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Arizona town looks for solutions amid Western water crisis

Scottsdale to cut Rio Verde Foothills water
Arizona town to cut off water to Rio Verde Foothills amidst western water crisis 08:28

Drive just North of Scottsdale, Arizona, and you'll find a loose grid of dirt roads known as the Rio Verde Foothills. It's home to around 2,000 families drawn to rustic desert beauty and the freedom of living outside the city limits, but the town is about to become a symbol of the West's growing water crisis.

John Hornewer moved to the area 23 years ago. When he discovered his new community didn't have water service, he began hauling water for himself, along with some of his neighbors. 

"As my neighbor saw me coming up the road with the trailer, they were like, 'Hey, could you stop and drop off a load for me?'" Hornewer said.

More than a quarter of Rio Verde relies on hauled water. 

Resident Karen Nabity, who moved to the area in 2014, said she tops off her tank every four to six weeks.

"We had talked to a lot of the neighbors and they'd been doing it for 50 years," she said. "It wasn't a big deal. We weren't concerned about it at that time."

But times have changed as the Colorado River system has dried up. The pipe where Hornewer gets his water from belongs to the city of Scottsdale, and after years of warning Rio Verde to find another source, the city will officially cut off water to the town on January 1.

"I expected to live out here for the rest of my life and now I actually question whether here is going to be here the rest of my life," Hornewer said.

While he could make a two-hour round trip to another water source, it's so far away that state laws might not allow it.

According to Maricopa County supervisor Thomas Galvin, a temporary solution has been found for the city: The utility company EPCOR could send water through Scottsdale's system for Rio Verde's use. The catch is Scottsdale has to agree first. 

"We just hope that Mayor Ortega can help these folks in the spirit of cooperation, now that the solution has been found to facilitate it," Galvin said, adding that he doesn't see any other solutions that wouldn't involve Scottsdale's help at the moment.

But Scottsdale mayor David Ortega says the small town "should manage their own destiny with their own water" and that "they're going to have to find their own solution."

"Right now they are trucking water, burning diesel to supply themselves which we do not support," Ortega said. And despite the Rio Verde residents potentially having to burn even more diesel as they now will have to get water from further away, Ortega says "that's their problem."

Scottsdale has its own problem too. The northern part of the city gets 90% of its water from the shrinking Colorado River. 

"The constant decline of the water source is reality," Ortega said. "We have to adapt, and then we have to adapt more, and we have to adapt more."

By law, seven states and Mexico are allocated 16.5 million acre-feet total of Colorado River water each year. But these days, only about 11 million acre-feet are actually flowing. The big collection points of the river, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are essentially draining like bathtubs. 

"If you look out two years, Lake Powell could go so low that it's essentially dry," Tom Buschatzke, who runs Arizona's water department said. "What that would mean if we hit that, is no water in the river through the Grand Canyon."

For starters, he says, temporary, drastic cuts are needed to stabilize the system, but even then, the reduced flow of the river is "highly unlikely" to be reversed.

The politics behind issues across multiple states like water pricing, construction, lawn watering and farming "complicates the ability to do something collaboratively," Buschatzke said. This summer, the federal government asked the states to sort out a deal to cut about 20% of their water use, but they couldn't come to an agreement. 

"Farmers want to be here and they're going to do everything they can to hang on and stay here," farmer Nancy Caywood said. 

In many cases, farmers have the oldest water rights in the region and have already been taking cuts.

"We need to keep it in our country, we don't want to start depending on other countries for our food and fiber," Caywood said. 

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