by Maya Rappaport and Elaine Nichols
A major focus of our work at Friends is identifying and fixing the problems that make the river and its surrounding habitat less healthy. Invasive plant species are a big problem for the river! The invasive plants that Friends of the Verde River works to remove include salt cedar, Russian olive, giant reed, and tree of heaven.
Invasive plants come from places where different factors like soils, amount of sunlight, and common animal species are different from the conditions we have here in the Verde River system. They can cause many issues as they grow and alter their surroundings to be more like where they came from. For example, an invasive plant can make changes to the soil it grows in, which can make that soil less fertile for our native species. And since our native species of animals depend on our native species of plants, if local soils are altered by invasive species to the point where native plants struggle to grow, we see fewer of our native animal species as a result. Changes to soils can result in more small pieces of soil, called sediment, entering the river, which clogs up the waterways, posing danger to fish and other animals, as well as creating problems for the drinking water supply.
When invasive plants grow along the river, they change how things work in the river system. Native Cottonwood trees grow in an open forest, with wide-open spaces between trees. In contrast, the invasive plant giant reed grows very densely, with many plants growing very close together. This can choke up areas, leaving very little space for animals to move through the forest. Animals like bobcats, birds, beavers, and otters need this forest area to breed, find food, and access the waterways. While native Cottonwood forests create big patches of shade, giant reed, with its thin stalks, creates very little shade. A less shady river-side forest can heat up the river to dangerous temperatures harmful for fish and other aquatic life. Plus, less shade makes hot summer days harder to tolerate for wildlife and humans. These are just a few examples of how invasive plants create problems for our river and its native wildlife.
Tackling the problem of invasive species to help keep the river healthy is a big job that takes a lot of planning and support. Friends work with partners to monitor invasive species of plants along the river. During the monitoring seasons, field crew members use technology to mark where invasive plants are located on public and private land. Then hard-working crews remove the invasive plants.
Our seasonal habitat restoration field workers have made some incredible progress in preserving the health of our habitats along the Verde River and its tributaries. Recently, we completed a big project called the “The Verde River – Oak Creek Confluence Habitat Improvement Project”. The work for this project took place over two years along 4.1 miles of river, in an area covering 275 acres.
Our Arizona Conservation Crews (AZCC) and Veteran crews removed over 13,000 giant reed stalks and approximately 7,400 tamarisk stems. They treated 30 acres of tree of heaven throughout the two-year project timeline, helping to make sure this invasive plant will not return to the area. This project provided jobs for local youth and veterans, helping to create more conservation professionals in our community. This project also included volunteer opportunities, connecting our community members to this important habitat.
We are very grateful to the Arizona Water Protection Fund for making this project possible and allowing us to continue and expand on work in this area. Their funding allowed us to remove invasive species from this area, and it also made it possible to build landowner partnerships with Thousand Trails RV Park, Alcantara Vineyard, and other private landowners within the project area through matching funds.
Creating a more connected community of river lovers helps us all achieve our goals of preserving a healthy, flowing Verde River. We thank the Arizona Water Protection Fund for their continued support of our work!