Shawna Devlin plunges into the Verde River during a kayak tour of the river in August. Doug Von Gausig, the mayor of Clarkdale and director of the Verde River Institute leads the kayak trips to increase awareness of and appreciation for the river, which is one of the last free-flowing desert rivers in the Southwest. 

CLARKDALE — Doug Von Gausig stood beside the glassy waters of the Verde River, a floppy, wide-brimmed hat propped on his head, as he began a narrative he has told many times before. The mayor of Clarkdale and executive director of the Verde River Institute spoke of the river’s history, its slowly dwindling flows and the life it gives this stark desert valley.

Arizona has killed seven of its desert rivers, drawing so much water that they no longer flow from their headwaters to their mouths, Von Gausig said. The Salt. The San Pedro. The Santa Cruz. The Verde River was once close to being the eighth, he said.

With 6,000 irrigated acres in the Verde Valley alone and the number of people living, and pumping groundwater, in the river’s watershed expected to nearly triple to 600,000 by 2050, there is no shortage of straws sucking up the Verde’s flows.

“Thirty years ago when we were trying to figure out how sure are we that this river is going to survive, I would have said 10 or 15 percent. Pretty dismal,” Von Gausig said. “Now I say 85.”

The idea that the Verde River could experience a resurgence, from a waterway battered by years of thirsty, polluting activities to a verdant aquatic ribbon that supports recreation and churns economic engines is a relatively new concept in the Verde Valley.

Efforts to spur this transformation have gained ground over the last six years or so, thanks to a diverse group of elected officials, government agencies, business leaders and conservation groups. Together, they have turned the future of the Verde into a story with promise.

The sights of the Verde River

Click on the pins to read more about different sites on the Verde River.

Rallying to restore flows

Much of the work being done on the river has been moved along by a brigade of nonprofits that address everything from river education to riparian vegetation restoration to conservation among the river’s agricultural users.

While work to preserve the river goes back decades, many involved in the issue said a convergence of factors infused the effort with a new energy and momentum around 2009.

That was the year the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization begun by Walmart’s founders, started a river conservation and restoration program called its Freshwaters Initiative. The Verde was named one of the project areas and over the past six years, the foundation has invested $5.8 million in local efforts to support tourism, river flow improvements and restoring riparian habitat, said Morgan Snyder, the foundation’s project lead for the Verde.

One of the recipients of that money has been the Nature Conservancy, which in 2009 started working with agricultural producers, municipalities and ditch organizations on flow restoration, said Kim Schonek, the organization’s Verde water transactions manager. After spending years focusing on protecting land and greenways in the valley, the nonprofit shifted toward a simple goal: find ways to leave more water in the river, said Schonek, who spends her days bouncing across the valley in a silver pickup, juggling meetings with farmers, elected officials and conservation groups.

With Schonek in the lead, the Conservancy and several partners began installing automated headgates along irrigation ditches that have long diverted the maximum amount they could from the river. Automation allows the ditch companies to easily adjust how much water they take based on the actual needs of irrigators, which has meant more water can stay in the river, Schonek said.

The Conservancy’s other recent efforts include paying farmers to fallow fields during the high-use summer months when the river’s flows are low and working on a 200-acre conservation easement that will preserve historic farmland at the water’s edge.

Another project focuses on piloting drip irrigation projects that could cut farmers water use by up to half.

Many in the valley are watching the first six and a half-acre drip irrigation project the Conservancy helped install in June on Hauser Farms, the valley’s biggest producer with 600 acres. While implementing such water conservation systems take effort, Kevin Hauser said he’s already seeing benefits in terms of time and efficiency of managing irrigation water on and off the farm.

In all, the Nature Conservancy has recorded 10 cubic feet per second of restored flows along a 20-mile stretch of the river, Schonek said. It’s no small impact, considering minimum flow for that reach is just 10 cfs.

The program is also proving that the valley doesn’t have to choose between local food production and a healthy river, said Chip Norton, president of the board of the Friends of the Verde Valley Greenway, which often partners with the Conservancy.

“We can still have productive agriculture here and a flowing river 50 years from now, 100 years from now,” said Norton, who is starting his own vineyard in the valley.

For its part, the Friends of the Verde River Greenway also began to ramp up its capacity around 2009, growing from a small friends group to a leading nonprofit in the watershed with five full-time employees and a nearly $1 million budget. The organization collaborates on riparian habitat and flow restoration projects, including a long-running effort to remove invasive species from the river’s edge.

