The Battle for the Verde

Will a new pipeline dry up one of the West’s last free-flowing streams?

  • Development in Arizona's Prescott Valley

  • The Verde River near Perkinsville

  • Arizona's Verde River at Hell Canyon

  • Among the 175 species of birds Doug Von Gausig has spotted on his property along the Verde River are, from top, a black phoebe, a flycatcher common in Arizona riparian habitats; a northern cardinal, which has a healthy population in the area -- as long as the river is healthy; and a verdin, a tiny desert bird that somehow made its way from Africa to become common in the Arizona desert -- and at area hummingbird feeders

  • Doug Von Gausig, mayor of Clarkdale, near his home on the Verde River

  • Verde River watershed

  • A subdivision in Chino Valley, above, and a car dealership behind a dump truck, in Prescott Valley. Yavapai County continues to be one of the country's fastest growing rural areas

  • Yavapai County Supervisor Carol Springer stands before the checkerboard map of public and private land around Prescott. Springer has long fought for a pipeline to bring water from the Big Chino into Prescott

  • Sullivan Lake looks like a mud flat today, but it once carried far more water and was essentially the Verde River's headwaters, two miles from its current starting point. Experts disagree over why the lake is drier today. Some blame groundwater pumping; others say the lake never was very flush except during storms


CLARKDALE, ARIZ. -- A 200-yard-long trail leads from Mayor Doug Von Gausig’s home to the Verde River. Just as he steps outside, a female hummingbird darts into view. A red-tailed hawk, best identified by the black on the leading edge of its wings, soars overhead a few minutes later.

As he reaches the river, violet-green swallows skim the water’s surface, and a great blue heron flies upstream out of a treetop. The river is grassy and lined with cottonwood, willow and Arizona ash, as well as non-native saltcedar and the Asian tree of heaven. Von Gausig has seen 175 species of birds on his property in the five years he’s been here. But the Verde is more than bird habitat. The river is a touchstone for people who live near it, he says, “a place to spend time in, something beautiful, something that brings peace to their lives.”

The Verde is also ground zero in a water war that pits the Verde Valley’s communities against Prescott, Prescott Valley and other cities to the west. Later this year, the picturesque city of Prescott — which has been growing at rates that give new meaning to its motto, “Everybody’s Hometown” — hopes to start construction of a 36-inch-diameter, 30-mile-long pipeline to take groundwater from the Big Chino sub-basin north of the city to supplement its own aquifer, which has been declining for decades. The pipeline has spurred widespread fears among valley residents that it could lower the water table enough to dry up the Verde River’s first 25 miles — the stretch that leads almost to Von Gausig’s home — and greatly reduce flows further down the river.

City and some county officials strongly deny the charge, and the dispute has escalated from there, with dueling hydrologists producing studies and counter-studies while major environmental groups and one of Arizona’s oldest and most powerful utilities threaten lawsuits.

Though the proposed Prescott pipeline put the Verde on last year’s American Rivers’ list of endangered waterways, it’s hardly the only threat the river faces. In the Verde Valley itself, growth and drought have triggered sharp declines in the aquifer that feeds the river, forcing many local residents to deepen their wells. Back in the Big Chino — a juniper-covered grassland now used mainly by farmers, ranchers and a small number of exurbanites — groundwater pumping for planned developments of up to 39,000 homes could also harm the Verde.

Rapid growth is colliding with limited water supplies across formerly rural Arizona, from Sierra Vista and Kingman to Flagstaff and Williams. The trend is hardly limited to Arizona; inspired by growth and worries that global warming could reduce future precipitation, billions of dollars in water projects are on drawing boards across the West, with Montana and Wyoming and Nevada and Utah arguing over access to surface and groundwater and California looking at new dams to bolster its water-storage system. But Arizona recently became the country’s fastest-growing state, with a population expected to top 14 million by 2040. And few places in the state are growing faster than the Verde River watershed, making the water war there particularly volatile as the pipeline’s projected 2009 completion date nears.

The Verde brouhaha could end the way other Western water disputes have played out — with a hunt for supplies to be imported from far, far away. The federal government has done preliminary studies on shipping Colorado River water south from Lake Powell or east from Lake Mead to Flagstaff and Williams, north of Prescott and south of the Grand Canyon. An advisory committee is starting to look into similar notions for Prescott.

On the other hand, if some environmentalists have their way (which would be something of a surprise in rural Arizona development disputes), there could be at least a temporary limit on building permits in the Prescott area.

But today, no one knows precisely what effect Prescott’s pipeline or growth will have on the river. Some answers will come after the state and federal governments finish a regional computer groundwater study, which isn’t expected to be complete for at least 18 months. For now, though, people on both sides of the 7,800-foot Mingus Mountains can only speculate about their water future — or head for court.


About 20 miles north of Prescott and 19 miles south of the start of the proposed pipeline, a series of springs lies just below the unincorporated settlement of Paulden. The springs feed an intermittent, narrow stream no more than a few inches deep. An even narrower stream, Granite Creek, dribbles into the river at that spot; there is barely any water at the confluence. Still, birds abound.

