The Salt River Project yesterday sent water gushing down the East Verde River — and not a moment too soon.
The spring-fed East Verde had declined to a 3 cubic-foot-per-second trickle where it crosses Cracker Jack Road, according to a brand-new, solar-powered stream monitoring station SRP installed this winter.
SRP each year pumps some 11,000 acre-feet out of the Blue Ridge Reservoir atop the Rim, runs it down to Washington Park near Whispering Pines and dumps it into the East Verde.
The water winds up in a Verde River Reservoir north of Phoenix, but along the way it rejuvenates the East Verde.
Last year, the pipeline put about 30 cubic feet per second into the fitful East Verde, transforming it from a trickle that frequently dips underground into a reliable trout stream. The Arizona Game and Fish Department stocks the East Verde with rainbow trout from East Verde Estates all the way to Washington Park and the clear, cold water of Blue Ridge dramatically improves the stream conditions and extends the fishing season by a month or more.
This year, the return of a fierce drought has left Blue Ridge at just 68 percent of its capacity, which helped delay the start of the release into the East Verde.
So far this year, Payson has gotten just 2.6 inches of rain — less than one-third of the long-term average.
At the moment, SRP can nearly empty the Blue Ridge Reservoir each summer, relying on one of the most productive watersheds in the state to refill the deep, narrow reservoir each winter. However, the fierce return of the drought this year has served notice that a long, deep drought can drain the reservoir Payson hopes will secure its water future.
Once Payson builds its $34 million Blue Ridge pipeline in the course of the next two years, it will divert about 3,000 acre-feet annually from what SRP has been releasing into the East Verde. That will still leave the East Verde with far more water than it would normally carry through the summer.
The gush of water from atop the Rim will give the East Verde one of the most reliable flows in the state, with the exception of some spring-fed workhorses like Fossil Creek and Oak Creek.
Other streams are already suffering.
For instance, the Salt River flowing into Roosevelt Lake this week was carrying 288 cubic feet per second, about one-third of its normal flow.
Tonto Creek at its junction with Roosevelt Lake had just 8 csf, less than a quarter of its normal flow.
Roosevelt Lake itself has dwindled to about 65 percent of its enormous capacity. Two years ago, it was filled to overflowing by the spring runoff. Fortunately, SRP’s reservoirs on the Verde River remain closer to 85 percent of their capacity, so overall the reservoirs that sustain Phoenix are still 70 percent full.