The Verde River is a perennial gem in Arizona’s desert backdrop. From its headwaters in the Chino Valley to its confluence with the Salt River, the Verde sustains life in the Valley as it has for centuries. The Verde is a vital resource to communities in central Arizona: it provides water, unique habitats for wildlife, and recreation and economic opportunities. Not to mention the fact that the Verde is an objectively beautiful river. For these reasons, the Verde deserves our protection. Friends of the Verde River and The Nature Conservancy are working to develop the first ever Verde River Watershed Report Card. This report card will help to restore habitats in the Verde Valley, sustain flows, and promote community stewardship in the region.
We began the process of creating this report card nearly a year ago with the ” rel=”noreferrer noopener” aria-label=”first stakeholder workshop”>first stakeholder workshop in Cottonwood, AZ. Since then it has been a busy year facilitating workshops, developing indicators, and drafting the report card document. Indicators for this report card are divided into three categories: Water, Habitats, and Communities. Assessing metrics in these three categories will give us a good idea of overall Verde Watershed health. Our efforts aligned perfectly with the biennial State of the Verde Watershed Conference. Andrew and I flew to Arizona to present the draft report card scores at the conference and attend the festivities, and Bill was invited to be one of the keynote speakers and share his thoughts about report cards and the progress of this project.
The conference began with warm welcomes from Chip Norton, Friends Board President, and Jane Russell-Winiecki, past Chairwoman, Yavapai-Apache Nation. Jane’s talk was particularly enlightening. As one of the few Verde-born residents in the room (there were 120+ people present) she has had the opportunity to see first-hand how the Verde Valley has changed over the decades. Jane brought with her and shared traditional items that her ancestors had crafted from materials in the Verde, such as water jugs and baby swaddles. Her talk was a rare peek into life in the Verde Valley that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience.
Following the welcomes and keynotes, the conference hall was
divided in half. Attendees split between the two rooms for concurrent Focus
Sessions on indicator results in each of the three categories. I decided to
attend the sessions with the Communities indicators (Recreation, Vitality, and Engagement).
Over the past year as we’ve been developing these communities’ indicators, it
has become evident that there isn’t always a clear metric or threshold for
assessing community health in a watershed in the way we want there to be. So, I
was eager to hear ideas from the audience of how to modify or expand our
existing communities’ indicators.
Indicators in the Recreation category include Trails, Visitor
Satisfaction, and Recreation Planning. The preliminary scores for this section
of the report card are pretty good overall. All three indicators scored either
“good” or “very good”, and together averaged to a score of 79%. There was
general consensus among the crowd that these are three good metrics for the
recreation indicator, although questions were raised about how to calculate the
Trails metric. The current calculation for the Trails indicator does not
account for the condition of trails, or capacity of trailheads in the region. There
are many nuances to assessing trails in the watershed that should be considered.
Therefore, this indicator will be revised before releasing the final report
card next year.
Indicators in the Vitality category include Affordable Housing,
Unemployment, Education (high school graduation rate), and Healthcare Coverage.
The initial average of these four indicators is 68%. Overall, people in the
room seemed to agree that these were good indicators for assessing the economy
of the region. While evaluating the health of the economy in the region isn’t
directly linked to the Verde River, it is crucial to support communities in the
Verde because healthy communities will help conserve the river. Additionally,
we do not want to conserve habitats in the Verde at the detriment to community
health in the region.
Determining indicators for the Engagement category proved
especially difficult. Eventually we were able to parse out two indicators:
Digital Engagement and Civic Engagement. These indicators have earned a
preliminary combined score of 59%. Both engagement indicators make use of
search terms unique to the regions of the Verde Watershed; the Digital
Engagement indicator sources data from Google Trends, while the Civic
Engagement indicator evaluates the same search terms in the meeting minutes
from governing bodies in the region. The participants in this Focus Session had
some suggestions for other indicators to evaluate engagement in the Verde
Valley: public access to the river, views and vistas, social media (Twitter,
Facebook, etc.), partner engagement among organizations, and newspaper
The conference concluded the following day with a few short,
inspirational talks from other members of the Verde community, and, of course,
a song presentation from Bill (called, “It’s still flowing”). Attendees left in
good spirits and the report card team left with a clear path forward (and a lot
of work to do!). The Verde River Watershed Report Card is on track for a
release in early 2020. Stay tuned!
In addition to reviewing the draft report card scores, and meeting the incredible people in the Verde Valley that are devoted to protecting the watershed, we had the opportunity to do an over-flight of the Verde Valley with the conservation group LightHawk. Through charitable donations and volunteer hours, LightHawk is able to help conserve landscapes “through the powerful perspective of flight”. The morning before the conference, our small fleet lined the Cottonwood Municipal Airport airstrip. Bill, Nancy Steel of Friends of the Verde River, and I were strapped-in to a Piper PA34-200T. Our pilot flew us along a steady course from Cottonwood, to the headwaters of the Verde north of Paulden. We turned and followed along the Red Rocks of Sedona and yellow Cottonwood trees along Oak Creek. Turning again, we passed over the famous Verde wine trail. Finally, we looped back toward Cottonwood and descended smoothly back to the airstrip. Props to our pilot, Martin! For such a small plane, it was a pleasantly smooth flight. We flew on a perfectly clear day, which is not uncommon in Arizona, but which allowed for some incredible photos of the landscape below.
The enthusiasm and efforts of the
people in the Verde Valley is truly inspiring. Regardless of the final report
card results, I’m sure that bringing together those that are passionate about
conserving the Verde will produce positive change in the region.
Friends of the Verde River: https://verderiver.org/
The Nature Conservancy: http://azconservation.org/
Verde River Watershed Report Card: /projects/development-of-the-verde-river-watershed-report-card/
State of the Verde Watershed conference: http://www.cvent.com/events/the-state-of-the-verde-watershed-conference/event-summary-e86061f2f648431284a92337e3a925f7.aspx?dvce=1
Yavapai-Apache Nation: https://yavapai-apache.org/
Photo credits: All photos taken by Emily Nastase