Rio Verde Foothills is Exhibit A in Arizona's drought ... of leadership

Lisa Nelson holds a sign in protest of her and other residents of the Rio Verde Foothills loosing their access to water after Scottsdale shutoff the standpipe at the start of the year, during a Scottsdale city council meeting at the Scottsdale Civic Center on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.
Lisa Nelson holds a sign in protest of her and other residents of the Rio Verde Foothills loosing their access to water after Scottsdale shutoff the standpipe at the start of the year, during a Scottsdale city council meeting at the Scottsdale Civic Center on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

Cody Reim went to the Arizona Legislature on Tuesday to beg for help.

“We’re almost 40 days without water,” he told the Senate Government Committee. “To my family, friends, horses and livestock, they’re going to die this summer if this does not go through.”

No help was forthcoming.

Oh, our leaders passed a bill. Passed two of them, in fact.

It’s just that thanks to Democrats, the bills will do nothing to the solve the immediate crisis facing Reim and his fellow residents of Rio Verde Foothills. And thanks to Republicans, they’ll do nothing to solve the underlying problem that landed these residents – and likely future communities across the state – in this position.

Arizona has a drought, but it turns out it’s not only a shortage of the wet stuff.

There also seems to be a drought of common sense and common decency.

Water shouldn't be political, except it is

By now you know the story of Rio Verde Foothills, a desert paradise in the northeast Valley that should not exist. Except that it does, thanks to a loophole in the state’s water laws that allowed hundreds of homes to be built with no guarantee of water.

For decades, residents of the area have hauled water up from Scottsdale, but the city cut them off on Jan. 1, citing coming water cutbacks.

Scottsdale has rebuffed repeated pleas to turn back on the standpipe until the area can find a permanent source of water, noting that Rio Verde Foothills residents were warned for six years that this day would come.

Now that day is here and as is all too often the case, the Legislature that should have long ago prevented the problem is now rushing to address the symptom.

After the shutoff:Republican lawmakers pressure Scottsdale for water

Thus comes House Bill 2561 and Senate Bill 1093, a pair of Republican-backed bills that would force Scottsdale to sell water to Rio Verde Foothills until 2026, by which time a permanent solution presumably will have been found.

The bills passed both the House Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee and the Senate Government Committee this week but without enough votes to take immediate effect. Without Democratic support, the state can’t force Scottsdale to turn on the taps until sometime this fall.

That’ll make for a long, hard, possibly unsurvivable summer for some.

“Water is essential to life,” Rio Verde Foothills resident David Sloman said, during Monday’s House hearing on the bill. “Providing it shouldn’t be politicized.

The problem, of course, is that he’s at the state Capitol where absolutely everything is politicized.

Inaction now builds on previous inaction

Democrats weren’t particularly sympathetic to Rio Verde Foothills’ plight, correctly noting that this is what happens when you have unbridled growth and an unwillingness to fix a gaping loophole in the state’s water laws.

“This measure would set a dangerous precedent without any real solution to address the underlying problem, which is the wildcat subdivision loophole in the Groundwater Management Act,” Democratic Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton of Tucson said, in explaining her opposition to the bill.

It’s worth pointing out that Hamilton for several years has proposed bills to plug that loophole. Republicans have refused even to give them a hearing.

State law requires developers of subdivisions in areas like Rio Verde Foothills to prove they have a 100-year water supply before any homes can be built. But a loophole in the law allows land to be subdivided into as many as five lots before it is considered a subdivision.

Thus, you get developers with their pockets full and Rio Verde Foothills with its bathtubs empty.

The bill’s House sponsor, Republican Rep. Alexander Kolodin of Scottsdale, was visibly stricken by Democrats’ refusal to ride to the rescue of his constituents. He asked voters to remember who supported the desperate residents and who did not.

“When this happens to you, when this happens to your community and this happens to your town, when it’s you who can’t bathe your kids, when it’s you who doesn’t have water, when it’s your animals that are dying, who are the people who stepped forward with a solution and who are the people who voted not to act?” he said.

2 ways to solve the Rio Verde Foothills problem

Rather than turning this into yet another political cage fight, perhaps a better question is this:

What can be done to actually solve the problem?

It seems clear what needs to happen here:

1. Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega needs to put an early end to his power trip and temporarily turn back on the water, giving Rio Verde Foothills some finite amount of time to find a permanent water supply.

Ortega is the driving force behind leaving the community high and dry. As he told me in December, “I’m the mayor of Scottsdale. I’m not the Rio Verde baron.”

But he doesn’t have to be a baron to step up and do the right and humane thing, especially as it won't cost him anything. Any agreement to turn on the taps and sell a share of Scottsdale’s water should come with a caveat: If Scottsdale – which relies more heavily on Colorado River water than many other cities – is forced to cut its own residents’ water supply later this year, then the residents of Rio Verde Foothills are out of luck.

There was talk earlier of finding water for Rio Verde Foothills residents elsewhere and running it through Scottsdale’s treatment plant and pipes but Ortega shut it down. That’s the obvious solution. The city makes money for treating the water and Rio Verde Foothills residents don’t die. Win win.

The city, in cutting off Rio Verde Foothills, has done Arizona a service, really. It’s focused both state and national attention on the fact that Arizona is a desert and water doesn’t grow on trees (or soon, possibly, come out of pipes).

But for now, while it can, Scottsdale should do the neighborly thing and sell these people water, lest the city get a reputation for being downright snooty.

2. The Legislature needs to stop dreaming up useless bills barring the sale of kangaroo parts and banning COVID-19 vaccine mandates that don’t exist. Instead, start dreaming up some solutions to real problems we actually have.

Instead of passing yet another bill to require U.S. flags in every classroom, pass a bill to plug the wildcat subdivision loophole that allowed Rio Verde Foothills to exist, that allows houses to be built there even now. Pass a bill giving counties the power to deny building permits in places where water doesn’t exist. (Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, has a bill that appears to do that, Senate Bill 1149, but it hasn’t had a hearing.)

Pass a bill that would stop mega-farms from sucking up all of rural Arizona’s water. I know Saudi cows are depending on us, but so are Arizonans who are seeing their future literally slurped away.

Worry less about drag queens and more about that day that’s coming, when we turn on the taps and a Gila monster drops into the sink.

We can’t do much to end the drought.

We can, however, demand an end to the stunning scarcity of real leadership in this state.

Reach Roberts at Follow her on Twitter at @LaurieRoberts.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Rio Verde Foothills is Exhibit A in our leadership drought