Modest changes in the upper portions of the East Verde River could transform it into a great trout stream — but mud washing into the middle reaches of the stream because of the 2009 Wagon Wheel Fire will make life tough on fish for years to come, according to a recently completed study.
The local chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Arizona Game and Fish Department teamed up to finance the study to determine whether boulders, logs, check dams and other modifications could create
the riffles, shaded undercut banks and deep pools with places to hide that constitute a trout-friendly stream — or other native fish for that matter.
The Rim Country Trout Unlimited Chapter will hold a fund-raiser during Payson’s Wildlife Fair in Green Valley Park in May to raise money to contribute to Game and Fish to actually carry out the work recommended by the consultants.
Game and Fish and the local fishing group hope the study and an environmental assessment now under way will eventually make it possible to overhaul stretches of the stream on the outskirts of Payson to dramatically improve the fishing — and therefore the stream’s appeal to visitors, campers, hikers and tourists. Studies by the Arizona Game and Fish Department suggest that fishing generates $1.2 billion annually in economic activity in the state. The Payson Walmart sells more fishing licenses than almost any other outlet in the state.
Game and Fish recently completed a similar overhaul of Tonto Creek, which used logs, boulders and stream engineering to repair the damage done in the past by mudflows and floods and improve the fishing opportunities.
The East Verde starts with a series of springs under the Rim above Washington Park, runs from Whispering Pines, past Beaver Valley, through Flowing Springs, under the Highway 260 four miles northwest of Payson, on down through East Verde Estates and then into rugged canyons to Doll Baby Ranch. From there, it flows through even deeper and more remote canyons to the Verde River. Currently, the Salt River Project augments the natural, often-fitful flows of the East Verde with 11,000 acre-feet from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.
Advocates for the project say Payson will have heavy equipment operating along the stream for the next two years as it builds the Blue Ridge pipeline, which will include work on the three existing low-water crossings. In addition, Gila County hopes to use state and federal funding to build bridged crossings in the next several years. All that provides opportunities to make changes that will improve flow and create a haven for fish and people.
However, the design study by Flagstaff consultants Natural Channel Design also reveals the lasting impact wildfires can have on streams. The Water Wheel Fire started adjacent to an informal camping area just past the bridged crossing of the East Verde on Houston Mesa Road near Beaver Valley. Fortunate wind shifts saved Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines and limited the fire to about 800 acres. However, the fire burned so intensely that after three years little vegetation has returned. As a result, every rain sends mud and debris sluicing into the East Verde.
“Pools between Water Wheel Day Use Area and the bridge at First Crossing are filled with two to three feet of sand and small gravel,” the consultants reported. “Until the sediment supply from the fire is diminished, there is little chance of improving habitat in this reach.”
Fortunately, the strategic placement of boulders, rock barriers and logs together with efforts to channel stream flow to keep sediment from filling in pools could improve the shelter for fish and the appeal for hikers, fishermen, swimmers and campers.
The consultants came up with rough cost estimates for each stretch of the river.
This 1.5-mile-long stretch of the stream runs from the Washington Park Campground up to the first of the springs that feeds the river. The stream here lies above the spot where SRP adds the Blue Ridge water. It’s steep — with a 4 percent slope — and has more year-round wild fish. The consultants targeted a half-mile stretch for improvements with boulders and logs to create pools and cover and channel the current to keep sediment from filling in the existing fishing holes. The work would involve another $10,000 for design and up to $75,000 to complete.
Below Third Crossing
This stretch of the stream lies downstream from the third low-water crossing on Houston Mesa Road, which has lots of day use and camping sites all along the way. The concrete low water crossing slows the water, creates a wide shallow pool that catches a lot of sediment and changes the dynamics of the stream. The consultants considered the stretch “problematic” when it comes to alterations, which they guessed would cost $25,000 to design and up to $150,000 to construct.
Above Second Crossing
The stretch of stream just above the second low-water crossing on Houston Mesa Road offers easy access from picnicking and day-use areas and is stocked with fish all summer. The channel here is wide relative to its depth, which limits shelter for fish. A portion of this stretch gets runoff from areas burned in the Water Wheel Fire. The channel has some pockets of shaded stream with good fish cover, but continues to get wider and shallower.
Water Wheel Day Use Reach
This stretch extends upstream from the bridge at First Crossing on Houston Mesa Road to the Water Wheel Day Use Area. The stream has healthy, intact riparian trees and brush and good cover for native species, but suffers now from mud and debris eroding from the burned area. Most of that sediment enters the stream from a single tributary that crosses Houston Mesa Road. “Several pools above the bridge at First Crossing are completely filled with sediment and the effects of fine sediment are seen to Highway 87.”
Private lands to SR 87
This stretch extends from Highway 87 along Flowing Springs Road to a chunk of private land that blocks easy access to the areas upstream. The stretch includes one low-water crossing and many camping and picnic areas. The stretch has several large, deep pools, lots of streamside trees and other features beloved by fish and fishermen alike. However, heavy foot traffic and eroding hillsides continue to put sediment into the stream and stretches of cattails and other plants collect the mud. The consultants recommended various measures to reduce erosion. They put the costs at up to $40,000.