by Nancy L.C. Steele
April is Earth Month. The theme this year is Invest in our Planet. This is the time to preserve and protect our health, our families, and our livelihoods. As we face a hotter, dryer future, it’s never been more important.
One of the immediate consequences of a hotter, dryer climate is a decline in river flow. Since 1990, flow in the Verde River has been steadily declining. From 1990 to 2020, flow declined by 34 percent in the Upper Verde and 41 percent in the Lower Verde Valley.
The downward trend suggests that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the Verde may not flow year round. This would be devastating for all that depend on flowing water. People live and visit here because of the flowing river. Given that part of the economy depends on water recreation, it could harm the local economy. And the Phoenix metro area relies on water from the Verde for drinking.
What is Friends of the Verde River doing to address this challenge?
The Verde River Exchange was designed to incentivize irrigators and others to leave some of their water in the river. Since 2016, over 24 million more gallons of water have been kept in the river. This is one thing we are doing. Today, I’m going to address some of the additional things we are doing to keep the river healthy and flowing in the face of climate change.
We need to tackle the root causes of lower flows – declining levels of water in our aquifers. The Verde and all rivers draw their baseflow from groundwater. Replenishing groundwater is a long-term strategy for the rivers.
How do we replenish groundwater? One of the most important things we can do is to slow water runoff down and keep it from washing rapidly into the river. We want to encourage more water to soak into the ground. With a higher water table, groundwater will seep slowly into the river, year-round, increasing river baseflow.
There are three approaches we are taking to replenish aquifers.
Erosion gullies result from water running too fast downhill, uprooting plants and removing topsoil. You see gullies everywhere in Arizona. One of our partnerships with the Forest Service addresses and solves the causes of erosion. Once we address the reasons gullies started in the first place, we can install low-tech structures to slow the water down. As a result, more water sinks into the ground, soil is deposited, and plants regrow. The ground is a better sponge, soaking in the rain. We have a goal of healing three to six gully systems, pending funding availability, by 2030.
Restore Native Plants
Native trees hold the water better than many non-native invasive plants. In the riverside zone, native trees slow down water on its way to the river. Every raindrop that falls on a leaf takes longer to fall and soak into the ground.
Imagine pouring water directly on your countertop; it all runs off right away. Now imagine covering your countertop with a sponge and pouring the same amount of water on top. Water will first soak into the sponge before gradually running off. That’s the goal: create sponges of plants and leaf litter, slowing down runoff.
Friends and our partners in the Verde Watershed Restoration Coalition have so far restored over 10,400 acres of riverside lands. We want to keep those lands native and double our success in the next eight to ten years.
Harvest the Rain
The third approach to replenish aquifer involves using nature’s methods within the urban areas and on personal landscapes. Again, we want to slow down the rain and allow water to soak into the ground. One way to do this is by installing rainwater catch basins.
You can see our first project at 497 S. Main Street in Camp Verde. When Yavapai Title remodeled their building, they wanted to make it as green as possible. Friends of the Verde River helped them manage runoff from their parking lot by installing three large catch basins. Their basins are designed to capture and soak in over 300,000 gallons of water annually.
Additional benefits include reduced flooding in downstream neighborhoods and improved water quality in the river. Our goal is to continue incentivizing smartly designed rainwater harvesting systems throughout the Verde.
River Friendly Living
I introduced you to our River Friendly Living program a few months ago. RFL is designed to reduce water use and help rivers. If you want to be river friendly, we invite you to contact us and get certified. With every person and business that signs up, the Verde Valley will become more resilient to climate change. And that’s good not only for our local economy, but it’s good for the planet, too. https://verderiver.org/river-friendly-living/
Take care of our earth. It’s the only one we’ve got.
 The trend data are based on the average June 7-day low flow in cubic feet per second (CFS), measured by the U.S. Geological Survey. June is the lowest flow period because winter rains and snowmelt is over and summer monsoons have not yet started.
This article was originally published in the print editions of the Cottonwood Journal and the Camp Verde Journal on April 26, 2022.