As drought and high water demands deplete more and more rivers in the western United States, it’s easy to assume a future of dryness is the inescapable fate of once vibrant streams.
But in the beautiful valley of the Verde River in central Arizona, farmers, residents, and conservationists are working together to restore flows to this life-giving desert river with no sacrifice to crop production or the local economy.
At the heart of this effort is a relatively simple and inexpensive technological upgrade to a vintage 1860s irrigation network that is lifting summer low flows by 50-100 percent in some reaches of the Verde – an aquatic Eden for fish and wildlife.
But achieving this conservation victory was not easy. It took the right mix of strategizing, trust, geography and collaboration – and some long talks over local brews.
A Hot Spot of Diversity
“I’m sure I met Kim over a beer,” said Steve Goetting, a businessman, backyard pecan farmer, and chair of the Chamber of Commerce for Campe Verde, a quiet town of some 11,000 residents, located 90 miles (145 kilometers) north of Phoenix.
Goetting is talking about Kim Schonek, a hydrologist who manages the Verde River program for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a large land and water conservation organization that has taken strong interest in the Verde for its biodiversity values.
A crucial river not only to Arizona but also to the health of the lower Colorado River Basin, the Verde runs 195 miles (314 kilometers) from spring-fed headwaters north of Prescott south to its confluence with the Salt River near Phoenix. Along the way, it supports some 92 species of mammals – including bobcat, grey fox, muskrat, and playful river otter – as well as populations of razorback sucker and other native fishes that are dwindling throughout the Colorado Basin.
The Verde is also an avian paradise. Its riverside cottonwood-willow forests provide a critical flyway and nesting spot for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and numerous other migratory birds. Breeding bird densities in the Verde’s riparian forests have exceeded 1,000 pairs per 100 acres, the highest density ever recorded in North America.
TNC flagged the Verde as an “ecological hotspot” – an aquatic environment rich in species diversity but at risk of losing much of it.
So in 2008 scientists with the organization began a planning process to assess threats to the river, Schonek told me on a recent visit to the Verde. The group identified diversions for irrigation as a major problem, she said. “And no one was working on it.”
A Simple Fix, but Big Results
Today, most farmers in the Verde Valley irrigate the way their predecessors did 150 years ago. They build a simple earthen dam in the river channel to divert flow into an irrigation ditch. Laterals off of the main ditches bring water to the farms and properties of individual users. The system runs entirely by gravity; there are no pumps.
Seven main irrigation ditches, each managed separately by a board and ditch “boss,” run along the Verde Valley. The most downstream of these ditches is the Diamond S, a five-mile long conveyor of water to some 80 different users collectively irrigating more than 400 acres (162 hectares) of crops and landscaping.
Frank Geminden, the ditch boss for the Diamond S, relocated from Kentucky to the Verde Valley with his wife Karen twenty years ago. He harvested 2,000 pounds of pecans from their farm last year, along with plump blackberries and hay for their horses.
Sporting denim overalls and a broad-brimmed hat, Geminden explains that historically the ditch would carry flows of 30-45 cubic feet per second (cfs). (One cubic foot is the volume of a cube one foot long, wide, and tall.)
“At times that was almost the whole river,” Geminden said.
The portion of the ditch water that wasn’t consumed would return to the river at the end of the ditch. But for that stretch of several miles when the water was in the Diamond S, the Verde was severely depleted, if not totally dry.
TNC’s Schonek, who moved to the valley from Oregon about five years ago, began talking to Geminden and other irrigators soon after her arrival to learn how the ditches worked. She quickly recognized that the return of water to the river at the end of the ditch meant that the Diamond S irrigators didn’t need all of the water they were taking out of the river.
Applying her tactical smarts, can-do enthusiasm, and total ease with the valley’s farm culture, Schonek designed a strategy that would benefit the river, the irrigators, and the broader Campe Verde community.
The solution she came up with was to automate the ditch gates so as to keep a constant flow of water in the ditch. With a sensor to monitor water levels, a motor that automatically raises and lowers the gate when the level changes, and a small solar panel to power the system, the ditch reliably delivers a volume of water closer to what the users actually need. The water saved stays in the river, adding crucial flows during the summer for fish and wildlife, as well as for kayakers, tubers, and others who want to enjoy the river.
