Local fish lovers want to turn the East Verde River into one of the state’s great trout streams.
That would be good for the fish — and great for Rim Country’s economy to boot.
So now the Gila Chapter of Trout Unlimited has embarked on a fund-raising drive to help the Arizona Department of Game and Fish create a chain of trout-friendly pools along a spring-fed stream that’s already one of the most popular destinations in Rim Country for hikers, fishermen and just-general-splashers.
“It’s an exciting project. We want to give nature a helping hand in restoring itself,” said Game and Fish fisheries branch manager Kirk Young of the East Verde project.
The local Trout Unlimited Chapter, whose members mostly belong to the Payson Flycasters Club, has effectively adopted the East Verde River. Members several times a year lead volunteer cleanup efforts. Now, the group is raising money to help finance a master plan for the East Verde, which Game and Fish would implement.
The group hopes to replicate the success of a similar, $100,000 project that last year created a carefully considered series of fishing holes on Tonto Creek, using logs, rocks and other natural materials to create the deep pools with ample cover trout so dearly love.
Trout Unlimited held a fund-raising banquet in April 21 to raise money for stream restoration and public education programs, including its East Verde plan. In the meantime, Game and Fish has already commissioned a study of the creek to design a potential project.
The East Verde River has gained considerably in appeal for anglers since the Salt River Project overhauled its Blue Ridge pipeline to put about 11,000 acre-feet annually into the East Verde at Washington Park. The stream then runs through Whispering Pines, along Houston Mesa Road, past Flowing Springs, through East Verde Estates and all the way down to its junction with the Verde River.
The East Verde once ran reliably all year round, fed by springs and runoff from off the face of the Mogollon Rim. But in recent decades water diversions and thickets of trees have reduced the flow of springs off the face of the Rim, causing portions of the East Verde to disappear underground in the dry summer months.
Now, the Blue Ridge water has dramatically increased the flow of the East Verde during certain times of the year. Last week before SRP opened up the spigots on the pipeline, the East Verde had dwindled to about 3 cubic feet per second. The pipeline increased that flow 10-fold.
The gush of clear, cold water off the bottom of the Blue Ridge Reservoir has made the East Verde a far better trout stream through the summer months, both because it keeps the pools filled and because it lowers the water temperature.
However, like many Rim Country streams floods, fires and silt have, over time, filled in many pools and backwaters.
Crown fires like the Dude Fire more than 20 years ago did serious damage by denuding steep slopes and subjecting the soil to such intense heat it can become “hydrophobic,” which means it can’t absorb water normally. As a result, subsequent rainstorms have smothered many streams under layers of silt.
“Almost every stream on the Mogollon Rim has been affected at one time or another by fire or severe floods since the 1970s,” said Young. “Over time, we’ve seen these systems degrade. We want to go back in where we can and give nature the upper hand — like the Conservation Corps did when it went in and put structures on a lot of these streams. Many are still there.”
The East Verde has suffered from increased runoff and siltation for the past three years, ever since the Water Wheel Fire scorched brush-choked slopes on the steep hillsides above the East Verde between Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines.
The fire prompted the U.S. Forest Service to bar camping from areas along the creek, but also to provide parking and toilets for a chain of day-use areas along that stretch of the creek. Moreover, the waterfall and plunge pools near Water Wheel have long made the East Verde one of Rim Country’s most popular swimming holes.
Payson officials note that the East Verde remains one of the region’s most reliable tourist draws, with opportunities for fishing, hiking and camping just outside of town.
Now, advocates for the stream hope to dramatically improve the fishing — and therefore the draw for visitors and residents alike.
Young said the process of rehabilitating a stream has grown much more precise and scientific. That’s why Trout Unlimited and Game and Fish want to create a master plan, that will take into account the rock types, qualities of the river bed, slope of the stream and natural features to design a series of pools, riffles and other structures that suit the natural hydrology of the stream.
“You want to design it so that it meets all the life stages of the fish. For instance, riffles are very important for the productivity of certain types of insects and the fish feed on them when they wash down into the pools. In the meantime, the pools provide the fish with a refuge in the summer — a place they can hang out without exerting a lot of energy,” said Young.
“In the past two decades, we’ve started to really understand the geomorphology and hydrology of streams. So maybe the stream can only sustain two or three pools per mile, in which case we don’t want to try to stuff in 20 pools per mile. The physics and hydrology isn’t going to allow that many pools in there.”
Game and Fish will take into consideration the needs of native species. For instance, Game and Fish stocks the East Verde heavily each summer, but the stream also includes a small population of native Verde Trout, also known as chub. Moreover, Game and Fish might consider stocking native Gila Trout into the stream, as it now stocks native Apache Trout into a score of White Mountain streams and lakes.
Projects that could benefit native fish — especially in the streams upper reaches — could produce grants and broader support, noted Young.
“That’s all in play,” said Young of the mixture of species already in the stream. “Once we get to the point of having a plan in hand, we can look at all of that. It creates a win/win situation. We need to know what kind of scale we’re talking about.”
Creating a stable, productive, diverse stream with predictable flows and a varied structure will benefit fish, birds, campers and fishermen alike.
He added that the department has had strong success in other streams in negotiating agreements that can use renovations to benefit native species, while still fostering recreational uses.
“The more we can support rainbows and chub and Gila Trout, the more good things happen. It just benefits everything downstream: You have a less flash-flood vulnerable system, better riparian development, different emergent vegetation — more rushes and horsetails. Even if you’re a bird watcher, this is a neat thing to do. “