Verde River & Del Rio Springs

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Why is the Verde River so special? Where is it?

Of Arizona’s six major perennial rivers, the Verde River is the longest surviving living river remaining in the state.

Users in seven western states and Mexico wholly consume the Colorado River, which no longer flows to the Sea of Cortez. The Colorado River Delta, once the largest wetland in North America, is now a dry and cracked mudflat. The Gila River no longer flows into the Colorado - the water has been consumed by Arizona agriculture and cities. The formerly perennial Santa Cruz River is now a dry wash deeply incised into the desert, desiccated by groundwater pumping for agriculture and Tucson area cities. The San Pedro River is wet for less than half its length; groundwater pumping in Cochise County will completely dry the river within the century. The lower Salt River is dammed and diverted to serve water to metropolitan Phoenix.

Surface water diversions, groundwater pumping, and development have consumed Arizona’s major rivers. Uniquely, only the Verde River survives as a perennial living river with natural flood flows, a flood plain, and a lush riparian habitat.

The upper Verde River, one of the best native fish habitats in the Southwest, supports a number of imperiled species protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It is designated Critical Habitat for the endangered loach minnow, spikedace, and razorback sucker. Other rare fish present in the upper Verde, all species of concern, include the speckled dace, longfin dace, desert sucker, and Sonora sucker. Roundtail chub is a candidate for ESA listing. The Arizona cliffrose, Mexican garter snake, and narrowheaded garter snake are also ESA listed and protected species. Of approximately 68 pairs of desert-nesting bald eagles breeding in Arizona, most of the nests are along the Verde River, including one at Del Rio Springs. The eagles ESA status is in litigation. The Verde watershed, one of the most biologically rich and diverse areas in Arizona, supports 446 vertebrate species, including 270 breeding bird species plus 176 reptile and mammal species.

The base flow of the upper Verde River is critically dependent on Verde Springs, which is the only water source for the upper 25 miles of high quality riparian habitat. The upper Verde River is one of the most ecologically important areas in the Southwest, and it is now threatened by the same forces that have destroyed five of Arizona’s perennial rivers.

The Verde River supplies about 40% of the water supply delivered by Salt River Project to metropolitan Phoenix.

The upper Verde is a treasure trove of cultural history dating from archaic times to the early 20th century. Between Paulden and Clarkdale, there are at least 72 known archaeological sites located and identified to qualify for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Most of these sites are undocumented and many more sites remain undiscovered.

In the Verde Valley, the Verde River is part of the regional identity and economy. The economic impact of a flowing Verde River is significant. Surface and groundwater from the Verde River supports a $35M agricultural industry, $87.5M (plus $16M in multiplier effects) in recreation and tourism, and 700 jobs for a total economic value of over $150M. Non-quantifiable values include aesthetics, recreational opportunities, and wildlife.

See the CWAG Op-Ed “Ten Reasons to Protect the Verde”

Why is Del Rio Springs so special?

Del Rio Springs is the historical headwaters of the Verde River.

Del Rio Springs is an icon of Arizona history. In 1863, Camp Whipple was established at Del Rio, serving as the first Territorial Capitol until moving to Prescott in 1864. Homesteaders farmed Del Rio until it was purchased by the City of Prescott in 1900 as a municipal water supply. Prescott pumped spring water 20 miles to town, ending in 1910.

Water from Del Rio Springs supported the development of Northern Arizona. For decades the Santa Fe Railroad hauled tank cars of Del Rio water to Seligman, Ash Fork, Williams, Winslow, and the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Del Rio hay and grain fed the dude and working stock in the Grand Canyon and supplied winter pasture into the 1950s. Dairy products from Del Rio Ranch fed Fred Harvey’s tourist enterprises along the Santa Fe rail line from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Del Rio Springs is rich in wildlife. During the 2011 and 2012 breeding seasons, a pair of desert nesting bald eagles successfully raised three chicks in a tall cottonwood tree nurtured by the springs. Neighboring cottonwoods support perhaps a dozen nests - a regional great blue heron breeding area. Many owls and other raptors nest nearby. Ecologists have found unique, endemic dragonflies at the springs.

Why is Del Rio Springs drying up?

Groundwater underlying the Little Chino Valley moves through aquifers in a general northward direction toward Chino Valley and Del Rio Springs. Municipalities and homeowners in western Yavapai County pump groundwater from the Little Chino Sub-basin, up gradient from Del Rio Springs, thus intercepting water naturally destined for the springs and the Verde River. Groundwater levels in Chino Valley have fallen significantly, so the cienega known as Del Rio Springs is now diminished.

Del Rio Springs now produces only a tenth of its predevelopment flow, and ADWR groundwater models predict zero flow by 2025. Historically, Del Rio Springs filled 4 miles of Little Chino Creek before joining Big Chino Wash to form the headwaters of the Verde River. That perennial riparian habitat is now gone, destroyed by groundwater mining.

The drying of Del Rio Springs is a direct result of two decades of overdrafting the Little Chino Sub-basin, thus diminishing its 10-14% contribution to the Verde River base flow.

The drying of Del Rio Springs by groundwater mining is a glimpse into the future of the upper Verde River. Planned groundwater mining projects in the Big Chino Valley will intercept groundwater destined for Verde Springs, directly analogous to the slowly developing disaster at Del Rio Springs.


  • "Ranchers need clean water for their stock, farmers need it for their crops, every employer needs it to stay in business, and every living thing needs it for life... The law needs to be clear to protect water quality and the rights of landowners."
    Mark Udall
  • "Water is the driver of Nature."
    Leonardo da Vinci
  • "When the well is dry, we know the worth of water."
    Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1746
  • "...and since flow of information is to spirit what water is to life, we'd best think about how to keep the pipes free and unclogged."
    Raphie Frank
  • "In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference."
    Rachel Carson
  • "We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one."
    Jacques Yves Cousteau
  • "Water is life's matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water."
    Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 1937 Nobel Prize for Medicine
  • "Water is everywhere and in all living things; we cannot be separated from water. No water, no life. Period..."
    Robert Fulghum
  • "It's the water. Everything is driven by the water."
    Mike Thompson
  • "Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over."
    Mark Twain