A gush of water and a rush of plans could soon transform the East Verde River and bring more visitors to the Rim Country.
The Forest Service plans to put parking lots and toilets at four sites along the East Verde River, turning it into a day use and fishing paradise including facilities at the now-closed Water Wheel.
Perhaps by October, the Tonto National Forest will put toilets and parking lots in at First, Second and Third crossings, plus Water Wheel, which has been closed since last fall’s fire there.
Payson District Head Ranger Ed Armenta said a $5-$10 per-car usage fee will provide the money to maintain and patrol the facilities and the river.
“We’re moving forward — we’ve got monies for the rest rooms and paving. We won’t allow camping within a quarter mile of the river, which has really gotten to be a sanitation issue.”
Uncontrolled camping along the East Verde has upset many local residents, who blame campers for the spark that touched off the Water Wheel Fire last year, which forced the evacuation of Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines and spared houses mostly as a result of a fluke of the wind.
As it happens, the Salt River Project has also started releasing water from the Blue Ridge pipeline into the East Verde River, about 30 cubic feet per second, which has returned the creek to the peak flows of the spring runoff.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said improvements will both protect the river and increase use — while SRP’s plan to release an extra 11,000 acre-feet into the river each year will soon turn it into a world-class trout stream.
Moreover, day use facilities at the East Verde will give Payson another tourist draw, along with the town’s recent efforts to adopt the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.
“We’re becoming a destination town, as opposed to a pass-through town,” said Evans. “We want people to come to us because it’s their destination, not somewhere they just stop on the way through.”
The town has also earmarked about $500,000 for additional improvements along the river from a $10.5-million federal grant and loan package to build the Blue Ridge pipeline.
SRP wants to use the East Verde to deliver its own share of the Blue Ridge water. That water flows down the East Verde, into the main stem of the Verde River and then down into SRP’s Horseshoe Reservoir near Phoenix.
Evans said that SRP opened up the spigots on the pipeline at Washington Park last week, sending a flush of water down the river. The water rushed down the creek in certain stretches, but then disappeared into hidden, but extensive underground caverns and fractures as it worked its way downstream.
“It was really interesting to watch,” said Evans. “You’d have spots along the river where it was running like a Banshee, then 600 yards downstream the river was its normal self, because it’s refilling these underground aquifers. It takes about two weeks to work its way downstream.”
The high flows should last through October, when SRP will again shut off the flow to begin work on the last six sections of old pipe that need to be replaced between the C.C. Craigin Blue Ridge Reservoir and Washington Park.
Evans said that the Forest Service had found money for the immediate recreation improvements in its budget, so the $500,000 earmarked by the town from the federal funds can underwrite future improvements.
Head Ranger Armenta said that in surveys about the proposed improvements, the Forest Service got “overwhelming public support.”
Planners had considered drawing up plans with barriers and riffles to create better trout habitat. But when they studied the flood flows the little creek can deliver, they backed off those initial plans to “renovate” the streambed.
“We’ll see how it goes with the pipeline and the increased flows and paving some of those sites and with not allowing camping in the corridor,” said Armenta.
Evans said that the East Verde could become connected with Payson in the tourist mind the way that Oak Creek defines Sedona.
“I think you’ll see the East Verde turn into literally a world-class fishery,” said Evans.