What happens when an affluent Arizona suburb’s main water supply is cut off?

As the Colorado River crisis worsens, an unregulated housing development faces a reckoning.


The Rio Verde Foothills look like any other slice of desert suburbia, a smattering of roughly 2,000 stucco homes in a cactus-studded neighborhood just outside of Scottsdale, Arizona, one of Phoenix’s booming satellite cities. An affluent community with a median home price of $825,000, it offered homebuyers cheap land, good schools and mountain views — but not, as many residents recently discovered, a stable water supply.

A home under construction in the Rio Verde Foothills of Scottsdale, Arizona, in January.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

No municipal water pipes reach the Rio Verde Foothills, so about 25% to 35% of the residents rely on a longstanding arrangement in which private water trucks deliver water supplied by Scottsdale. When the city began threatening to cut off the community's access to Scottsdale water in 2015, saying it had to conserve for its own residents, many Rio Verde Foothills residents did not believe it would actually happen. But Scottsdale’s main water source, the Colorado River, is continuing to dwindle, and in early January, the city followed through on its warnings. Roughly 500-700 homes without private wells — around 1,000 people in the Rio Verde Foothills — will now have to find another source of water, either by drilling a private well or buying water from another city. The extra distance means residents might have to pay a much higher prices — in some cases more than triple what they paid for Scottsdale water — if they can afford it.

Susanna Eden, the assistant director of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center, has been studying water resources in Arizona and the Southwest for over 30 years. She sees the situation in the Rio Verde Foothills as a textbook case on the perils of Arizona’s “wildcat” housing developments, which sidestep the state’s groundwater laws to construct homes without a fixed water supply, as well as the far-reaching implications of the worsening drought on the Colorado River. HCN spoke with Eden recently about the Rio Verde Foothills and what it means for Arizona and the fantasy of infinite growth in the desert.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: Back in the 1980s, Arizona passed a pretty robust water law — the Groundwater Management Act — that was supposed to help prevent the sort of situation we’re seeing in the Rio Verde Foothills. Why has the law failed to stop suburban growth from happening in areas without a reliable water supply?

Susanna Eden: There are several reasons why that the law has not been entirely successful. The passage of the law itself was a compromise, allowing development to continue, but only if developers could secure a 100-year supply of water for each new home in a subdivision. In the case of the Rio Verde Foothills community, were not talking about developers who have gone through the process of getting the certificate of assured water supply, because of a loophole in the law that says if youre developing a property thats less than six lots, you legally dont have to have any water.

Susanna Eden, photographed at the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center in Tucson, Arizona.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

More recently, Gov. Katie Hobbs released a report from the Arizona Department of Water Resources that said no new certificates of assured water supply could be issued for the West Valley area of Phoenix because there isn’t enough groundwater to support tens of thousands of homes planned for the area. In 2019, a similar announcement was made for Pinal County (southeast of Phoenix).

Unfortunately, those moratoriums only apply to official subdivisions. There is still nothing to prevent wildcat developers from splitting parcels of land into four or five lots, circumventing the law’s water supply requirement.

HCN: What are the prospects for Rio Verde Foothills residents now in terms of water supply? How dire is the situation exactly?

SE: They have options they’re choosing not to pursue. They could develop a water cooperative, which would tax or levy a fee on all the members to set up a water supply service. It would mean getting permission to drill wells and building out a distribution system. Or they could negotiate with private water companies to serve the area. But they’re choosing not to pursue that option. Many of the people who live in that community are individualists. They all have water tanks [or private wells] and want to live un-impinged by municipal codes and state regulations. Those solutions would subject them to that.

There is still nothing to prevent wildcat developers from splitting parcels of land into four or five lots, circumventing the law’s water supply requirement.

HCN: Is there a risk that, in the event of more water shortages, rich people will simply be able to pay to get their water, whether by digging a well or finding another provider who charges three times the normal rate? Meanwhile, folks without those financial resources could lose their homes or be forced to leave a community. How do we prevent future water shortages from exacerbating inequities? 

SE: I’m not precisely an optimist about it, but the effort to minimize those inequities is getting more attention than in the past. Significantly, there has been greater inclusion of Native American tribes in water dialogues, and various efforts have been undertaken to elevate their visibility. The Bureau of Reclamation has organized a forum for tribal discussion, for example, and Arizona tribes with quantified water rights are having an impact on policies under discussion.

One of the resources that the center creates is the Arizona Water map, which highlights important aspects of the state’s water resources.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

HCN: If Rio Verde is an example of unsustainable development, what’s the alternative? How do we need to reimagine growth in the desert West given our water reality? For instance, expanding reclaimed water use? Doubling down on finding “the next bucket,” whether that’s piping groundwater from another groundwater basin or building a desalination plant? Restricting growth altogether?

SE: The answer is doing all of those things. That is, keep looking for more, keep using less, and keep finding ways to squeeze value out of the amount of water we have now and can use. I don’t think there will be an “aha” moment of people saying, “Now we’re going to be different and recognize that there are limits.” But people are seeing that if they don’t act and they just allow things to develop, there are going to be big losses.

I have a little place in the White Mountains that has a water tank. I go to my local feed supply store, and they send a tanker out to fill up my tank. Talking to you has made me think maybe I ought to find out where their water comes from and what the situation is.

Sarah Tory is a journalist based in Colorado. Previously, she was a correspondent for High Country NewsWe welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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