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Places We Protect

Growing Food, Saving Water on the Verde River

“The Nature Conservancy’s focus in the Verde is not to create new preserves. Our goal is to work with landowners and conservation partners to protect sensitive places from development and keep them part of a working landscape.”
— Kim Schonek

Water is the number one resource in the world,” says John McReynolds. “Without it, we are not going to exist.”

Few would argue with McReynolds, an Arizona native who for 35 years has lived in Camp Verde and nurtured a formidable moustache. In addition to his other civic duties as a good, engaged citizen and businessman in the rural West, he is the boss of the Eureka Ditch. He treasures his water—but he says, “I don’t mind sharing.”

Millions of travelers on Interstate 17 pass through this green oasis perched between the shimmering heat of the Sonoran Desert at Phoenix and the fragrant ponderosa pine forests of the Colorado Plateau at Flagstaff. John McReynolds loves his home here: “When people named the Verde Valley, there was a reason. When you drop into the valley, you can see it’s an incredible jewel. It doesn’t matter if you are watering for profit, which the farms do, or if you are watering to preserve the beauty of the natural landscape—or Bermuda grass. The water that’s diverted, that’s what makes the Verde Valley green.

Like ditch companies in the Verde Valley that redirect surface water to irrigate crops, water lawns and provide for landscaping, the Eureka had few gauges and kept few records when McReynolds became the last of 200 shareholders on the eight-mile ditch—“the end of the line”—in 1988. When the Walton Family Foundation funded Kim Schonek as Verde River Projects manager for The Nature Conservancy in 2008, McReynolds was ready to begin a partnership. Schonek now works with four of the seven large ditch companies to improve their irrigation practices and to create incentives for creative water management to keep more water in the river for wildlife and recreation.

View a slideshow of our work with farmers and ditch companies along the Verde

“I’m all for an organization that can show us a better way,” John McReynolds says. “The Nature Conservancy has the resources. They have the knowledge. It’s going to take a partnership from everybody.” 

That sense of partnership is key to the success of The Nature Conservancy in the Verde Valley. A cluster of non-profits has emerged in the last twenty years to preserve the ribbon of green that threads this under-appreciated refuge in north-central Arizona. The Conservancy partners with them all—and the Verde Valley has reached a tipping point.

Doug Von Gausig, longtime mayor of Clarkdale, believes that “it’s a good time to be in the Verde Valley.” He sees two threats to “the synergies occurring between so many different organizations. One is continued groundwater withdrawal that will continue to de-water the river. The other is diversions. That’s why what The Nature Conservancy is doing is so critical—the lynchpin to making this a successful recreational river.”

By 2050, planners tell Von Gausig that 205,000 people will live where 65,000 Verde Valley citizens live now. “That’s why we are building this constituency of people who care and who advocate for river values,” says the mayor. “We’ve attracted a lot of good funding and a lot of smart people. What’s at stake is the river. What’s at stake is the entire culture of the Verde Valley.” 

Kim Schonek bubbles with enthusiasm for her work, made easier by the fact that “there is water for both people and for nature.” Her relationships with the ditch companies depend on dialogue: “There is enough water for the ditches, there is enough water to flow in the river, there is enough water to boat, there is enough water for fish. You don’t have to take land out of production to improve stream flow in the mainstem of the river.”

Schonek’s goal is passage: “Create connectivity and get enough water for fish to move up and down the river.”

“The Nature Conservancy’s focus in the Verde is not to create new preserves,” says Schonek. “Our goal is to work with landowners and conservation partners to protect sensitive places from development and keep them part of a working landscape.”

Heather Reading, The Nature Conservancy’s Field Representative for the Verde River, adds that “a lot of the farming and ranching families are at the end of the line. They are the last generation. When these farmers pass on, the family doesn’t want to stay in the farm and ranch business. They want to cash out.”

The farmers at Hauser and Hauser Farms have made the commitment to stay. Zach Hauser is the third generation of Hausers to farm in the Verde Valley. Currently the family operates on 500 acres, spread out in many parcels, mostly planted in corn and hay. Hauser loves working 19-hour days, using the ditches to water his sweet corn—famous across the state. “Without the ditch, without water, there is no farming here. You could drill wells, but gravity water is much cheaper than pumping it. You’ve got to keep after it, but the ditch is pretty much everything.”

“You’d almost have to be a farmer to understand my attachment to this place," Hauser says. "There’s something about working on the land, it almost becomes a part of you.”

Steve Ayers, local journalist and president of the Eureka Ditch, shares Zach Hauser’s hopes for the future of the river. Ayers says, “Kim’s project is an investment like any other investment. The return on that investment for anyone with surface water rights is pretty simple: you actually get to exercise them. The return value for a lot of folks is knowing you actually might have saved a fragile desert river.”

Next: Learn how new automated ditch systems are saving water

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