Friday, August 21, 2009

When the River Becomes a Swamp -- Part 2

Idyllic, isn't it?

The Verde River is high...ducks, blue herons, kingfishers and other wildlife "use" its braided path all the way to the Salt River far to the South.  

People. . . also. . .use the river and that's where trouble begins. Some use it for pleasure, others for commerce.  Some more wisely than others.

One of the more perceptive observers is Doug Von Gausig, the mayor of Clarkdale, Arizona.  Maybe a birder, he's certainly observant. Von Gausig has seen 175 species of birds on his property in the 7 years he’s been here.

Talking to "High Country News" in 2007, Von Gausig said, "...the Verde is more than bird habitat. The river is a touchstone for people who live near it...a place to spend time in, something beautiful, something that brings peace to their lives. (High Country News, "Battle for the Verde", May 14, 2007).

Today that sentiment may no longer be viable.  The river has changed.

Writing in the August 2009 Issue of The Noise, a monthly entertainment tabloid published in northern Arizona, Ellen Jo Roberts laments her aborted rafting trip on the Verde: "It's not an easy river"..."We never made it to (our destination)"..."Our plan was foiled by one portage too many...leaving us all sliced up with green reeds and weeds as sharp as paper cuts."

She explains, "...the river wasn't moving get anywhere we had to vigorously kick...or risk circling in the same spot all day."

Although it likely wasn't within the article's scope, she fails to pose a simple question, "Why...?, Why doesn't  the river flow?"  That's what rivers do.

The answer lies with commercial interests and the fact that no consideration of the Verde River is complete without mention of diversion dams and the dams' affect on the environmental qualities of the river.

Questions are are complex and tangled in antiquated Arizona water laws.

Let's try the easy way . . .
  • Diversion dams serve agricultural interests.  With limited supplies of water in Arizona, why are some land owners determined to grow what the environment won't support naturally?
  • If commercial interests are at stake, what ethic permits these interests to take primacy over personal enjoyment?
  • If water ownership is primal, does that owner have the right to take water until the very river is destroyed?
  • Do water rights effectively mean river ownership?
High above the Verde River are the remains of the Anasazi dwelling, Tuzigoot.  Inhabited from about 1125 - 1400 AD, these ancients knew enough, even with water control structures of their own, not to destroy the river.  

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

When the River Becomes a Swamp -- Part 1

Guide books refer to the Verde River as one of the last free flowing, perennial streams in Arizona.

Maybe it was free flowing years ago, but not today.

There are many causes--drought, lack of snow pack, depleted aquifer--but foremost is the Cottonwood Ditch Association in Cottonwood, Arizona.

The Cottonwood Ditch Association (CDA) constructs "diversion" dams across the river, channeling the river's flow into irrigation ditches that serve the interests of a few hay and alfalfa farmers...local suppliers to cattle ranchers and horsemen. Often these groups are one and the same.

The one who manages these operations is Andy Groseta, President of the CDA, on one hand, and chairman of the National Cattlemens Beef Association Policy Division, on the other.

While visibility of this issue has been minimal and controversy nonexistent, it has raised interest (and possibly the hackles) of at least one adjoining community.

Speaking to City Council on June 12, 2007, Clarkdale Mayor Doug Von Gausig remarked, "...I think it's important to know what's going on with this issue. I met with Andy Groseta, ditch boss of the Cottonwood Ditch Association. This summer the

Cottonwood Ditch is again diverting 100% of the Verde River into their ditch, allowing only a trickle to bypass the diversion. This is a terrible thing for the river's habitat. It means that the river is no longer a viable corridor for transportation and migration of aquatic animals - the diversion becomes, in essence, an unnatural barrier to movements in the river."

That was June, 2007.

Fast forward to August, 2009...and...nothing has changed. On my last trip to the Verde the flow of the river was virtually stopped and, again, 100% of the flow was diverted to the ditch system.

The effect on the river has been dramatic: the river had been changed to a slough, the flow was nonexistent, willow variants had

grown 15 ft high and 20 ft out from the banks, cattails were growing mid-stream and thick clumps of algae had formed in open areas.
Coming from the Midwest, adjacent to lakes Michigan and Erie, it's hard to imagine that one man/organization can control what is ostensibly a public body of water.

The irony in this case is that he's working at cross purposes with the City of Cottonwood (where he lives) and is at odds with the interests he represents. The river, as he knows it, will likely disappear depriving him of his irrigation source.

Additionally, in May of this year, the city paid a consulting firm, ESI Corp., to come up with a Strategic Economic Development Plan, Focus on Success.

The Plan cited the Verde River as one of the assets the town ought to promote:
"The first strategy is to develop river access points and multi-use trails leading from Old Town and other areas in town to the river. This will increase connectivity between the river and amenities in Old Town Cottonwood, and will thus encourage additional tourists to visit one of the main attractions in the City: the Verde River."


What happens when the River becomes a swamp?
What happens when that swamp serves as a breeding ground for mosquitos?
What happens when tourists carry home various illnesses as souveniers of their trip?
What happens when the river will no longer supply the irrigation interests of a few land owners?

Andy Groseta and the Cottonwood Ditch Association is working counter to its own interests. They will find this out when the River has chosen some new options or has found another way around the Ditch Association.