When Chip Norton thinks about why he loves the Verde River, he thinks about spending spring afternoons in a kayak, paddling through bottleneck riffles and drifting down long stretches of flat water.
He thinks about sitting at sunrise on the riverbank, with a cup of hot coffee, listening to migratory warblers and flycatchers and watching river otters swimming in shallow eddies.
And he thinks about how the Verde is a survivor – one of the few rivers in the parched and heavily populated American Southwest that still flows year round.
“The river feels like a miracle,” Chip says.
Chip has been boating and fishing the Verde, a Colorado River tributary that courses through Arizona’s Sonoran desert, since his childhood. His experiences on the water instilled in him a deep appreciation for the outdoors – and an understanding of the restorative power of water in a dry land.
“This is a harsh landscape. So there's something soothing about being near moving waters in the desert Southwest. The Verde has always been a place of refuge for me.”
Since retiring in 2008 from a career in construction, Chip has devoted himself to protecting a river that has – over the course of his lifetime – suffered from severe drought, irrigation diversions, ever-increasing groundwater pumping and encroaching invasive species that threaten native riparian habitat.
As president of Friends of the Verde River, Chip helps lead a coalition of river enthusiasts working on conservation solutions to improve flows and habitat while protecting communities whose economic prosperity depends on a healthy river.
The environmental, economic and social stakes are incredibly high, for Arizona and the broader Colorado River basin.
From its headwaters in Prescott National Forest, the Verde flows freely for more than 140 of its 195 miles. It supports 270 species of bird, more than 90 mammals, dozens of amphibian species and a globally rare cottonwood willow gallery forest. A 40-mile stretch of the Verde is listed as a Wild and Scenic River.
Its water brings life to a robust farming economy in the Verde Valley, where staple crops such as corn and alfalfa grow alongside vineyards producing grapes for Arizona’s fast-growing wine industry. Critically, the Verde provides about 40% of Phoenix’s surface water supply through the Salt River Project.
But the water security that the Verde provides is at risk as weather patterns change and population growth fuels increased demand.
“In the Verde River watershed, we are taking out more water than is being replenished. And that is not sustainable,” Chip says. “We’re working on conservation of landscape but also conservation of community.”
The Walton Family Foundation supports efforts by Friends of the Verde River and partners like The Nature Conservancy to find creative strategies to keep the river flowing.
The groups have worked with farmers to improve irrigation efficiency by installing automated flow-control head gates to replace water-wasting manual devices. They are also promoting changes in farming practices that have allowed some farmers to replace crops like corn with less-thirsty alternatives like barley, which grows earlier in the spring when river levels are higher and requires less irrigation.
Last year, TNC and Friends of the Verde River helped launch the Verde River Exchange, a “water offset program” that allows participants to purchase credits to offset their groundwater use. The program’s early participants include two of the region’s largest wineries, Page Spring Cellars and Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards.
“If you want to try to conserve the river without providing an economic benefit, I think it becomes very, very difficult to be successful,” says Chip. “We've made great progress with surface water management and I think the farming community is really the champion there.”
River allies have had success, too, in efforts to restore native riparian habitat by waging an aggressive battle against invasive species such as tamarisk and tree of heaven. Friends of the Verde River has set a goal to limit invasive species to 10% of the riparian landscape. To date, crews have restored more than 8,000 acres of habitat along the Upper Verde.
“I think that we have an opportunity to keep this river flowing for a long time,” Chip says. “We are paddling boats down stretches of the river that we couldn’t paddle on 10 years ago. I think we are building toward success.”
On a personal level, Chip is committed to doing his own part to limit water use and live sustainably on the river.
He and his wife, Kathy, own 14 riverfront acres near the town of Camp Verde.
While many riverfront estates are cleared of trees and feature well-watered and manicured Bermuda grass lawns, Chip and his wife decided to maintain the natural habitat surrounding their home. Walnut and ash trees shade a walking path to the river, where the flood plain nurtures thickets of mesquite.
“This area attracts a lots of breeding birds. We have deer, raccoons, javelina, bobcats, foxes, skunks – a lot of the animals use our property as a wildlife corridor to the river,” Chip says.
Most weekends find Chip out on the water, kayaking and fishing with friends, or walking along the river’s edge, throwing sticks into the stream for his dog, Essie.
“I’ve lived in a lot of areas around Arizona but this is the first place that I would consider my home,” he says. “I just feel a strong connection to this land and a responsibility to the river.”