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'They've been warning us': Rio Verde Foothills residents prepping for water cutoffs

The community of Rio Verde Foothills is heading toward a water cutoff in December. They have no plan yet for how to bring water to their neighborhood.

RIO VERDE, Ariz — There are dozens of jugs lined up outside Leigh Harris's back door. 

Mostly gallon jugs, filled with water, lined up on concrete. They're Leigh's insurance policy against the coming drought. 

Because in six months, she may have no water at all.

"They've been warning us since 2016 that this was approaching," Harris said. 

But in the six years since, the 500-odd residents of Rio Verde Foothills haven't been able to find a solution.

And they're running out of time. 

RELATED: Hundreds of homes in Rio Verde Foothills are about to lose water; they won't be the last

Cutoffs Looming

John Hornewer drives a tanker truck down roads that really shouldn't be passable. 

It's all dirt roads out in this part of central Arizona. Some are graded, some have gravel, most are rutted and bumpy. 

Inside Hornewer's tanker truck is the water that almost every homeowner in Rio Verde Foothills uses for their homes. They pay him to deliver water to storage tanks they have buried under their properties. Without Hornewer, the taps run dry. 

"As water becomes such a scarce precious resource, it's the cities are taking care of their own," Hornewer said. "And rightfully so."

In December, Hornewer will lose access to the pipe that fills his truck. 

That pipe is at the edge of the Scottsdale city limits, and it's filled with Scottsdale city water. But Rio Verde Foothills isn't in the city limits. It's farther North in an unincorporated area of Maricopa County. 

In 2016, Scottsdale officials read the writing on the wall and saw that the West's decades-long drought was likely to continue. They decided to cut off Rio Verde Foothills and Hornewer's truck from the city water supply to keep the city's water for city residents.

Hornewer said he has one or two options to continue hauling water, but they're not confirmed. 

"I have a source in Buckeye, I have a source in Maricopa," he said. But those cities are many miles away from Rio Verde Foothills, which means he won't be able to make as many trips and won't be able to deliver near as much water.

How could a neighborhood of 500 homes be built with no access to water?

Basically, it happened through a quirk of development and law.

In Maricopa County, developers don't have to guarantee access to water if a piece of land is subdivided into five or fewer lots. In Rio Verde Foothills, that kept happening over and over. 

The neighborhood is surrounded by expensive homes. Scottsdale National Golf Club is a short distance away. So are planned communities like Rio Verde Estates, but they were all planned as large-scale developments. They have no problems with access to water. 

But Rio Verde Foothills is the space in between. 

"About 50% of the land is undeveloped," homeowner Karen Nabity said. "And the county is still issuing building permits."

"The County has let us know they have no obligation to require water when issuing a permit," Nabity said. 

"We thought we could also drill a well," homeowner Meredith DeAngelis said. "The neighbor drilled right across the street 1,300 feet down and didn't hit a drop."

The cost of that drilling, DeAngelis said, could be $80,000 or more, with no guarantee of ever hitting water. 

Whether they would have access to water is not something these homeowners said they ever considered. They told 12 News they assumed water would have to be provided in order to buy, build or sell a house. 

Some told 12 News the lack of a permanent water source was actually considered a selling point for their homes.

"Wells can go dry and they break and they're very expensive," DeAngelis recalls her real estate agent saying. "These water trucks will always be in service. So when I bought my house I actually felt better that I was on hauled water."

RELATED: Rio Verde Foothills attempting to force vote on DWID by suing Maricopa County


So wells are not guaranteed and hauled water has a sketchy future at best. 

As another alternative, some in the area have been pushing for a Designated Water Improvement District (DWID). 

A DWID lets people who use the water take shared responsibility for managing the infrastructure. In simple terms, it allows people to be their own community water company. 

And a DWID can enter into water deals to bring in water to an area that doesn't have it currently. 

In the case of Rio Verde Foothills, that would mean a complicated scheme to get water. Their best idea is that the DWID would buy a piece of land that has water, potentially in the Harquehala Valley, dozens of miles away. 

Then, they'd have to find a way to get that water to the Central Arizona Project canals and enter into an agreement with CAP to convey it. 

After that, the water would enter the CAP system and could be brought to a pipeline near Rio Verde Foothills. It would all cost a lot of money, but residents who are pushing for the DWID say it's the only choice they have. 

But forming a DWID requires a vote of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. And the county has never brought it up for a vote. 

The Rio Verde Foothills homeowners are now suing Maricopa County. 

A county spokesman told 12 News the county could not comment because of the lawsuit.

'Where Do We Go?'

"I'm so worried I wake up every single morning thinking about it and go to sleep every single night thinking about it," DeAngelis said. 

The residents of Rio Verde Foothills moved here for various reasons. They own animals, they enjoy being away from the city life.

"If this gets shut off and we have no water, where do we go?" DeAngelis said. "It's not easy to pack up ducks and chickens and your whole family and go somewhere else."

And even if they could move, the homeowners said there's no way they could sell their property. They'd have to disclose the water issues before the sale, and who would want to buy the land knowing the water crisis that's looming ahead?

Leigh Harris's only solution right now is to save every drop of rain, every drop of water that she has at her home. 

She hopes those jugs out near her back door will not become her primary water source. But she's ready if it does. 

"Forty-six million gallons of water and we have to find a way of replacing that," she said. "Not short-term...but long-term."

RELATED: Next stage of water restrictions in Arizona could come as soon as August

RELATED: Unprecedented solutions coming to the Lake Powell crisis


12 News, along with sister stations across Western states, set out to understand the dire conditions Arizona and other states face as drought and wildfire continue to rage.

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