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Know the West

Trouble for more than one Arizona river


Thanks for spreading the news of growing threats to the San Pedro ("Standoff on the San Pedro," HCN, 2/18/13). However, the San Pedro is not "the Southwest's last free-flowing major desert river."

In fact, the Verde River is the longest surviving living river in Arizona. A much larger river, it supports a healthy riparian habitat for over 150 miles from its headwaters near Paulden to Horseshoe Dam. More than 100 miles of that riparian habitat is essentially pristine -- supporting 446 vertebrate species -- and is one of the best native fisheries in Arizona. Although the Verde is perennial for its full length and its riparian habitat is healthy for now, its future is deeply threatened by the same force that has dewatered and destroyed the lower Salt, Santa Cruz and Gila rivers, and now threatens the San Pedro: groundwater mining.

The San Pedro is much closer to destruction than the Verde because it is much smaller, more delicate and the groundwater mining threats are closer to the river. The Nature Conservancy found in June 2012 that only 29 percent of the San Pedro was wet -- hardly "free-flowing."

The article portrays the Arizona Department of Water Resources as a tool of evil developers. But the real story is that Arizona water law constrains the agency's decisions. Arizona water law was designed to manage the depletion of an irreplaceable resource in the service of development -- not to protect water-dependent natural resources. Of course, the wacky Arizona Legislature shares the blame for inadequately funding the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and for consistently weakening the already flaccid water laws that are on the books.

I'm not trying to start a silly debate that "my river is better than yours." Both the San Pedro and the Verde are amazing ecological resources. Both rivers need protection, and both are deeply threatened by Arizona water law. That is the point that needs to be made in every discussion and article about these rivers. Unless we improve Arizona water law, we will lose both the San Pedro and the Verde.

Gary Beverly
Chino Valley, Arizona

Editor's Note: The San Pedro was described as the "last free-flowing major desert river" to indicate that it is undammed. The Verde River has two dams.