Throughout the world, groundwater pumping imperils rivers and wetlands that flow from underground seeps and springs. Over time, pumping can parch river beds and devastate riparian habitat—a trend particularly dramatic in the arid Southwest, where it has contributed to riparian habitat loss of 90 percent or more.
In Arizona, rivers that have traditionally provided exceptional migratory bird habitat are drying up. The Salt River in Phoenix, the Santa Cruz in Tucson and the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona are failing to thrive and, worse, are in places bone dry unless storm runoff is present.
This isn’t an accident. Arizona water law—crafted before the population boom—does not legally acknowledge the connection between groundwater and surface water. Most states have rules that protect surface waters from the impacts of groundwater withdrawals, but Arizona, Texas and California are among those that do not.
Because Arizona water managers, politicians and developers falsely operate as though the connection doesn’t exist, the Verde River now faces the same demise as many of Arizona’s other struggling rivers.
The Verde River emanates from springs fed by the Big Chino aquifer near Paulden, in central Arizona. It winds east, then south, skirting the communities of Clarkdale, Cottonwood, Jerome, Sedona and Camp Verde. The Verde includes the only designated Wild and Scenic River segment in Arizona. After flowing some 170 miles, the river is corralled behind Horseshoe and Bartlett Dams, where canals coax it into the Phoenix area to provide drinking and irrigation water.
The looming problem is that the cities of Prescott and Prescott Valley intend to take at least 8,068 acre-feet of water per year—over 7 million gallons per day—from the Big Chino aquifer and transport it through 45 miles of pipeline into new, thirsty developments. U.S. Geological Survey hydrologists calculate that between 80 and 86 percent of the waters in the upper Verde come from the Big Chino and predict that this project eventually will all but dry up the first 24 miles of the river.
The Verde nurtures habitat essential to numerous native species. The most productive nests of the southwestern desert nesting bald eagle survive there. The endangered southwestern willow flycatcher also uses habitat along the Verde. Declining native fish species—including the razorback sucker, Colorado pike-minnow, roundtail chub and spikedace—may be unable to survive the expected streamflow losses.
The threat to the Verde is so imminent that it has drawn national attention: a 2006 American Rivers report recently named it one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. But in spite of the concern expressed by a growing number of citizens, Prescott and Prescott Valley have stubbornly refused to protect the river by devising a mitigation plan or committing to a habitat conservation plan. They have, though, recently entered into an “agreement in principle” with the Salt River Project that includes a promise of cooperation on further scientific studies, monitoring and possible mitigation. Will this be enough to protect the Verde?
To preserve waterways and wetlands in Arizona and throughout the West, state and local water laws must integrate groundwater and surface water management. Updating arcane water laws will take sustained pressure from citizens. We must start making our case with the Verde River.