Edmonton’s Epcor could be the last hope for an Arizona suburb without water supply

Residents of an Arizona suburb are collecting rainwater to flush toilets and wash dishes as they pray to a higher power for help after being cut off from their neighboring municipal water supply earlier in the year.

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“We have a weekly prayer group where we pray for rain and a water solution,” said Karen Nabity, a Rio Verde Foothills resident. So far, there has been some rain, but not much else. “As of now, we still don’t have a water solution.”

More than 500 homes in the northeast suburb of Scottsdale have been left without water after the city followed through on its commitment to block private water carriers from delivering to customers outside city limits amid a severe water shortage. water in the Colorado River Basin.

The community’s best remaining hope for securing a reliable water supply may now lie with a Canadian utility, although it will be two to three years before Epcor Utilities Inc.’s US subsidiary can resolve the issue. problem.

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The headline-grabbing crisis in the Rio Verde Foothills has put Edmonton-owned City of Epcor in the spotlight at a key time, as it has been rapidly expanding into the Arizona and Texas markets.

“This is not the first time Epcor has served a community that has had its municipal supply cut off through water carriers,” said Epcor USA President Joe Gysel, acknowledging that the situation in Rio Verde Foothills is much more urgent than the company’s previous forays to help residents in far northern suburbs of Phoenix.

Rio Verde Foothills was warned in 2019, and again in 2020 and 2021, that Scottsdale intended to prohibit commercial water carriers from delivering their water outside of city limits, before moving forward.

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A bleached ring indicates where water levels used to be in Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir on the Colorado River. Levels in the river basin, which supplies water to the southwestern US, have dropped significantly after six years of drought. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

“We are now in a situation where that notice has expired,” he said. “They have been out since January 1 and now we are in a little challenge for those people there.”

The unincorporated community in Maricopa County, which does not have a municipal piped water supply, depends on water drawn from wells or trucked in. Thanks to a loophole in state law, so-called “wild” housing developments like Rio Verde Foothills have skirted rules that require developers to prove 100 years of assured water supply before building.

For decades, private water carriers were allowed to fill up at neighboring Scottsdale stations, but unprecedented dry conditions in the Colorado River Basin prompted the city to implement a strict new drought management plan.

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Even before the Scottsdale warnings, Nabity and her neighbors were trying to find an alternative supply for Rio Verde Foothills, but their efforts to establish a Domestic Water Improvement District (DWID) faced strong opposition from neighbors who were wary of the proposal to create a new public board with authority to set water rates.

Community infighting ended when the county board of supervisors rejected the proposal last August, leaving residents to languish as the clock ticked down to January 1. Now, Nabity watches as the water levels in her tanks drop.

“I haven’t had a water delivery since before Christmas,” she said, adding that she and her husband have perhaps four or five months of water left. “You’re flushing the toilet once a day, you’re using less than a quarter cup of water to wash your hands, that kind of thing. We have learned all kinds of ways to make the water go further.”

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As state and local legislators scramble to find a stopgap option to keep residents from running out of water, Maricopa County and some property owners are seeking the US subsidiary of Epcor, now Arizona’s largest private water company, to step in. to provide a long term solution.

Some Rio Verde Foothills residents have not given up on the possibility of establishing a DWID, but Arizona’s unique political culture has predisposed others to take a negative view of quasi-public bodies.

“We believe that Epcor is the solution. We don’t need another layer of government between us and our water,” Rio Verde Foothills resident Mark Reeder said at a January 23 hearing before the state’s private utilities regulator. “Personally, I have about 1,100 gallons of water left in my water tank right now. That will last us through the end of this week, and I have no idea where I’m going to get more. We need a solution and we need it now.”

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Epcor said it is willing to help and filed an application last October with the Arizona Corporation Commission for approval to provide public piped water service to residents in the Rio Verde Foothills, though the company warned it could take years. ensure the water supply in an area that no longer has water. restricted area and build the necessary infrastructure. The result, the company warned, is that water rates will increase for homeowners.

“There will be no speculation, there will be no excessive margins, it is just the situation they are in,” Gysel said. “It’s not a large community, so there’s no scale. There are not a million people (to) write off all these costs. This is in a very small population. And those costs have to be recovered.”

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Scottsdale warned several years ago that the municipality would block off-limits water transportation to the Rio Verde Foothills. Now, that warning has come true. Photo by Lisa Monforton

Epcor’s US operations provide water services to some of the most water-challenged areas of the southwestern United States. It is also recycling wastewater and, increasingly, building pipelines between water resources and areas with water scarcity and high population growth.

Since breaking into the US market more than a decade ago, the company has turned its attention to acquiring larger private water systems in Arizona, with at least five deals since 2016 totaling $137 million, according to Bluefield data. research.

“We look at water scarcity a little differently than a lot of people would,” Gysel said. “A lot of people see that as, ‘My God, there’s no way we can do it.’ We see it as an opportunity. We have a lot of experience in wastewater treatment. Sewage is new water, if you think of it that way.”

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He said Epcor’s wastewater plants are potable and the company recharges the aquifer or uses the water for other purposes, including servicing commercial, industrial and recreational facilities.

Epcor’s US operations have grown significantly, posting $341 million in revenue in the third quarter of 2022, the company’s highest revenue-generating segment in that period.

“If you look at the US, two of the hottest markets we have right now, Arizona and Texas, have extremely strong (economic) growth,” Gysel said. “(There is) a lot of local hiring for (chip manufacturing) and other manufacturing that is going back to the US taking advantage of it.”

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In Rio Verde Foothills, residents are urging the state’s private utility regulator to quickly approve Epcor’s application so the company can begin securing a reliable water supply for the community.

Meanwhile, a pitched battle is raging between state and local legislators over who is to blame for the suburb’s plight and who should be responsible for helping hundreds of residents get through an acute water crisis that has no clear end to all. the view.

“It’s truly political and it shouldn’t be,” Nabity said. “We only want water for our homes. We shouldn’t be on this stage.”