Verde River

Verde River, Photo by Doug Von Gausig River Otters, Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Lower Verde River, Photo Courtesy State of Arizona by Ann Youberg Verde At Dead Horse - AZ State Parks Photo Upper Verde River, Photo by Gary Beverly
Verde River, Photo by Doug Von Gausig
River Otters, Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia
Photo Courtesy of the State of Arizona, Photo by Ann Youberg
Verde At Dead Horse - Photo Courtesy of AZ State Parks
Upper Verde River, Photo by Gary Beverly

The Verde River system is like a circulatory system, branching across the basin, moving the lifeblood – water – throughout the watershed. The Verde River is the heart of the region and the master watercourse of the Verde River Basin.

The lifeblood – water – moves over the surface, into small drainages, into the ground, emerges from springs, flows in streams, creeks, and into the Verde River – all along the way, the water transforms everything it touches, giving life. This transformation has impacts on life throughout the basin and well beyond.

This dynamic, interrelated, complex, and fascinating system delivers life to us each day. To allow the system fulfill this role now and in the future, we need to keep it healthy. The health of this system requires minding not just the surface waters, but also keeping its sources of groundwater healthy by making sure we don’t bleed the river and its system dry. We do this by learning about how the river system works, how our actions impact the system, and what we can do to avoid harming the system that brings us what we all cannot live without––water.

The Verde River’s Path

The Verde’s headwaters are located in Yavapai County, Arizona near Paulden. From its humble beginnings, the river flows nearly free for 137 miles toward the southeast before reaching Horseshoe Reservoir near the northern edge of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. The Verde supplies irrigation water to areas within the Verde Valley and also supplies approximately 40 percent of the water that Salt River Project delivers to the residents and industries in Phoenix-area cities and towns.

Upper Verde River, Photo by Gary Beverly

Upper Verde River
Photo by Gary Beverly

During its journey, the Verde flows through three distinct areas, each lending its unique characteristics to the river course. These sections are referred to as the Upper, Middle, and Lower Verde. The Upper Verde, located mostly in Prescott National Forest, is highlighted by dramatic views and riparian vegetation. The Arizona Game and Fish Department manages the Upper Verde River Wildlife Area that helps protect riparian habitat and native fish. The river flows through steep-walled canyons until it reaches the ranching community of Perkinsville. The river continues past the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness in the Coconino National Forest and takes in water from Sycamore Creek as it flows to the Verde Valley.

The river continues its path into the Middle Verde section and the Verde Valley, where it passes through the communities of Clarkdale, Cottonwood and Camp Verde. This area includes a number of irrigation diversions and thousands of groundwater wells that supply most of the area’s domestic water supplies. The Verde Valley communities have seen high levels of population growth over the last few decades, resulting in the expansion of groundwater pumping. The Verde Valley is also a region where the river increases its size as it gains water from significant tributaries, such as Oak Creek, Wet Beaver Creek, and West Clear Creek.

Verde River at Dead Horse Ranch State Park, Photo Courtesy of Arizona State Parks

Verde River at Dead Horse Ranch State Park
Photo Courtesy of Arizona State Parks

As it flows through the valley, the Verde River contributes water to Tavasci Marsh, which the Northern Arizona Audubon Society designated as an Important Bird Area, and Dead Horse Ranch State Park, part of the Arizona State Parks system. Dead Horse Ranch State park is part of the six-mile long Verde River Greenway.

The river continues past the town of Camp Verde into the Lower Verde area, where 40 miles of this section is designated as a Wild and Scenic River. Residents of Central Arizona and beyond have also requested the Wild and Scenic designation for the Upper Verde River from its headwaters to just north of the Town of Clarkdale in the Verde Valley.

During its journey through the Lower Verde, the waters of Fossil Creek join the river. Fossil Creek is the only other watercourse in Arizona with a Wild and Scenic designation. The Verde River continues its course through the Mazatzal Wilderness and the Tonto National Forest until it flows into Horseshoe and Bartlett reservoirs. After the Verde is released from the reservoirs, the river ends its journey at its confluence with the Salt River.

Lower Verde River Arizona, Photo Courtesy of the State of Arizona

Photo Courtesy of the State of Arizona
Photo by Ann Youberg

Along its path, the Verde River provides residents and tourists with many recreational opportunities, including kayaking, fishing, bird-watching, and the peace and solitude of being beside a lush river flowing through arid, dramatic landscapes.

The Verde supports an amazing diversity of wildlife – at least 270 species of birds, 94 species of mammals and 76 species of native amphibians and reptiles who use the river’s watershed at some point in their life cycles. For many of these species the Verde is critical habitat for their survival. According to the Northern Arizona University Arizona Heritage Waters program, the Verde supports the largest number of bald eagle breeding areas of any river in Arizona, and is one of only three rivers in Arizona with populations of river otters.

The Verde River at Risk

The upper 24 miles of the Verde River are completely dependent on the Verde Springs at its headwaters. These springs are fed by the groundwater aquifers underneath the grasslands of the Big Chino Valley and Little Chino Valley, located to the northwest and west of the river’s headwaters. The groundwater in these aquifers has been accumulating for thousands of years, and precipitation in the region averages little more then ten inches yearly.

The naturally arid environment, combined with increasing population growth results in increasing demands being placed on the finite groundwater resources that support the very existence of the Verde’s first 24 miles. For additional information, you can read the Partnership’s Water Resource Notes issue titled The Verde River––A Desert Treasure At Risk.

The Big Chino and Little Chino Valleys contain tens of thousands of undeveloped acres for additional residential and industrial development. Currently, the Big Chino Valley is sparsely populated, but over the last few years the area has seen potential additional demand on the region’s aquifers that could have a profound impact on the Verde Springs.

River Otters, Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

River Otters, Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

The State of Arizona has granted the City of Prescott the right to pump and transport over 8,000 acre-feet of water from the Big Chino Valley aquifer. Additionally, Yavapai County recently voted to allow the development of at least 12,000 additional residential lots in Big Chino Valley. These and other proposed developments in the Big Chino Valley will have a profound impact on the Upper Verde River.

Additionally, further population growth in the Verde Valley region would result in additional groundwater pumping in an area that already has over 6,000 wells.

Central in the risks facing the Verde and other Arizona waters is the lack of proper legal support for managing groundwater pumping to protect surface waters. There is also a lack of substantial legal protection for assuring sufficient Verde River Basin groundwater to sustain our growing population over the long term. Arizona law generally fails, and has failed historically, to support conjunctive management of our intimately connected and interdependent groundwater and surface water.

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