One of Arizona’s few remaining perennial rivers, the Verde, is home to an amazing diversity of wildlife. Nearly half of the state’s bald eagle nest territories are located along the river. Roughly 10 percent of Arizona’s rarest forest type—the species-rich Fremont Cottonwood/Goodding Willow habitat—can be found along its banks.
The upper Verde is still relatively remote and isolated. As is flows south, it winds its way through the beautiful and arid landscape southwest of Sedona, Arizona. Its flow provides a lush, green corridor of plants and is home to at least 270 species of birds, 94 species of mammals and 76 species of native amphibians and reptiles. Over 60 miles of the river is federally protected under the Wild & Scenic Act.
Yet the Verde River is in danger of running dry.
For the second year in a row, Forever Our Rivers provided a grant to Friends of the Verde River to help them remove giant reed (Arundo donax), along Oak Creek, which flows into the middle Verde from the east.
One of the fastest-growing terrestrial plants in the world, giant reed competes with native cottonwood and willow for moisture, suppressing the success of native seedlings. Giant reed’s stem and leaves contain a variety of nasty chemicals, rendering it unsuitable as food or nesting habitat for wildlife. It offers less shade than cottonwood and willows, contributing to higher water temperatures. And even worse, dense, woody stands of giant reed are very susceptible to high-intensity wildfire.
“Wildfire is typically rare along rivers. However, it is becoming more common around the state,” said Willie Sommers, invasive plant program coordinator of the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, who partners with Friends of the Verde. “Removing giant reed checks a lot of boxes—improved wildlife habitat, reduced risk of wildfire and improved access for recreation,” Sommers said.
Neighboring landowner Dean Bowen agrees. “We had a fire across the creek in Cornville that exploded to about 1,500 acres in a matter of three or four hours,” said Bowen. Shortly thereafter, he and his neighbors instituted a community evacuation call system, just in case.
Friends of the Verde collaborates with the department and Arizona Conservation Corps, Verde Earth Technologies and Conservation Legacy field crews. Together they monitor previously infested areas of the watershed and treat any resprouts, leveraging previous investments of $4.5 million and months of efforts on more than 10,500 riparian acres.
Forever Our Rivers funding will support treatments on 15 river miles of Oak Creek. “There is very limited water—and every drop is important,” said Tracy Stephens, program director for Friends of the Verde River. “There is no room for noxious plants.”
Collaboration Creates Big Win for Rivers
River enthusiasts across Colorado celebrated National River’s month with an “Outstanding Waters” protection for the headwaters of Taylor River and lower Soap Creek, which feeds into Blue Mesa Reservoir.
The designation was awarded by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission in June, following a rigorous three-year process. The Southwest Colorado Outstanding Waters Coalition put forth the proposal, in collaboration with local, state and national water conservationists.
An impressive total of 520 river miles in the Gunnison, Upper Dolores, San Juan, San Miguel and Animas watersheds were permanently protected.
The Outstanding Waters award is focused on water quality. Among other criteria, water must be of “exceptional recreational or ecological significance”. While downstream users benefit from the high-quality water, the designation does not affect their water rights.
More information can be found in this article published by the Gunnison Country Times.
Rivers are easy to exploit and it’s not just plastic and fertilizers that are damaging rivers across the Southwest. Invasive species are also particularly troublesome.
One path to keep our rivers flowing is to remove invasive species and nurture native species back to their home.
Burn, cut. Poison. Dig and pull. Repeat. If only it was that easy.
Forever Our Rivers is pleased to announce its spring grant awards of $200,000 given to four nonprofits hard at work removing invasive plants in key tributaries to the Colorado: the Dolores, Verde, Gila and Escalante rivers that flow through Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.
The invasive tamarisk tree is one of the biggest challenges to healthy rivers. Native to Europe and Asia, this ornamental was brought to the US in the 1800s, valued for its pretty, delicate flowers and the filtering shade it brings on a hot afternoon in the desert. Today, it has taken over nearly one million acres in the Southwest.
