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With time running out, Scottsdale mayor could stand in way of restoring water to Rio Verde Foothills

Every solution depends on Scottsdale's help. Mayor David Ortega doesn't want to be involved. What does that mean for the remaining options before Legislature?

PHOENIX — Hundreds of Rio Verde Foothills residents have gone without water service for six months and counting.

There are at least two solutions left on the table, and one of the bills is expected to get a vote when the Legislature resumes work Monday.

But Rio Verde neighbor Scottsdale could be an obstacle.

Mayor David Ortega doesn't want to be part of a solution, according to his own statements and public documents, even though every proposed solution relies on the Scottsdale water pipeline that was shut off on Jan. 1. 

Ortega's opposition could scuttle an agreement.

One Scottsdale councilwoman said she believes the seven-member City Council, which includes Ortega, would approve a agreement to serve as a water conduit.

"We've just got to get the job done, with or without him," two-term Councilwoman Solange Whitehead said in an interview.

"There's seven of us. We're seven, not one." 

She did give Ortega credit for recognizing that Scottsdale couldn't continue to provide water to the fast-growing Foothills.

Meantime, a new Rio Verde bill emerged Friday, in the form of an amendment to a bill that had stalled.

But the Legislature's virtually unprecedented summer schedule could delay the effective date for any legislative solution until the end of the year.

The result: Up to 700 people in Rio Verde Foothills go a full year without water service to their homes 

Here's where things stand:

Ortega: Critics are 'emotional'

In a 40-minute interview at his City Hall office, Ortega dismissed his critics as "emotional" and described Rio Verde Foothills' predicament as the result of a "gambling addiction."

"You're getting the emotions," he said after I described the urgency of helping Foothills residents as akin to a house on fire.

"We cannot afford the luxury of treating water as an emotional issue."

Ortega didn't hide his disdain for the area's very existence.

"There has been a lot of gambling done in the county by wildcat builders, by realtors and even lenders out there," said Ortega, an architect who was elected mayor in 2020. 

"Scottsdale doesn't need to be part of that gambling addiction."

Wildfire risk is real

The fire metaphor is real. Rio Verde Foothills has no fire hydrants. With summer almost here, the state is on wildfire alert.

John Hornewer said his water-hauling truck backs up the Rural Metro firefighters who respond to the community.

"Scottsdale is our 100 percent go-to" for water, Hornewer said before catching himself. "Was our 100 percent go-to."

When Scottsdale was still delivering water to the Foothills' standpipe, water haulers would fill up there overnight in order to respond to fires or back up Rural Metro crews. Hornewer said. His company has a contract with Rural Metro.

The standpipe isn't an option anymore. Haulers have to drive much farther to fill up their tanks.

The desert area  is "incredibly vulnerable" to a wildfire, Hornewer said. "I definitely have the (wildfire) radar going this year. Full-time. It's scary."

Meredith DeAngelis, a longtime resident, said recent small wildfires in the East Valley were visible from her subdivision. 

"Everyone smelled the smoke," she said. 

"I feel like (the mayor) thinks we're idiots for buying our homes out there."

Symbol of water struggles

The high desert subdivision next door to Scottsdale has become a national symbol of Arizona's struggle to manage its water supply.

The area is known as a "wildcat subdivision" because Arizona law allows home construction there without a guaranteed source of water. Some residents rely on wells; many others depend on water hauled from a nearby standpipe that the City of Scottsdale supplied for decades. 

City documents and emails show that Scottsdale had warned Foothills residents for several years that water service to the standpipe could be cut off if drought conditions worsened. The water shortage on the Colorado River prompted a cutoff on Dec. 31.

That cutoff presented a challenge to elected officials at the city, county and state levels: Find a legal way to convey water to an unincorporated subdivision that doesn't have a governmental entity that can sign an agreement to accept, pay for and bill for the water.

How mayor has opposed helping RVF

During our interview, Ortega was alternately lecturing and scolding but was always sure of his position. 

