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Our ‘Last Best Rivers’ Offer Proof Points for Effective Conservation

November 6, 2018
In the Colorado River basin, restoration shows the value of healthy rivers to local communities

In Kenneth Grahame’s story Wind in the Willows, Mole and Rat are rowing up the river in Rat’s boat discussing life when Rat utters, “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

I first heard this quote read by a river guide on a Grand Canyon trip as a teenager. Over the years, it has come to capture how I feel about spending time on rivers, preferably healthy rivers, whether in a boat or not. Last year I spent a day with colleagues messing about in boats on one of these healthy rivers - the Verde.

Peter Skidmore, left, floats through a calm stretch of Arizona's Verde River.

The Verde River flows from the forested highlands of central Arizona south to its confluence with the Salt River, east of Phoenix. Seen from an eagle’s perspective, it is a green ribbon through the Sonoran desert, an obvious concentration of life and productivity, both natural and human.

Much of that is a diverse riparian forest of native shrubs and trees, wetlands, and beaver ponds. Elsewhere the green ribbon is irrigated pasture and cropland.

The Verde is small enough to skip a rock across almost everywhere, winding through narrow canyons and broad floodplains. We paddled inflatable kayaks through this ribbon on a fall day, as green was giving way to gold, yellow and amber.

As we floated through smooth sections with time to watch birds. a great horned owl in the nook of a tree limb turned its head 180 degrees.. Ducks, rails and coots hid among the reeds. Sandpipers stood on sand bars. Herons fished in shallows. And hawks circled above treetops.

We spent a good part of our trip talking about what “healthy” means in a river like the Verde.

Aside from abundant bird and aquatic life, there were other more subtle indicators of health.

The river and riparian forest we saw was messy. It was complex - one of the best indicators of river health.

Complexity in the channel provides a broad range of depth, velocity and temperature that meet the specific needs of different species and life stages of fish through all the seasons.

The Verde River is messy and complex - a sign of river health.

More complexity provides greater opportunity for more species. We saw jumbles of wood debris racked up on the forest floor and along the banks and in the channel, eroding river banks and bare gravel bars, and all different ages of different species of trees and shrubs and rushes. All provided evidence that the Verde has the ingredients, and processes, to create and maintain aquatic and riparian habitat quality and complexity.

Still, the river faces threats. We paddled past a field crew clearing patches of invasive salt cedar and tree of heaven established in the floodplain.

In many rivers of the Colorado River basin, invasive plants have become extensive and pervasive, substantially reducing complexity and impacting riparian and aquatic habitat. Invasive plants are much more likely to establish in river systems disturbed or impacted by overgrazing, flow regulation or depletion, or conversion of riparian floodplains.

The author, Peter Skidmore, paddles a narrow stretch of the Verde River.

In the Verde, the foundation is working with partners to keep invasives at bay. This is much easier in a healthy river system.

The Verde is one the foundation’s Proof Point Rivers. These are the last best rivers in the seven-state Colorado River basin, where we are demonstrating the value of healthy rivers to local communities.

In the Escalante River in Utah, the Dolores River in Colorado, and the Verde, San Pedro and Upper Gila Rivers in Arizona, we have been working with watershed partnerships to protect, conserve and restore river flows and riparian habitat.

Because these are among the most healthy river systems in the Colorado River basin, our investments can be cost effective and durable.

When we finished our afternoon paddle, we drove back up the Verde River valley, through small irrigated farms and pasture and past new subdivisions and developments.

The Verde River snakes through the desert of central Arizona.

In part because of the draw of the river, valley communities are growing fast. Old and new development depends on groundwater that also feeds the river system and helps to keep it healthy.

As more and more groundwater is used, the river will suffer. Our partners are working with irrigators to improve on-farm efficiency and return the saved water to the river, and with municipalities to establish groundwater recharge programs to offset groundwater pumping for communities.

Healthy rivers provide recreational value and myriad “ecological services” such as clean water, flood hazard mitigation and natural storage. Through collaboration among all those with a stake in the river’s health, our partners are exercising strategies to protect and restore flow throughout the valley.

While the foundation has focused primarily on conserving or restoring river flow and native riparian habitat, we are now recognizing that rivers also need freedom space to thrive ecologically.

Where rivers have space for dynamic processes of flooding and shifting channels, they replenish and renew aquatic and riparian habitat and also provide green infrastructure value by cleaning water, storing flood flow and minimizing flood hazard.

As part of long-term river management plans, we are introducing concepts of ‘river management corridors,’ that give rivers the space to erode their banks and create new habitat.

From left: Foundation staff Morgan Snyder, Ted Kowalski and Peter Skidmore work to protect rivers in the Colorado River basin.

On the Verde, for example, we are developing tools to help determine when it is important to stabilize river banks – and when it is best to let them erode.

The Verde, Escalante and other remaining healthy waterways are vestiges of the far more extensive network of vibrant and productive rivers that were once prevalent across the Southwest.

As we work to protect and restore these last best healthy rivers, we also know the importance of connecting communities to the rivers that, in so many ways, sustain them. Because people who are connected to rivers become their stewards – and they understand what it takes to keep them healthy.

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