Payson Must Take Lead To Protect East Verde River

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Time to take the plunge. Time for Payson to take the lead in saving the East Verde River. In the process, the town will also help save the tourist economy on which we all depend.

So we hope town officials will take note of the joint effort by the Payson Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Arizona Game and Fish Department to figure out ways to dramatically improve the fishing on the East Verde — and in the process make it a much bigger lure for tourists, hikers, campers and swimmers.

A recent study on what it would take to rehab the stream underscores both the opportunities — and the challenges.

Trout Unlimited raised money to help Game and Fish finance the study, which offered cause for both hope and fear.

For starters, the East Verde has tremendous potential, thanks in part to the release of some about 11,000 acre-feet of Blue Ridge water annually into the stream by the Salt River Project. That total will drop once Payson starts taking its 3,000 acre-feet annually through the Blue Ridge pipeline. Even so, the clear, clean Blue Ridge water ensures good flows all summer long in a spring-fed stream that has in the past fluctuated wildly.

We believe that the East Verde can serve as Payson’s Oak Creek — a reliable stream running close by town that can attract visitors from the sun-seared Valley, the wellspring of our tourist-dependent economy.

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The Trout Unlimited report documents the modestly priced improvements needed to create a string of deep, shaded pools, overhung banks and cover that trout and other fish need. Stream designers can ensure that the channel improvements will regulate the flow of the water in such a way that they’ll effectively maintain themselves.

Similar enhancements to Tonto Creek have substantially improved the fishing there.

But the report also raised some scary red flags — mostly in documenting the dismaying effects of the 800-acre Water Wheel Fire in 2009. The fire scorched slopes choked with brush. Because we’ve halted the natural course of fires for the past century, the once fire-adapted chaparral burned so intensely that the fire left the slopes denuded.

As a consequence, mud and debris flows off the naked hillsides have filled the pools and riffles with mud and silt in a long, middle stretch of the river.

The effects of that one, relatively small fire graphically demonstrate the enormous stake that Payson and other Rim communities have in working with the U.S. Forest Service and Game and Fish to protect our precious riparian areas. With anglers generating $1.2 billion in economic activity annually in Arizona, places like the East Verde can help drive our economy — but only if we protect and nurture them.

Fortunately, Payson in the next two years will spend millions to build the Blue Ridge pipeline along Houston Mesa Road — which includes three river crossings. We hope it’s not too late for Trout Unlimited and Game and Fish to team up with Payson to make the needed improvements as efficiently as possible, while all the heavy equipment needed is already working in the river corridor.

Gila County’s partnership with the federal government to build new river crossings in the next five years presents another marvelous opportunity.

The region’s future depends critically on outdoor recreation — and the health of the riparian areas that attracted so many of us here in the first place. That means making the kinds of improvements Trout Unlimited has advocated as well as working with the Forest Service to make sure careless, unregulated campers don’t start another fire that could ruin the East Verde for generations.

Everyone involved has been testing the waters for years. But it’s time now to take the plunge.

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