Fossil Creek

Fishing in Fossil Creek is big business for Gila County, with rivers and streams bringing in millions each year.

Go sit by a stream and consider this: Water-based recreation lures 170,000 folks into the out-of-doors every year in Gila County. Make a note: Gila County only has 52,000 residents.

Impressed yet?

How about this: Water-based recreation generates 3,400 jobs in Gila County and has an economic impact of $387 million annually. Mostly people like to picnic, fish, hike and watch birds and wildlife. A study released by Audubon Arizona included both streams and lakes, including the massive Roosevelt Lake in the Tonto Basin.

People like to do all sorts of things along the shores of lakes and streams. Among the 169,000 people in Gila County, 52 percent said they like to just picnic and relax, 38 percent said they go to watch wildlife, 27 percent said they like to fish.

Spending by visitors to riparian areas in Gila County generates $23 million in local tax revenue and $29 million in federal tax revenue. Ironically, the study comes in the midst of a federal effort to roll back environmental protections for the sometimes-dry tributaries like Pine Creek that feed into the state’s network of riparian areas.

These mind blowing figures come from a statewide study released last week. The study tallied up the impact of waterways on recreation in Arizona, with funding by the Audubon Society, the Arizona Department of Tourism and a host of other partners.

Statewide, water-based recreation supports a $13.5 billion industry and 114,000 jobs, according to the study prepared by the economic research firm Southwick Associates. The state’s waterways attract 1.5 million visitors annually, whose spending generates $1.8 billion in tax revenue. This exceeds the economic impact of the mining industry to the state’s economy.

The study offered counties, cities and the state fresh incentive to not only tap into the flow of dollars down riparian areas like Tonto Creek and the East Verde River, but to protect those beleaguered resources.

Previous studies demonstrated that some 80 percent of the state’s wildlife species rely on riparian areas for some critical phase of their life cycle, but account for just 2 percent of the state’s land area.

Only about 10 percent of the state’s riparian areas remain in their natural, fully functioning state. The rest have been destroyed or degraded by water diversions, dams, groundwater pumping or environmental impacts like cattle grazing. This could explain why 70 percent of endangered species in the state depend on riparian habitat, according to a report by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.

The research comes just as Payson prepares to take delivery of 3,000 acre-feet annually from the C.C. Cragin Reservoir — diverted from water that would otherwise flow down the East Verde. Payson plans to put much of that water into its underground water table. However, the town council is also considering some bold ideas that would create a leafy, tourist-friendly riparian feature along the now-dry American Gulch, which runs alongside Main Street. The proposal would create what amounts to a stream lined with hiking and running trails along Main Street, as part of the effort to recharge the underground water table.

That could offer a major tourist draw, according to the latest research.

In fact, water-based recreation already forms one of the foundations of Rim Country’s crucial tourism industry, the single biggest economic driver in the region, the researchers concluded.

“The rivers, lakes and streams of Arizona are an economic powerhouse for our state — these results prove that,” said Audubon Arizona’s Policy Manager Haley Paul. “The fate of birds and people are deeply connected. Our waterways need to be protected, not only for the vital bird, fish and wildlife habitat they provide, but also to sustain Arizona’s economy today and into the future.”

One of the major flyways for songbirds moving from the tropics to North America goes through Arizona, thanks to a network of north-south running rivers, including the Salt, the Verde, the San Pedro, the Colorado, Tonto Creek and the East Verde and their tributaries. Birds move along these corridors in the spring, relying on their shelter and resources. One study found the Verde River had the greatest density of nesting birds in North America. The East Verde River has one of the few, intact, cottonwood-willow ecosystems in the state.

Clarkdale Mayor Doug Von Gausia commented, “We have always known that the Verde River is the economic backbone of the Verde Valley. Now we can quantify that the waterways of Yavapai County contribute $1 billion in economic output and support 9,400 jobs and that protecting these special places helps our local economies and communities. I am grateful our community has this data — it will be invaluable to many across the state.”

Southwick Associates based the estimates on a 2018 survey of Arizona residents. Researchers combined those results with a 2016 survey of recreation patterns among out-of-state visitors. The study looked at nine outdoor-recreational activities that take place near water, including bicycling, camping, fishing, hunting, relaxing, snow sports, trail sports, water sports and wildlife watching.

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