It’s a good time to try this, Schonek told me. The technology has gotten “so much better and cheaper.”
So far, the two automated gates on the Diamond S have increased flows in the river by 5 cfs (nearly 2.7 million gallons a day), which in dry summer periods can nearly double the Verde’s flow.
“It’s working very, very well,” Geminden said. “By using this automated system, we are still able to provide the water everyone needs but also give the river some water.”
The upgrade also saves the ditch boss time and relieves him of the tricky task of manually adjusting the gates. He can operate the system from home, using his cell phone.
For Schonek, it’s about good ecological bang for the buck.
The two automation systems cost about $10,000 each, and they are returning flow to the river for less than $10 per acre-foot. (An acre-foot is 325,850 gallons, about what two families in the West use in a year.) [Disclosure: Change the Course, the campaign I co-lead, contributed funding to this project for TNC’s purchase of the automated headgate.]
“It’s very cost-effective conservation,” Schoneck said.
But she’s also quick to acknowledge the role of the community in getting the project off the ground.
“The people in the Verde Valley have been really willing to come to the table and work collaboratively,” she said. As long as they get the water they need, their feeling is “if [the automation] helps Kim’s fish, that’s cool.”
Summer rains fill the Diamond S Ditch just downstream from its diversion point from the Verde River. Photo: Cheryl Zook/National Geographic
Getting Buy-in From Farmers
But change doesn’t come easily, especially when it involves farmers giving up water, whether they need that water or not. One of the signature mantras of Western water rights – “use it or lose it“ – is ingrained in every irrigator’s head.
Hauser and Hauser Farms, a family enterprise that accounts for about half of the water use from the Diamond S, is last in line for the ditch’s water. The Hausers irrigate laser-leveled fields of alfalfa, vegetables, pumpkins, and some of the best-tasting sweet corn I’ve ever had. Within minutes of the morning harvest, locals start arriving at their farmstand to buy some freshly picked ears.
Originally from Iowa, Kevin Hauser moved with his parents to the Verde Valley from Phoenix in 1968. He farms alongside his wife Claudia and several of their grown children.
“The river offers a lot to the aesthetics of the valley,” Hauser said. “When I was a kid, I went to the river every day. It’s shady and it’s cool and it’s where you want to be.”
But when Schonek initially started the conversation about returning some water to the river, there was concern in the valley that if we don’t use all the water, we could lose it, Hauser explained.
The traditional thinking, he continued, is “divert all you can and use all you can. That’s been said at meetings.”
Kevin’s son Zach, a friendly 24-year-old who helps run a lot of the Hauser operation, added that rumors started going around “that The Nature Conservancy is taking all the water and putting it back in the river.”
False rumors aside, any proposed changes to methods or volumes of diversions can keep a western water user up at night.
But in this case, no users on the Diamond S were reducing their irrigated acreage or giving up any water they required for growing their crops. They were simply leaving water they didn’t really need in the river.
Plus, since the Diamond S is the most downstream ditch in the valley, there are no other users who could take the water the Diamond S puts back. That’s particularly important since, unlike Montana, Oregon and a number of other western states, Arizona doesn’t have formal provisions for protecting environmental flows for rivers.
But still, Schonek had her work cut out for her.
As an early step, she organized a field trip. In December 2010, she took eight Verde Valley irrigators down to the Phoenix area to see automated headgates in action.
One of those on the excursion was Goetting, who, in addition to chairing the Chamber of Commerce, is vice president of the Diamond S board.
For Goetting, seeing the automated irrigation systems was like love at first sight.
“I was completely enamored with them,” he said. I wanted to know “what do we need to do to get these? How do we start?”
As owner of The Horn, a local brewery and restaurant, and an entrepreneur at heart, Goetting sees a healthier Verde River as a key to the valley’s future.
“The name of this town is Campe Verde. It would not do well as Camp Brown,” he said.
As Goetting’s enthusiasm spread to the rest of the board, and then to the larger community, the initial discomfort with the idea of giving some water back to the river eased up.