Scottsdale City Attorney Sherry Scott sat in on the interview.

Here are three takeaways:

-Ortega confirmed that he blocked the city water director's proposed agreement late last year to allow a private water company to provide water to the Foothills through Scottsdale's pipes - at no cost to the city. That could have averted the Jan. 1 shutoff.

"Staff had no authority to negotiate anything," he said. "When I saw that, I objected to that. Nothing would have been finalized without the City of Scottsdale's permission."

He repeated his oft-stated suspicions that Maricopa County Supervisor Thomas Galvin had negotiated the deal with EPCOR, the private water supplier, behind his back. 

-Last month, Ortega told top executives with EPCOR that they shouldn't count on him to help Foothills homeowners.

"The City of Scottsdale has no authority, no responsibility, no interest whatsoever, in the unincorporated county areas abutting Scottsdale," Ortega said in a May 16 letter to EPCOR obtained by 12 News through a public records request.

"Ultimately, our water system is not at the disposal of entities," he said during the interview.

Ortega included maps with his letter that showed fire hydrants that could provide water. 

EPCOR, a Canadian company that has extensive operations in the Valley, is working on a long-term solution for the Foothills water supply that needs state regulators' approval. 

-Ortega has opposed two pieces of legislation requiring Scottsdale to serve as a pass-through for water to the Foothills - a so-called "treat and transport" agreement at no cost to the city.

"It's completely normal for us to enter into those agreements," Whitehead said. "The No. 1 thing we need to do is to work together."

The first bill was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs. The second bill (HB 2561), sponsored by Republican Rep. Alexander Kolodin, is still alive and could get a vote when the Legislature returns next week.

Hobbs endorsed it publicly at a news conference, but Ortega disputed that.

"There are all sorts of flaws and complications in this (bill)," he said. "It's folly. It's sheer folly."

Ortega stands by the City Council's proposed water-supply agreement last February. Maricopa County rejected it because the city wouldn't provide details. 

'Let us solve the problem'

The mayor has accused Kolodin, as well as other Republican lawmakers, of betraying Scottsdale residents. 

"I never had any sort of duty or obligation to David Ortega. I have a duty and obligation to the voters of my district," Kolodin said in an interview. 

"He is the mayor; of course, he's entitled to speak. But if I had my preference, he'd let us solve the problem."

Kolodin, an attorney and Scottsdale resident, shepherded the complex bill through House passage with supermajority support. The legislation now awaits a final vote in the Senate. 

The bill's provisions are unprecedented.  

The state would form a temporary water district, with government appointees on a five-person board, serving Rio Verde Foothills residents for a limited time. 

"As a conservative ... there are very few things that I think are the legitimate role of government," Kolodin said.

"But in this state, in Arizona, our core function is to make sure that Arizonans have water."

A  2nd bill would restore water service

But, like any proposed Rio Verde solution, the Kolodin bill isn't a sure thing. 

On Friday, a second Rio Verde bill emerged, HB 2445, sponsored by Republican State Rep. Gail Griffin. a gatekeeper on water issues.

The bill is expected to be amended in the Senate and get a vote Monday on the Senate floor that would move it forward.

If the Senate gives final approval, the House would have to sign off, as well, before the bill  could be sent to Gov. Hobbs for her signature.

But there's this complication: The Republican-controlled Legislature is returning Monday from a monthlong break to hold an abbreviated two-day session, followed by another two-day session in August. 

This fractured sessions are virtually unprecedented. In the past, the Capitol could count on shutting down for the year by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

Will Rio Verde have to wait until fall?

Here's what that means for Rio Verde Foothills: If legislation to restore water service passes with an emergency clause (a two-thirds vote in both chambers) and is signed by the governor, it would take effect  immediately.

If it passes without an emergency clause, the legislation wouldn't take effect until 90 days after the end of the session, in August (though it could be later).

That would push the effective date to sometime in November. 

Could up to 700 people in Rio Verde Foothills go a full year without water service to their homes? 

That's what's on the line this week at the Capitol.

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