Early last fall, three turkey vultures flew high above the cliffs — colored with alternating bands of tan, white, brown and gold — that soar 200 feet above this stretch of the river. A black-headed, white-bellied black phoebe hopped down from one willow tree to another, then jetted away. A belted kingfisher, white with a blue-gray head and breastband, flew out of the water and lit on a willow. The river disappeared into the sand every few hundred feet, then returned to the surface. Cattail grasses glistened in the sun, and cottonwood trees towered, 40 and 50 feet tall, at the river’s edge.

A mile or so downstream of the headwaters, watercress fills the river, now 30 to 40 feet wide. By the time it hits the Verde Valley 25 miles to the south, the river is a mile wide in some places, red rock cliffs providing a stark, craggy backdrop.

The Verde travels 170 miles across central Arizona before it joins the Salt River, slicing through a series of geologic formations that range from a few million to 1.8 billion years old. Until it hits Horseshoe Dam 60 miles northeast of Phoenix, it is a free-flowing stream — one of the last in the desert Southwest. It is much wider and deeper than its more famous counterpart to the south, the San Pedro River, which runs north from Mexico through southeast Arizona. The Verde can’t match the San Pedro’s 450 individual bird species, but its concentration of breeding birds — more than 1,000 pairs per 100 acres, in mature cottonwood stands — is one of the highest in North America. The river plays host to eight native fish species, including three that are federally protected as endangered and threatened.

Home to Prescott and its neighbors Prescott Valley and Chino Valley, Yavapai County has long been one of the country’s fastest-growing rural areas. Mild temperatures, sweeping vistas, clear skies and surrounding mountains have made the Prescott area a retiree haven. Money magazine named it one of the U.S.’s top five retirement communities just last year.

Prescott has a substantial and charming downtown, complete with an historic courthouse square, one side of which houses a string of bars known as Whiskey Row. But toward the fringe of Prescott is its faster-growing neighbor, Prescott Valley, where strip centers, real estate signs and freshly bladed subdivisions-in-progress dominate the landscape.

May 14, 2007 12:35 PM

please consider the pipelines impact on all concerned.

May 14, 2007 01:28 PM

The extreme development booming for the last decade in Northern AZ-- coupled with the demand for precious water,  the eleven year drought (and counting), paints an alarming picture.

I am a native born Arizonan, third generation---so feel qualified  to speak out about how the developers and legislators are handling this most delicate desert of ours.  Part of the appeal of the Verde Valley is its free flowing river, it's awesome beauty and wildlife.  

Yes, I understand the desire to live in this beautiful place, but to what great irrepairable cost as we all cram in here?

There must be limits on what is reasonable growth and when to say WHEN for balance in our environment.   Let's not be afraid  to say no to "growth and development", let's stop and give it a rest and recovery so that our water tables may refill.

For years I have appreciated this bumper sticker:

Moving to Arizona? Bring your own water. 

Margaret Mendoza

May 14, 2007 07:04 PM

What an excellent article!

This pipeline must be stopped, and these wild areas protected. Otherwise, why would anyone want to move here? I am sick of corrupt politicians and greedy developers making decisions that affect everyone and hurt our wilderness. They are stealing our landscape and culture at every turn, just for some ugly homogenous stucco boxes. Thousands of them. As Ed Abbey said,"growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."
For anyone who would like to join or volunteer with the growing population who loves our Verde River, please check out this site:
It is a connection point for saving this beautiful resource, with links and information for people who care.
-Ron Harvey
May 14, 2007 07:15 PM

Thank you for an excellent article - well researched and written.   Ms. Mendoza is right on with her comments.  We have lived in Prescott since 1991 - my husband is a native Arizonan born in 1933 in Kingman and I am that dreaded 4th generation native Californian - we are both appalled with what the developers and the politicians are doing to Arizona in general and to this beautiful yet fragile environment.  

In addition to there not being enough water for all the development, the quality of life that everyone moves here for is being destroyed.  It is heartbreaking.






May 15, 2007 01:45 PM

I would encourage all of you to consider what costs have already been incurred for any of us to live in the West..... not just new development.  All of us are guilty and are enabled by these so-called corrupt politicians.  I don't think that living in an area such as Arizona for the past 30 years exempts you from having the finger pointed at you.  The focus needs to  be on more than current development.  We started this growth machine years ago and no one is innocent.

May 15, 2007 04:15 PM

I have long been amazed by the "grow or die" opinion expressed by many in public office.  On one side of their mouth, they utter this creed while on the other, they talk about sustainable water management.  How can unbridled growth and sustainability be used in the same sentence except to point out their incompatability? We seem bound and detemined to go the way of the Easter Islanders.


May 15, 2007 09:31 PM

 It's hard for Arizonans to imagine that economic development and expansion of opportunity can result from anything other than growth. We cling to our faith in growth even as we acknowledge that there already isn't enough water to go around. So now the water wars begin, not to slake the thirst of those already here, but to ensure that growth continues. 