“This project sprung out of that field trip,” Schonek said.
Farmers throughout the Verde Valley rely on water from the Verde River to irrigate their crops. Photo: Cheryl Zook/National Geographic
Incentives for Success
The Verde is Arizona’s only Wild and Scenic River, and the stretch so designated begins just downstream of the Diamond S. That means the water saved by the now-automated ditch system enhances the habitats and beauty not only of the Diamond S stretch of the river but also of the protected Wild and Scenic reach further downstream.
Schonek and her TNC colleagues have set a “minimum flow target” – the lowest the river should ever flow – of 30 cfs by 2020. That target, about 43 percent of the historic low flow, applies to the river through the entire valley, not just the Diamond S reach.
Schonek acknowledges that the goal is ambitious, but she’s got a strategy for getting there.
First is incentivizing the Diamond S to not only meet its early goal, but to do more.
Schonek signed a “diversion reduction agreement” with the ditch company that says TNC will pay for the automated gate (again, with support from Change the Course) if the irrigators reduce their diversions by the agreed-upon amount.
For 2013, the Diamond S got a signing bonus, which it is using to buy an additional piece of infrastructure. At the end of the season, which runs from May 15 to September 15, TNC will pay them an additional sum if they meet the target of returning 5 cfs to the river. In all, the project payment to the ditch company is less than $25,000.
While the ditch company can use that payment any way it wishes, Schonek expects that the irrigators will use it to buy an automated gate for the second lateral off of the main ditch. If so, the Diamond S will have upgraded the main diversion point at the head of the ditch as well as both laterals, enabling much better control of the whole irrigation system.
In a similar way, Schonek hopes to incentivize savings of an additional 5 cfs next year. If, by using its automated system effectively, the Diamond S reduces its diversion by a total of 10 cfs in 2014, TNC will pay the ditch company even more.
Schonek’s strategy is to gradually move up the river valley, motivating the ditch companies upstream of the Diamond S to follow the incentive plan of upgrading their irrigation systems and leaving more flow in the Verde.
With this building block approach, more water keeps getting added to the river as it courses through the valley – eventually reaching TNC’s 30 cfs flow target.
If the reactions by the Diamond S irrigators are a good indication, Schonek has designed a winning approach.
“If we’re at the end of the ditch and we’re satisfied, then everyone (on the ditch) should be satisfied,” said Kevin Hauser. “I’m very happy with the in-stream flow agreement.
And Geminden, the ditch boss, heaps praise on Schonek. “Kim has been so impressive in terms of her energy and enthusiasm. She has just done an incredible job making all this happen.”
The Verde River is considered an “ecological hotspot” – an environment rich in species diversity but at risk of losing much of it. Photo: Cheryl Zook/National Geographic
On a late July morning, we paddle quietly down the river. It’s easy to fall in love with the Verde. More brown than green from sediment washed in by the monsoon rains, the river is flowing at a healthy pace for a mid-summer day.
A great blue heron stands statuesque in the reed beds, then takes wing and flies low across the water. Numerous beaver dens dot the riverbanks, awaiting the return of their furry inhabitants after a hard day’s work. Upstream, a little head sprouting whiskers appears: a river otter swimming purposefully towards us, maybe to check that we mean no harm to its young.
Rising high to our left, a brilliant white wall of rock harkens back to an early time: indentations outline cave dwellings built by the Sinaqua Indians, who fished and farmed in the Verde Valley centuries ago.
My mind jumps from the past to the future. With competition for every drop of water increasing throughout the West, it’s hard to be optimistic about the fate of rivers.
But bringing irrigation into the 21st century, and managing water more wisely, offers hope that productive agriculture, thriving communities, and healthy rivers can exist side-by-side.
And as Kevin Hauser, the irrigator last-in-line on the Diamond S, said, “Better to be proactive and solve these problems rather than wait for someone to solve them for you.”
Help restore water to the Colorado River Basin by joining Change the Course. Sign up online or text ‘River’ to 77177.
Special thanks to Silk and Coca-Cola, Charter Sponsors for Change the Course. Additional funding generously provided by the Walton Family Foundation.
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.