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Monday, July 22, 2024

Arizona’s Last, Best River

When you think of Arizona, you should think of rivers. It wasn’t that long ago that the state was full of them. Little Colorado and San Francisco, Salt and San Pedro, Gila and Santa Cruz, Blue and Verde, some flowing north from Mexico, some flowing south from Utah, and a great many meeting in the middle; it would have been hard to have come to Arizona and not stumble across a river when your grandparents or great-grandparents were kids.

But things have changed. Dams built to protect us from catastrophic floods and fill canals stopped rivers dead in their tracks. Motors made it possible to pump ever more water out of the ground, drying springs that feed the rivers. Our cities grew, turning acres of desert solitude into thirsty lawns. One by one we watched our rivers dry up.

But not the Verde. 

Wild and Scenic

Stretching 190 miles from the grasslands of Chino Valley to the Sonoran Desert near Phoenix, the Verde is Arizona’s last, best river. The Verde provides a home to over 200 bird species, 90 mammal species, and 75 native amphibian and reptile species. As the river dips behind the Mazatzal Mountains, it gains national recognition as the only section of river in Arizona designated “Wild and Scenic” by the federal government.

The Verde supports our communities, bringing us food to eat, wine to drink, and cool waters to protect us from the summer heat. Flowing into the Phoenix Metro Area, the Verde joins with the Salt to provide about 40% of the drinking water supply to over three million people. From the forests to the deserts, elk to rattlesnakes, vineyards to sweet corn, and cold nights to searing hot days, the Verde is everything that makes Arizona, “Arizona.”

Fighting for its Life

However, the Verde is fighting for its life. Summer flows have declined by more than 40% in some areas. Climate change looms, with hotter, drier years to come. Invasive plants that choke rivers require constant vigilance to keep at bay. Unchecked increases in groundwater pumping threaten to suck the Verde dry. Decades-long slowdowns in the courts mean that many people don’t know how much water they really have the right to use. So far the Verde has survived, but until these problems are solved, it will never thrive.  

But there is hope. In the spring of 2007, a group of longtime river activists decided to take a “hands-on” approach to protect the Verde. Friends of the Verde River (at that time called Friends of Verde River Greenway) emerged, committing to river restoration and enhancement projects, as well as introductory canoe trips on the river. After a decade of protecting the river, Friends merged with two partner organizations; hired its first full-time, paid executive director; and organized its operations around a mission of working collaboratively for a healthy, flowing Verde River system.

Today Friends operates a wide variety of programs to keep the Verde healthy. As a leader in the Verde River Watershed Restoration Coalition, Friends has restored more than 9,000 acres of riparian forests, helping native plants and animals thrive.

A Novel Program

Friends also operate the Verde River Exchange, a novel program that allows businesses to voluntarily reduce the impact of their groundwater use on the river by purchasing “credits” that are generated when other water users reduce their water use.

The Land and Water Planning Toolbox provides guidance to governments and land management agencies on how to plan so that communities thrive without drying up the river. In collaboration with partners at The Nature Conservancy, Friends monitors progress through the Verde Watershed Report Card.

Healthy rivers need healthy communities to support them, so Friends has a strong community program, too. Friends connect people to the river through volunteer opportunities and events, such as the Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival and Verde River Runoff.

However, there is still a long way to go to ensure the Verde stays flowing and healthy. River flows continue to decline, and climate change is taking its toll.

That is why in 2021 Friends is launching River-Friendly Living, a new program to support and recognize those who strive to protect the river in their homes, businesses, and communities. The vision is simple: Friends will provide a checklist of easy ways for folks, be they residents, business owners, farmers, ranchers, or real estate developers, to do their part, to be “river-friendly.” Once they commit to certain “river-friendly” steps, Friends will publicly recognize them through certification so that their efforts will inspire others.

That way, when you go to the store, you’ll know which ears of corn or cuts of beef are grown in ways that protect the river and which aren’t. When you get a glass of wine, you’ll know the water used to make it is being put back in the river through programs like the Verde River Exchange. When you buy a home, you’ll know that you are helping the river that you love. Through River-Friendly Living, Friends is charting a path that proves communities and rivers can thrive together.

The Future

We love the Verde. We love its refreshing waters and its shaded banks. Max loves the freezing mornings spent with his dad as they chase winter fish and the squeals of delight from his sons when they wake up to the news that today is “river day.” Nancy loves hiking along the river, watching river otters play and bald eagles and great blue herons soar. But we are also scared of a future where the Verde is dry, like so many of Arizona’s other rivers. Luckily, you still have time to protect the river flows we have, time to keep invasive plants at bay, and time to keep our hillsides from eroding away.

Friends of the Verde River is excited to bring river-friendly living to you, and we can’t wait to help you do your part to keep the river we love healthy and flowing. 

For more information, visit www.verderiver.org.

Keep up with all of Green Living’s content by visiting our all-new website and following along on social media.


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