Growing Food, Saving Water on the Verde River

The Verde River—one of the few remaining perennial rivers in Arizona—flows through the Verde Valley, a 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.

Here, at the Verde headwaters, the river springs to life in springs fed by the groundwater aquifer underneath the grasslands of the Big Chino Valley, which also supports Arizona’s largest remaining herd of pronghorn.

Working in partnership with the Wells family and Arizona Game and Fish Department, The Nature Conservancy has protected 470 acres surrounding the springs at the headwaters of the Verde River.

The Conservancy works with four irrigation ditch companies in the Verde Valley to increase efficiency and divert only the minimum water needed—thereby preserving maximum flow in the river channel for wildlife and recreation.

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

Kim Schonek, Verde Projects Manager for The Nature Conservancy, works with John McReynolds, boss of the Verde Valley’s Eureka Ditch, to monitor flows, maximize efficiency, and to rethink irrigation practices to create incentives for creative water management.

Camp Verde journalist Steve Ayers, president of the Eureka Ditch, sees Verde conservation work as an investment: “The return on that investment for a lot of folks is knowing you actually might have saved a fragile desert river.”

Restored populations of beaver slow erosion and create habitat for native fish, aquatic creatures, and river otter. Most Verde beavers live in riverbanks; this unusual beaver lodge occurs on the upper Verde.

In 2010, The Nature Conservancy purchased the 306-acre Shield Ranch at the confluence of the Verde River and its important tributary, West Clear Creek, just outside of Camp Verde. Kim Schonek monitors the management of water in the ranch’s ditches.

The Conservancy’s Kim Schonek discusses the new automatic ditch flow regulator with Steve Goetting, vice-president of the Diamond S Ditch Association. The solar-powered ditch system regulates water flow to landowners and restores unneeded irrigation water to the Verde River.

Frank Germinden, Camp Verde landowner and volunteer “ditch guy,” shows off the new automated ditch flow system.

Zach Hauser is the third generation of Hausers to farm in the Verde Valley. Hauser loves working 19-hour days, using the ditches to water the family’s sweet corn—famous across the state. He says, “There’s something about working on the land, it almost becomes a part of you.”

Breeding bird densities in cottonwood stands along the Verde River have exceeded 1,000 pairs per 100 acres, the highest avian density ever recorded in North America. Here, a Great Blue Heron takes flight.

Boaters depend on having enough water in the river for recreation. Chip Norton, president of the Friends of Verde River Greenway, says, “When you put people on the river in boats, it’s a life-changing experience. You see those beautiful canopies, you hear those birds.”