Fiddich Review Centre

Council offers some hope to Rio Verde Foothills |

The number of possible short-term solutions to get water to the Rio Verde Foothills community is running perilously thin.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge on Jan. 20 shot down some area residents’ attempt to force Scottsdale to turn the water back on at the standpipe that once serviced the area while their lawsuit by area residents is hashed out.

And Mayor David Ortega said his meeting the same day with Scottsdale Rep. Dave Cook produced no solution.

But there could be a sliver of light on the horizon.

Scottsdale City Council held an executive session to discuss the issue Jan. 24 then issued a press release that said, “Scottsdale is willing to discuss solutions that comply with the city’s state-mandated Drought Management Plan and do not negatively impact water resources for City of Scottsdale residents.”

A Maricopa County supervisor and a state legislator have said Ortega’s unwillingness up to this point to help the community of about 2,200 people northeast of Scottsdale is giving the city and Arizona a black eye. The shutoff affects about 700 families who depend on hauled water entirely or use it to supplement their wells.

A group of about 200 residents pooled their money to hire an attorney and file the lawsuit over the Jan. 1 standpipe shutoff.

They are hanging their hopes on a state law that states, “A city or town acquiring the facilities of a public service corporation rendering utility service without the boundaries of such city or town, or which renders utility service without its boundaries, shall not discontinue such service, once established, as long as such city or town owns or controls such utility.”

However, Judge Joan M. Sinclair ruled that the city was not acting as a utility and that the homeowners “have not provided evidence of irreparable harm.”

“There has been no demonstration that the Plaintiffs are unable to obtain water at all from any source,” she wrote.

And Sinclair did not hold out much hope for the lawsuit as a whole.

“The court does not believe, given the language of the statute noted above, that Plaintiffs have shown a strong likelihood of success on the merits,” Sinclair wrote. “Loss of water from Scottsdale to persons living outside the city’s boundaries is a hardship to Scottsdale.

“Given the current drought conditions in the area, loss of water to anyone is a hardship. But the Plaintiffs have not shown that they are unable to access water at all. They just cannot access it from the Scottsdale Standpipe at this time.”

Christy Jackman, a leader of the group that brought the suit, said the homeowners plan to appeal the ruling.

She also said she met with state lawmakers whom she wouldn’t name, on Jan. 24 and that they have promised legislation that would counteract Sinclair’s decision.

“That’s (the) judge’s decision and her lack of wanting to deal with (the situation) has left every rural community in Arizona at risk,” Jackman said.

Scottsdale turned off its tap as part of the first stage of its drought management plan that was enacted after Arizona’s allotment of Colorado River water was cut by federal authorities.

Cook, who is championing the Rio Verde Foothills cause, proposed a new twist on an old solution to the problem: He had struck a deal with the Gila River Indian Tribe to provide 100 acre feet of water per year to serve the community until a long-term solution can be identified.

It wouldn’t cost the Scottsdale any water and it could pass the cost of treating the water to the Rio Verde Foothills residents.

Cook said it’s a perfect solution, especially since Scottsdale already buys water from the tribe, so no additional infrastructure would be required.

But that solution would still require the city to treat the water and allow it to be accessed at the standpipe, she said.

Cook said the meeting was fruitful and that the two sides are “in the exact place we need to be.”

“You can talk about the meeting in two different ways: how did it start and how did it end?” Cook said. “It started pretty rocky and rough but it ended in the exact place we need to be … Now it’s time to get the four votes (on city council) to support the plan and where we go from here.”

Cook said he has instructed his staff to reach out to City Council members to explain his proposal.

But Ortega said he reiterated the exact words from his state of the city address.

“Scottsdale taxpayers, Scottsdale voters invested in the best water facilities in the country, and we don’t take kindly to anyone trying to muscle into our water works,” the mayor said. “Especially when we abide meticulously to the law triggered by the drought.

“As to county areas outside of the Scottsdale city limits – they have water. Bulk sales are available in their vicinity.”

Cook had actually brought county Supervisor Thomas Galvin and state Sen. John Kavanagh, among others, along for the meeting but when they got there, Ortega only agreed to meet with each of them separately for 20 minutes at a time, starting with Cook.