Crews of youth and veterans spend long days in rugged terrain under the hot desert sun working to eradicate invasives. Burn, cut. Poison. Dig and pull. Repeat—for years.
Tamarisk, also known as salt cedar, is problematic because it pushes out native species like cottonwood trees, which have palatable seeds and thick limbs which are perfect for large birds like raptors and woodpeckers.
Tamarisk poisons the soil with salt which accumulates in its tissues and then seeps into the ground, so even after it is removed, native plants have trouble getting re-established. And, tamarisk uses more water per acre than the natives, dwindling surface- and ground-water along rivers and wetlands.
The consequences of not protecting rivers are very real and challenging—polluted waters, lack of protection from floods and less flows for wildlife and household use.
Fortunately, Forever Our Rivers and our partners are dedicated to making a difference. Through grants from our Southwest River Stewardship Fund we amplify the work of RiversEdge West, Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, Gila Watershed Partnership and Friends of the Verde River.
Crews are making progress removing invasive species and, in conjunction with the University of Utah, we’re collecting and analyzing data to help determine, and share, the most effective treatments. This not only helps with future efforts but leverages the tens of millions of dollars already spent on river restoration in the Southwest.
Costs to monitor and maintain native species have escalated significantly this year. If you’d like to help us get this important work accomplished, donate here or contact Ann Johnston, executive director of Forever Our Rivers, for more information.
Why do native species matter?
Along the lower Colorado, thickets of invasive species have crowded out native trees including one of the rarest and most threatened forests in the US—the cottonwood/Gooding willow forest.
Cottonwood-willow habitat is species rich—meaning that hundreds of birds, mammals and amphibians rely on it for food, shelter and breeding. Without it, many of these species may not survive.
Birds, including the Gila woodpecker, rely on the dense, high foliage of cottonwoods and willows for food and breeding, neither of which is provided by the tamarisk.
A medium-sized noisy extrovert, the Gila’s flight is typical of most woodpeckers, with bursts of quick flapping followed by short glides. In flight, you can identify them by an obvious white patch on their wings. Their bellies are a beautiful golden yellow and the males sport a delightful bright red cap.
Cottonwood-willow forests are also a key source of food for beavers. Known as ecosystem engineers, they increase biological diversity where they live. For example, using willow branches they build dams to spread and direct water. They also clear obstacles and create trails, which helps them transport materials to their lodges or escape from predators.
The first episode of the Our Rivers Podcast features Erica’s work to improve equity in the fishing industry with the Angling for All Pledge, as described in the article. We highly recommend learning more about Erica and checking out the New York Times article, which includes gems like:
The rod is a 9’5 weight with a medium-fast action. It’s metallic charcoal gray with gold, deep blue and white threads that are hand-wrapped in Colorado by veterans and survivors. The reel seat is hand-lathed, locally sourced Russian olive, an invasive tree that plagues the west. And the Abel reel is a deep metallic blue with a golden drag knob and our signature wave in white.
You can visit SaraBella’s website to customize your rod, or pass the word along to your favorite fishing buddies.
Great blue herons are nesting now, settling down in colonies to protect their young. Look for clusters of large stick nests in tall cottonwood or spruce trees near water. These stunning birds are surprisingly vulnerable to disruptions when nesting.
Western Colorado University has monitored heron nests along the Slate River annually since 2018. The surveys found that “great blue herons do not tolerate human disturbance and will flush, leaving nests unattended and eggs or chicks vulnerable to predation,” according to researcher Pat Magee! in the Spring 2021 issue of The Westerner Magazine. In many of the stressful interactions, people were floating by in boats and paddleboards.
Now the Slate River Working Group that commissioned the study must decide what to do with its findings. “The central question for the Slate River Working Group and the Crested Butte community is not whether herons are disturbed by river recreationists, but whether we should float this river stretch. That is a values question that can’t be answered by science,” writes Magee! in The Westerner.
These squawking beauties have been around for nearly two million years. As we welcome more people to a river-loving lifestyle, let’s save some room for the herons. Remember, if you see wildlife alter their behavior because of your presence, you’re too close or too loud.