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.