what kind of risks we think are appropriate for people buying a home in central Arizona or Arizona,” Porter told Arizona’s Family. “You know people who bought homes in Rio Verde didn’t expect that they were so water vulnerable, so it’s probably important for us to encourage people when they are buying a home to really do their homework about what kind of water security they have with that home.”

The Kyl Center for Water Policy has a map where you can put in your address and check your city’s assured water supply designation. Porters says the easiest thing to do if you’re curious, is to contact your water provider.

Meantime the people who live in Rio Verde have been without running water, which comes with its own set of challenges and they have concerns about the rising costs. “Right now we’re without most of our water supply. We have less than 40% of water for all the homes. So right now I’m using rainwater to flush my toilet,” said Karen Nabity, who lives in the unincorporated community.

When it comes to future cuts in our Colorado River water supply, Porter feels like we are living in a cloud of uncertainty. She says Arizona will likely face deeper cuts this year and we may hear about them in mid-August, or possibly sooner.