May 17, 2007 10:58 AM

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


May 21, 2007 12:19 PM

In the late 1970s, Florida's Division of State Planning developed a growth policy based on the state's "Carrying Capacity": a concept that considers the interactions between (1) Quality of life, (2) Natural resource systems, (3) Structural resource systems, and (4) Insitutional (political and economic  ) systems. In a perfect (rational) world this would result in "Steady State" system in which the highest life quality was achieved by zero net growth and manageable diversity.  The policy went the way of all such fantasy in the real world of politicians and developers where Ozymanidias rules.  Will Arizona do better?

W.V. McConnell (Planner/sociologist) 



May 21, 2007 01:06 PM

I've only been in the county since 1981.  PV was so small--dirt roads and no stop signs, people stopped their trucks at intersections to talk.

We've built five new elementry schools and two middle schools and then two high schools.  Gone are the days of sending the kids to Prescott schools.

After the town bought the water company and built the sewage plant--since expanded--paved the roads and allowed planned area development (pad) read as track housing/high density build outs, I moved on.

Williamson Valley--heading north of Prescott in behind the Big Chino is prime for development as Springer wants to widen the two lane road to five....and currently the road goes nowhere, running to dirt before it reaches hwy 40 at Seligman.  See Talking Rock//American Ranch//Superstition Springs--all gated communities where the acre sells for the cost of a modest home but the cc&r's call for minimum square footage and fashionably designed houses/compounds.

Don't tell anyone about Skull Valley.  There's no water there.  Takes thousands of acrea to rotate a few hundred head of cattle.  Mostly big ranches and the ranchers aren't interested in selling to developers.  Maybe the grandkids..........  Lookout Hassayampa River down in Wickenburg.


May 21, 2007 05:25 PM

Great article!

As a property owner in Cornville and planning to move there in 3-4 years, I am watching the pipeline news with great interest. In Maryland where I live now, they have no problem on putting a moratorium on building/growth until roads, schools, utilities and water are adequate to support the growth. It sounds like someone needs to have the guts to just say no.


Jun 05, 2007 11:14 AM

My husband and I left the Verde Valley due to many of the concerns stated in the article.  He had lived there since 1969 and watched the valley grow beyond its capacity to sutain its population. Yet people are flocking there still. We lived only a few feet from the Cottonwood ditch and had irrigation rights we did not exercise. We couldn't bear to stay and watch the valley disintigrate due to peoples' inability to face the facts: given current practices, there is nowhere near enough water for the number of people living there, yet alone those who continue to move in. Wake up people . . . the free ride in the Verde is over.

Jun 05, 2007 03:46 PM

The fantasy that pumping water from the
Big Chino aquifer is going to reduce the flow of the Verde River is patently ridiculous.  As a native of Prescott who has hiked and rafted virtually the entire Verde River watershed, I can tell you that the Verde River does not get its water from the Big Chino aquifer. 

It is lamentable that the no-growth radical environmentalists connected with Prescott College and the Center for Biological Diversity continue to use this scare tactic as a means of trying to stop growth.  If they want to stop growth, they should at least be honest about it.

As someone who has hiked and rafted most of the Verde and its tributaries, I can tell you that the Verde River gets its water from essentially two sources.  Most of the water in the Verde comes from springs where water perculates through the rock and comes down from the flat land above on the Mogollon Rim.  The two most obviously examples of this are the Springs in Sycamore Canyon and at the top of Fossil Creek.  Above Sycamore Canyon, most of the small amount of water that comes down the Verde comes from Granite Creek and that watershed. 

The most blatant fact that the radical environmentalists and uninformed hydrologists don't grasp is that there is a solid ridge of rock running north/south that blocks water from coming down the Big Chino into the Verde River.  Anyone can see this by simply observing the Sullivan Lake Dam that is across a small gap in this huge ridge of rock. 

The other blatant fact that the misinformed environmentalists don't grasp is that the water from the Big Chino is going to be pumped from a thousand feet down.  That means the water in the Big Chino would have to perculate through the dirt and rock ten to fifteen miles toward the Verde and then go up hill to get over the ridge of rock that dams the Big Chino watershed.  If this was currently happening, there would be much more water at Perkinsville than the five to ten CFS that normally goes through there during the dry season.

The only water that goes down the Verde River from the Big Chino watershed is from runoff so heavy it doesn't have time to seep into the ground before reaching Sullivan Lake Dam.

It is also worth noting that the Big chino extends all the way north of Seligman and drains a phenominal area of land thirty to forty miles long and ten to twenty miles wide.  As almost all of this water sinks into the ground, there is probably enough water in the ground to support a million people.  Ranchers in the Big Chino have for decades pumped as much water as is going to go through the new pipeline, and it has yet to make a dent in the acquifer out in that area.

The so called "environmentalists" have never taken the time outdoors in the environment to see for themselves where the water comes from.  As someone who has hiked the Verde watershed for more than fifty years, I have. 

David Palmer

Prescott attorney, Prescott native, avid outdoorsman, and rafter of the Verde River for the past eighteen years in a row.

Apr 28, 2008 06:35 PM

hi i dont like your paper becuz its long to read and i dont read i am in 1st grade and really bad at reading so can you plz make it smaller for me thank you