Wide-angle view of a fast-moving, but shallow muddy river.
Verde River Rapids and bluffs near Sycamore Creek © Alan W. Eckert

Places We Protect

Verde River

Arizona

This key tributary of the Colorado River gives water and life, from Prescott to metro Phoenix.

OVERVIEW

One of Arizona’s only federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Verde River springs from the ground in the rural community of Paulden, southwest of Flagstaff. It meanders southeastward 195 miles through private, federal, state and tribal land before reaching its confluence with the Salt River near Phoenix.

WHY THE CONSERVANCY SELECTED THIS SITE

While the Verde’s preservation is vital to wildlife and recreation in Arizona, it is also essential to the health of the river’s watershed, which feeds many Arizona communities downstream. Competing demands for water are putting pressure on the watershed. Looming development over the aquifer that supplies the Verde River could reduce the flow of water not only to downstream users, but to the plants and animals that depend on it.

WHAT THE CONSERVANCY HAS DONE/IS DOING

  • 2016 saw the launch of Arizona’s first water fund, an effort of the Salt and Verde Alliance, a group of communities, businesses and the Conservancy. The Alliance seeks investment by downstream water users to fund beneficial land and water management upstream. The idea is that downstream water users, such as Phoenix residents and businesses, help support practices in the upper Verde watershed that provides them with drinking water. 
  • Worked with Friends of the Verde River Greenway to develop the Verde River Exchange Water Offset Program. The program connects Verde Valley homes and businesses willing to temporarily reduce their water usage with groundwater users seeking to reduce the impacts of their continuing use. Two area wineries purchased offset credits which paid a farm family to give up their right, temporarily, to irrigate a small pasture.
  • The Conservancy is working with landowners and conservation partners to protect sensitive places on the Verde River from development and keep them part of a working landscape. In 2018, the Conservancy and its partners completed a conservation agreement that helped a local farm family purchase Park Central Farm in the Verde Valley, keeping their food production operation local and protecting the tree-lined riverside habitat. 
  • The Conservancy, working with a Verde Valley farm operation, tested barley, a low-water use crop that grows early in the year when there’s more water in the river for irrigation. Now the Conservancy has invested in a barley malting facility, Sinagua Malt, which buys local malt barley and sells the resulting malt to local breweries. 
  • A collaborative effort between the Conservancy, irrigators, community organizations and others is restoring Verde River flows and riverside health while supporting the irrigation needs of agricultural producers in the Verde Valley. The installation of efficient automated ditch systems combined with financial incentives for conservation have resulted in less water being diverted and increased flows along 20 river miles in the Verde Valley and in the Wild and Scenic area between Camp Verde and Phoenix. The project received a federal grant of $2.8 million to continue this work for five years.
  • A collaborative effort between the Conservancy, the Arizona Water Institute and Verde River Basin Partnership has yielded a study rich in data about the water flow needs of the river and its wildlife. Decision-makers can now control upstream water use to create the water flushes essential to spawning fish and cottonwood trees. The information has been turned over to cities, county officials, landowners and other water-using groups.
  • The Conservancy is also working to protect the springs at the headwaters of the Verde River. In 2008 the Wells family, the Conservancy and other partners made an agreement that will forever protect 470 acres surrounding the headwaters of the Verde. The family agreed to a conservation easement, the bulk of which went to the Arizona Game and Fish Department to extend its Upper Verde River Wildlife Management Area.

ANIMALS

A major component of the Colorado River Basin, the Verde River is a critical flyway for migratory birds and home to nesting bald eagles, rare species of reptiles and amphibians, and many species of native fish.

The Verde is also home to bobcat, grey fox, coyote, jackrabbit, javelina and mountain lion. One animal in particular – the beaver – is busy transforming the middle Verde into a healthy river home for river otter, native fish and other creatures. 

PLANTS

Sections of the Verde River are contiguous with Prescott and Coconino national forestsTuzigoot National Monument and the U.S. Forest Service’s Verde Valley Botanical Area. Among rare plants found here are Verde Valley sage, Ripley wild buckwheat and Arizona cliff rose. More common plants along the river are cottonwoods, willows, mesquite, crucifix thorn and greythorn.

Non-native (invasive) species include tree of heaven, Russian olive and tamarisk.

VERDE RIVER FACTS

  • The Verde River nourishes one of the last Fremont cottonwood/Goodding willow gallery forests in Arizona. There are only 20 in the entire world.
  • While most Southwestern rivers begin in mountainous regions with more precipitation than the lowlands below, the Verde begins in a broad alluvial basin in the Big Chino Valley.
  • The upper Verde headwaters is region that has played an important role as the site of the first territorial capital and the subsequent development of northern Arizona, including the City of Prescott and the Grand Canyon tourism industry.
  • Competing water rights and rapid population growth in the Prescott metropolitan area and other nearby parts of Yavapai County has caused concern that increased pumping in Big and Little Chino valleys could reduce base flow in the Verde River.