Arizona Corporation Commission approves long-term water solution for Rio Verde

By Wayne Schutsky
Published: Thursday, November 30, 2023 - 11:37am
Updated: Thursday, November 30, 2023 - 11:38am

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Arizona Corporation Commission building in downtown Phoenix.
Tim Agne/KJZZ
Arizona Corporation Commission building in downtown Phoenix.

The Arizona Corporation Commission unanimously approved a plan to set up a long-term water supplier for Rio Verde Foothills residents who lost access to their water supply earlier this year.

The commission voted on Nov. 29  to allow private utility EPCOR to construct a new water standpipe to serve hundreds of residents in the area who had relied for years on a standpipe owned by the neighboring city of Scottsdale. 

Scottsdale cut off access to that standpipe on January 1. It restored access a few months ago following the passage of legislation that led to the creation of a water standpipe board. But that agreement only runs through December 2025.

The initial cutoff in January created uncertainty and skyrocketing water costs for Rio Verde Foothills residents.

Cody Reim, who lives in Rio Verde Foothills with his wife and four children, said he’s relieved to see a long-term solution come to fruition. 

 “An emotional relief. So it’s been a long way, long journey,” he said.

But there are still several unknowns about EPCOR’s plan, including when the new standpipe will be operational. EPCOR executives said it would take 24 to 36 months to set up its new operation. 

“We will make every effort to get our standpipe built and get all of our facilities built by the time that interim arrangement…runs out,” said Jason Gellman, associate general counsel for EPCOR.

And then there is the question of the cost. Residents complained of the increase in water costs when they were forced to pay water haulers to bring in water from far-flung locations after Scottsdale shut off the tap in January. And, after the new temporary agreement went into effect, they said the pricing situation hasn’t improved much.

But EPCOR is still unsure exactly how much its new operation will cost customers, noting the price could be anywhere between $20 to $60 per 1,000 gallons of water. 

Supporters of the plan said they did not believe the price would reach $60 due to demand, citing the number of users who signed up for service from the standpipe district that will serve them through 2025.

The water rate under the plan is $16.28 per 1,000 gallons, but costs will be adjusted as data on actual demand and costs becomes available. 

A sign advertising land for sale in Rio Verde Foothills,
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
A sign advertising land for sale in Rio Verde Foothills, and unincorporated area in Maricopa County northwest of Scottsdale, in September 2023.

Not everyone was happy with the plan approved by the Corporation Commission. Rio Verde resident John Hornewer told the commission she preferred a plan brought before the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in 2022 to set up a domestic water improvement district to deal with its water needs.

Corporation Commission Chair Jim O’Connor voted in favor of the EPCOR deal but also criticized the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, saying it should have acted sooner.

Supervisor Thomas Galvin, who represents the Rio Verde area, said the majority of affected residents didn’t support the domestic water improvement proposal and that’s why he preferred to find a water provider that could then go through the Corporation Commission to bring water to Rio Verde Foothills. 

“The Corporation Commission is the state branch to regulate utilities, to regulate water companies…Maricopa County and all other counties in Arizona do not have that power,” he said. 

Supporters of the EPCOR deal said it provided them the water security and price transparency they wanted by putting their water service under the purview of the Corporation Commission.

“No regulated utility could stop serving people unless the Corporation Commission agreed for that to occur, which of course almost never happens,” said Galvin, who was a policy advisor to former Corporation Commissioner Brenda Burns. “And I didn’t want these people to find themselves in a situation where some entity that wasn’t regulated by the ACC would do the same thing and throw them back in where they were before.” 

But, ultimately, the EPCOR deal will not be a solution for all property owners in Rio Verde Foothills.

Under the terms of the deal, customers with an occupied home have 30 days from the effective date of the decision to enroll with EPCOR. But it caps the number of property owners without a home who can enroll at 150. They have  until June 1, 2024 to request enrollment.

“There’s only so much water that we can procure to serve this community, and I think that’s the basis for why we need some sort of limit as to the number of customers ultimately we can serve,” Gellman, EPCOR’s attorney, said.

Property owners who plan to build homes will also have to pay a $24,000 hook up fee.

A dirt road leading to homes in the Rio Verde Foothills
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
A dirt road leading to homes in the Rio Verde Foothills, an unincorporated area in Maricopa County northwest of Scottsdale, in September 2023.

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