Running on Empty

Rio Verde voters previously rejected their chance to create their own water district.|| Screenshot AzFamily

JIMMY MAGAHERN

Phoenix Magazine 

Breathlessly heralded by The New York Times as “the worst-case scenario of drought,” Rio Verde Foothills is something much more banal – a tale of taxes, turf and reckless development in the classic Arizona tradition.

“This is actually a small one… 2,000 gallons,” he says, attaching the heavy hose fitting to the top of the cistern, which looks like a medium-size above-ground pool made from galvanized steel. “Most people out here have 3,000-to-5,000-gallon tanks.” 

At best, it’ll last the family of five that lives here about a month – and then only with extreme conservation. Following a well-publicized interruption to their water supply, many residents in Rio Verde Foothills are aggressively tightening their taps, reducing their personal water usage to about 40 gallons per day, compared to the average of 146 in the city. But even at that rate, Hornewer can’t guarantee he’ll have water the next time they call. 

“It’s been 88 days,” he says, giving the running count since the City of Scottsdale made its municipal water supply off-limits to this unincorporated community just outside its northeast border. Officially, Scottsdale officials cited concerns about upcoming reductions to Arizona’s allotment of the drought-stricken Colorado River to justify shutting off the taps – but this being Arizona, taxes and buck-passing arguably also played a role. 

No matter. Sniffing a bona fide Arizona water crisis story, national media outlets were predictably helpless to resist. The New York Times and The Washington Post each ran stories in the spring, portraying Rio Verde as a boldface-headline climate parable with dire implications for the future. The coverage, however, tended to gloss over key facts – for instance, that most area residents happily survive on well water stored beneath the bedrock of this 20-square-mile stretch of the McDowell Mountain foothills. And that Rio Verde voters previously rejected their chance to create their own water district.

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