Legislature, county

Hundreds of Rio Vere Foothills residents turned out in February for town halls that Maricopa County Supervisor Thomas Galvin held to listen to their views on the pros and cons of a water district. (Progress file photo)

It’s back to a waiting game for Rio Verde Foothills residents trying to form a water district to service their homes and livestock.

Supporters of  a non-contagious domestic water improvement district, or DWID, northeast of Scottsdale lost their legal bid to force the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors’ hand to vote on the issue so now it’s back to waiting until the board is ready to act.

Supporters of a water district had filed a writ of mandamus against the supervisors in Maricopa County Superior Court in March to speed up the decision-making process but Judge Daniel Martin granted the supervisors’ motion to dismiss the legal action on April 26.

Water district proponents declined comment.

County Supervisor Thomas Galvin, who represents the area, told residents in two town hall meetings in February that he would have a recommendation on forming the DWID for the other supervisors to vote on in May, but that timeline might be pushed back.

Board spokesman Fields Moseley said Galvin is looking to have a recommendation “sometime in the May to June time frame.”

Counties cannot own or operate water companies but the process to create a water district begins with the supervisors approving it.

Christy Jackman, a resident of the Rio Verde Foothills area who opposes the formation of the district, said she received an email from Galvin on April 26 indicating he would have a decision in the next four to six weeks.

In the meantime, there are no changes in private water company Epcor’s plans to provide water to the area.

Epcor is willing to step in and provide water to the area, but it’s not clear where the water would come from, said Epcor spokeswoman Rebecca Stenholm.

House Bill 2055, which would allow Epcor to pull water from the Harquahala Valley to service the Rio Verde Foothills area, has passed the House and is working its way through the Senate.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, voted against the bill because it would allow water to be pumped from what he called the state’s last emergency water source without comprehensive legislation regarding pumping from other aquifers as well.

“We have to draw a line in the sand, very dry sand, for meaningful water policy,” he said.

For now, water is receiving little attention from his colleagues as a body because Republicans are split on a spending plan for the state for the fiscal year beginning July 1 with no end in sight to the impasse.

The bill was originally introduced by Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, to allow Epcor to bring water from the Harquahala Valley to Pinal County.

Another bill, House Bill 2037 would allow the board of supervisors to act as a conduit for federal money to help private water suppliers pay for the necessary infrastructure. It has passed the House and Senate and was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey.

The Rio Verde problem stems from the federal Bureau of Land Management’s announcement last year that it would begin water rationing on the Colorado River in January.

That prompted the City of Scottsdale to launch stage one of its Drought Management Plan, which puts an end to the water hauling in the Rio Verde Foothills area starting January 2023.

Somewhere between 500 and 700 homeowners in the area pay to have a tanker fill up with water from a massive spigot owned by the city and haul it to their homes, where they store it in tanks.

But the deadline to get an alternative water source in place is sooner than January 2023 for those supporting the water district.

If homeowners can get all the paperwork in place and buy the water in the Harquahala water shed by June, Scottsdale officials have said they would be willing to front the district’s members water until the system could get up and running – which could take as long as two to three years by some estimates.

The Rio Verde Foothills community comprises approximately 2,100 homes. An estimated 500 homes are entirely dependent on hauled water. Approximately another 200 homes partially rely on hauled water. The city has been the primary source of water for both commercial and private water haulers for more than 20 years.

Rio Verde’s problem emerged partly because of “wildcat subdivisions” that do not require lots to have a 100-year water supply before they are developed. State law allows a landowner to split land into as many as five lots without being subject to certain regulations on size, infrastructure and amenities.

Kavanagh noted that he tried to pass legislation this year that would tighten restrictions on wildcat subdivisions but could not even  get it heard in committee.

Former County Commissioner Steve Chucri began addressing the issue in 2014 when he created a water committee to look into the issue.

In 2016, that committee met with the Arizona Department of Water Resources, which suggested creating a DWID. Residents then penned a draft petition to create it in 2019 and submitted it for approval to the county before they could collect signatures. The county finally approved it at the end of 2020 so signatures could start being collected. Supporters have almost 600 signatures.

That effort came to a halt when Chucri suddenly resigned his position in November 2021.

The Board of Supervisors put the subject on hold until Chucri’s replacement was found.

Galvin was appointed to the position in December 2021.

Galvin, who has repeatedly said the issue is the No. 1 topic on his agenda, held meetings with homeowners in the community both for and against the DWID in February and said he would have a decision by May, but DWID supporters are saying that is too close to their deadline to arrange a deal with the City of Scottsdale.

Those opposed to the water district would rather see EPCOR simply come in and service the area if possible. They fear a DWID would grant too much power to a select few people. For instance, once a water district is formed, it could condemn land or start dropping wells in the area’s aquifer, potentially harming homeowners who already rely on them.

And they fear it could all be done without the knowledge of anyone outside of the DWID. 

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