No dice, mayor tells Rio Verde Foothills

David Ortega

Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega said he will not be ruled by compassion for approximately 700 Rio Verde Foothills households that are likely to lose their water source Jan. 1, when the city shuts the stand pipe servicing the community.

“There is no Santa Claus,” Ortega said in a written statement released Dec. 9. “The mega-drought tells us all – water is not a compassion game.”

He also admonished Councilwoman Linda Milhaven and Maricopa County Supervisor Thomas Galvin for trying to keep the stand pipe open, claiming they are working with “special interests.”

Milhaven had tried to call a special council meeting for Dec. 13 to consider a plan by private utility EPCOR.

EPCOR proposed paying the city to treat water it provides and allow it to be distributed through the stand pipe.

When Milhaven informally approached her colleagues, she said she had enough support to do it. However, when City Clerk Ben Lane took a formal poll, there was not enough interest to schedule a session.

The council can meet with four hours’ notice and Milhaven is still hoping to pull together a last-minute meeting with the help of City Manager Jim Thompson.

But Ortega ripped the departing councilwoman, calling her “an ally of special interests and scattered residents” and “the insider pulling for EPCOR to exploit Scottsdale water facilities.”

“Rather than EPCOR pulling water from their (Chaparral Water Improvement District) CAP pump facility, which already serves the county, Ms. Millhaven advocates that EPCOR exploit the upstream Scottsdale Water facilities, allowing diesel truckers to trample Scottsdale roads.”

Milhaven retorted, “I have no idea what the mayor is talking about or what he is referring to. It sounds like a political sound bite without any foundation.”

She said helping Rio Verde Foothills residents is the right thing to do.

“We are their only option,” she said. “No Scottsdale water allocation would be used. There’s no expense to Scottsdale in the proposal and these people will continue to have water in their homes.

“If we don’t do this, they have no water. Their homes would become uninhabitable. It’s a public health issue. Even though they are not Scottsdale residents, I think we have a responsibility to be good neighbors and help them.”

Ortega also implied Galvin, an attorney in his private career, is financially benefiting from trying to get the city to agree to EPCOR’s proposal.

“It is no secret that attorney Tom Galvin works for the Rose Law Group, which represents EPCOR,” Ortega wrote.

Galvin called the allegation untrue.

“Rose Law Group does not represent EPCOR,” Galvin said in a written statement. “In fact, Rose Law Group's utility law practice consists of opposing utilities, and it often represents clients that are opposing EPCOR.

“My law firm has already contacted at least one news outlet that published these accusations without seeking confirmation, calling on them to remove the damaging and false information. The outlet has removed the erroneous press release. The mayor’s claims are without merit and are irresponsible.”

Galvin added, “I think it’s unfortunate that Mayor Ortega issued a partisan attack regarding an issue that has required bipartisan cooperation among several agencies and jurisdictions.

“I’ve only been a supervisor for one year, but I have worked every day to find a solution to a problem that has been festering and languishing for years. I have worked closely with the residents of the Rio Verde Foothills under this looming deadline.”

It was largely based on Galvin’s recommendation that the county Board of Supervisors unanimously decided in August not to allow the creation of a domestic water improvement district to help Rio Verde Foothills.

That would have avoided the crisis the community is now facing, although many homeowners opposed a water district for various reasons.

Instead, Galvin urged the city to keep the water flowing to the stand pipe until EPCOR could buy water rights and build the infrastructure to serve the community – which could take two to three years.

“I hope and expect that the City of Scottsdale will take note of what we’ve done here, what has been done and continued to be done and how we continue to work with the community to provide access to their stand pipe until a brand-new stand pipe is operational,” Galvin said at the time. His district includes Rio Verde Foothills.

Ortega said Galvin in January asked him “to let the matter slide.”

“I told him that ‘deadlines are good. Deadlines matter. It is a Hard No.’ I made it very clear that ‘we’ had no intention of reversing Scottsdale water or supporting ‘wildcat subdivisions’ which drain our water. I was not ambiguous and a follow up email is of record.”

“As mayor, I will continue to keep moneyed interests out of our Scottsdale water facilities,” Ortega wrote.

What it all means is that the three water hauling companies that service the community are going to have to go farther to draw water for Rio Verde Foothills – which likely will drive up customers’ rates.

John Hornewer, owner of Rio Verde Water, said he he is going to have to travel up to twice the distance to find stand pipes and that might force him to double his rates.

Even then, the water haulers are going to struggle to bring in enough water to service the community, he said.

“I think there’s going to have to be further cutbacks,” Hornewer said. “It will be very challenging to maintain that kind of draw.”

Homeowner Meredith Deangelis, who relies solely on hauled water, said she plans to top off her 5,000-gallon tank on New Year’s Eve.

“That will last me two months,” she said. “I plan on showering at our health club to make it last longer.”

She noted that while her home is technically outside of Scottsdale, she does all of her shopping there, works there and her daughter goes to school there.

“It is terrifying and it is frustrating,” Deangelis said. The situation is made possible 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.

The city decided to turn off its stand pipe as part of the first phase of its Drought Management Plan, which became effective when the federal Bureau of Land Management’ began rationing Colorado River water to the seven Basin States and assorted tribes.

Galvin’s predecessor, Steve Chucri, had been working to solve the problem as far back as 2014, creating a water committee to look into the issue.

In 2016, that committee met with the Arizona Department of Water Resources, which suggested a domestic water improvement district.

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 approximately 550 signatures.

Galvin recommended against a water district for several reasons, saying liens would be filed against homeowners, “subjecting them to substantial obligations and liabilities” if the district wasn’t run properly.

Noting that many homeowners opposed it, he added, “I have concerns about the long-term viability of the DWID and its board.”

“In contrast, a private water utility corporation can address these water needs and has greater support from the community,” he said.

Two Rio Verde Foothills residents have appealed the supervisors’ decision in court but the case is winding its way through the judicial process.

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