Even the Forest Service has gotten involved, spearheading a sustainable recreation pilot program in 2009 that focused on creating a plan for how to grow recreation in the area while preserving its unique ecosystem. The resulting initiative, called the Verde Front String of Pearls, includes state and federal land managers, local governments and conservation organizations and has become a model for a similar effort on the Coconino National Forest. They meet quarterly to brainstorm ideas for how to manage the pearls of the Verde ecosystem for regional benefit without exceeding the resources’ capacity.

Making the economic case for river survival

Some of the more recent river restoration-related efforts have focused on linking economic development in the area to the flows of the river.

That’s what brings Von Gausig to the banks of the Verde at least once a week. He leads kayaking tours for educators, journalists, conservationists, local officials -- anyone he thinks can help spread the gospel of the river. The goal is twofold. First, to allow more people to experience this green oasis so they see the value in protecting it.

“People will usually decide they’d rather have cheap water than a river, unless they really love the river,” he said.

The other is to prove that the river can support and attract the type of recreation that will make waves economically, increasing traffic to local stores, restaurants and hotels.

“The more important part is to make sure that the health of the river and the health of the Verde Valley are tied together so that people are making an economic decision to save a river. That’s really what’s powerful,” Von Gausig said. “In any kind of conservation, if you don’t have an economic component to it you’re just talking to people that love birds, bugs and bunnies and there aren’t that many of them.”

Von Gausig saw the need to place more of a dollar value on the river after conducting a study in 2011 assessing how much the Verde was worth to the valley.

“The answer was pretty close to zero, or as close to zero as a river could be,” he said.

The study included proposed actions, including better branding the Verde Valley and the river, improving access to the waterway and creating a Verde River Institute to work on policy issues.

After reading the report, the Walton Family Foundation agreed with many of the recommendations and has since put $189,000 into the institute, which covers Von Gausig’s position at the organization’s helm. The foundation also agreed to fund the public kayaking trips that started in earnest last year after the town of Clarkdale completed two river access points.

The latest push to connect river health to economic health is a valley-wide geotourism program that promotes types of tourism that sustain or enhance the area’s natural assets, like the river.

The communities of the Verde Valley have forked over about $215,000, both in grant funding and their own money, to fund the campaign, which is under the umbrella of, and co-branded with, National Geographic. If all goes as planned, it will roll out before the end of the year.

The idea was the brainchild of Steve Ayers, a former journalist at the Verde Independent who is now the economic development director for Camp Verde.

“My case was if the communities of the Verde Valley can learn to work together on a sustainable recreation initiative on the river, the next logical step is that we'll work together on the management of the river,” Ayers said. “If we bring dollars to the river through recreation, the next logical step is how do you protect that investment?”

Groundwater conundrum

Zooming out from the Verde Valley, however, reveals the reality that local efforts to revive the river can only do so much. The Verde River watershed extends far beyond the Verde Valley north of the Mogollon Rim and throughout what’s known as the Big and Little Chino sub-basins north of Prescott.

It’s groundwater pumping throughout these sub-basins, in addition to extensive groundwater use in the Verde River sub-basin, that remains a serious, and largely unaddressed threat to the river’s long-term sustainability.

An estimated 18,000 wells dot the watershed and tap into the groundwater that feeds the Verde’s flows. Already, groundwater pumping in the Big Chino has reduced the base flow near the river’s headwaters by a third.

Because state law doesn’t recognize a connection between groundwater and surface water, pumping in the area goes unregulated. A proposed 36-inch-diameter pipeline to transport groundwater from the Big Chino sub-basin to the city of Prescott, in the works for more than eight years, has long been seen as another potentially catastrophic hit to the river.

Solving the groundwater component of the equation will require engagement from the local and the state level, said Jocelyn Gibbon, a water lawyer and former Grand Canyon river guide who now works as a consultant for several nonprofits working on Verde River issues.

“The threat from groundwater pumping will take a lot longer to manifest itself and right now we don’t have an effective way of dealing with those impacts,” she said. There’s still an opportunity to set the river on a sustainable path, but it will need to include a concentrated, intentional effort to reduce groundwater pumping and offset withdrawals through aquifer recharge projects, she said.

Though this larger threat still looms, local efforts are and will continue to be crucial to sustaining the Verde because they infuse the work with a depth of passion and knowledge only the people living closest to the river can provide, Gibbon said.

“I would definitely call it a success story,” she said of their work so far. “But it’s also just the beginning of the story for the river.”

Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

(1) comment

I_Love_Arizona

This was really a great story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I have lived in Arizona my entire life - yep, born and raised. And have yet to float or kayak down the Verde. I hope to soon.

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