When that portion of the meeting ran long, everyone else left before seeing the mayor.

In the meantime, local lawmakers have said Ortega’s unwillingness to budge on the matter is giving the city and the state a bad reputation.

“Scottsdale is getting negative national attention for cutting-off water access to the Rio Verde Foothills community, which the media is portraying as a ‘water crisis,’” said Galvin, who represents both the Rio Verde Foothills as well as Scottsdale.

“That paints the Valley in a poor light right before hosting a major sporting event,” he said. “It’s problematic that one person continues to make his city and its wonderful residents look bad, especially in the face of a well thought-out and elegant plan that benefits everyone involved, including Scottsdale.”

Galvin also was a guest two weeks ago on KTAR’s popular afternoon talk show, Gaydos & Chad, whose hosts devoted part of their broadcast for at least four days ripping the city’s shutoff and specifically calling out the mayor.

Galvin went so far as to call Ortega, “sadistic.”

Cook said, “Absolutely it’s hurting not only Scottsdale’s reputation, it’s hurting the entire state of Arizona’s reputation. Arizonan’s are kind, compassionate, welcoming people. (Former) Gov. Ducey, a Republican governor, for eight years has said Arizona is open for business. Please come to our state, to Arizona, we invite you. Well, how does this look after listening to eight years of ‘We’re open for business’ to all of a sudden, ‘Yeah, if you come here, by the way, you could get treated badly this way?’”

Linda Milhaven, who fought for a solution to the problem before she was term-limited out of council at the beginning of the year, concurred.

“We told them to find another source of water,” Milhaven said, noting that private water utility EPCOR “stepped up and said, ‘We’ll provide water. You tell us how much it will cost you to treat and transport it, add some profit to it and we’ll pay you that amount. Then we’ll sell it to the Rio Verde Foothills,’ which sounds like a win-win for everybody.

“There’s no Scottsdale water, there’s no cost to Scottsdale people and we make a little profit off of it,” Milhaven said. “So to be unwilling to consider that I think is an embarrassment to Scottsdale. And to see an article on the front page of the New York times about how Arizona is running out of water, not only is it an embarrassment to Scottsdale, I think it’s a national embarrassment to the State of Arizona.”

Ortega disagreed with that assessment though.

“On the contrary, Scottsdale residents, businesses and voters tell me that defending their taxpayer investments and control of our water facilities are my duty and the right thing to do,” Ortega said. “We abide by the rule of law and uphold out responsibility to secure waters, clean and deliver it to residents, businesses, hospitals, churches and schools within the jurisdiction of Scottsdale.

“Maricopa County government has the authority – therefore the responsibility for unincorporated areas – not Scottsdale taxpayers.”

EPCOR’s short-term solution was turned down by city staff for several reasons, such as the fact that it is not a governmental agency.

EPCOR has also agreed to a long-term solution that would include providing treated water from its own standpipe. However, it is expected to take two to three years to build the infrastructure to do that.

The Arizona Corporation Commission held a public hearing Jan. 23rd to register residents’ opinions on the long-term solution.

Residents told the commission that they are eating off paper plates, showering at gyms and doing laundry at family’s homes. However, most of the 60 or so people who attended the meeting reverted to arguments for and against the creation of a noncontinuous domestic water improvement district.

Approximately 600 residents in the area proposed the creation of the water district to pull water from the Harquahala Aquifer, treat it in Scottsdale water facilities and distribute it at the city standpipe.

City Manager Jim Thompson hinted that would be amenable to the city in a letter to council, but the issue bitterly split the community.

Ultimately the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted in August to not allow the creation of the district, largely based on Galvin’s recommendation.

At the time, Galvin publicly called on Scottsdale to not turn off the water, which has resulted in a public war of words between him and Ortega.

On Jan. 25th Cook issued a letter to the Arizona Corporation Commission asking them expedite EPCOR’s application for the long-term solution.

Cook said Ortega is treating the residents of Rio Verde Foothills worse than animals.

“In this state if you walked out of a Harkins theater or your grocery store and you look over and you see a pet, a dog, locked in a vehicle with windows rolled up, you could legally bust the window out of that car for the pet. We sure don’t treat pets this way so it’s not okay for us to treat Arizonans this way.”

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