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River Education: Learn About the Verde River Region

by | Jul 6, 2022

When Arizona was still a territory, leaders were considering locations for the territorial capitol.

One site under consideration was near the confluence of the Verde and Salt rivers. According to Bob Mason’s book, Verde Valley Lore, early territorial leaders intended to establish a capitol city near the confluence of the two rivers. The Arizona Territory did not yet have a capitol, but Tucson and Prescott were vying for the title. The area near what is now Fountain Hills and Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation was thought to be a more neutral site for the capitol. It would be called Azatlan.

The legislature had written language leaning toward making Prescott the Territorial Capitol, but wrote, according to Mason’s book, “to a point within ten miles of the junction of the Rio Verde with the Salado….and that said permanent seat of the government shall be called Azatlan.”

The bill was defeated, but had other things not occurred, the history of the confluence would have been vastly different, Mason wrote.

The Verde River continues to be an important part of this region, even if it never held the territory or state capitol city. It is estimated that several thousand people lived in the area between 1100 and 1350 AD.

The river’s headwaters are north of Prescott, near Paulden. The river flows from springs below Sullivan Dam. According to the “Friends of the Verde River” website, groundwater pumping caused the flow of the springs to decline to a trickle in the 1970s. The first few miles of the Verde River today may face a similar fate as groundwater continues to be pumped in the upper river valley.

More than 1,700 acres of the upper Verde River have been designated as the Upper Verde River Wildlife Area. Much of the river’s recreation area is located in the northern part of the waterway, but in the Lower Verde River, Needle Rock Recreation Area is proximate to metropolitan Phoenix, giving residents a spot to escape the heat. Located downstream from Bartlett Dam, the river flow at Needle Rock is controlled and always cold.

Needle Rock is located some 18 miles north of Fountain Hills through Rio Verde. Take Rio Verde Drive north. Signs indicate the location. A Tonto Pass is required to enter Needle Rock. Passes can be purchased at a kiosk at the entrance to the area or at any gas station, or Safeway in Fountain Hills.

The Verde River

The Verde River watershed is home to Arizona’s only two federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers: the Verde River and its tributary Fossil Creek. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects 40.5 miles of the Verde River and 16.8 miles of Fossil Creek, designated in different years, according to the Friends of the Verde River website.

The Verde River flows freely for 140 miles before coming to Horseshoe and Bartlett reservoirs. The first lake on the lower Verde River was formed with the completion of Bartlett Dam in 1939. Horseshoe Reservoir was created seven years later to expand copper mining during World War II.

A four-year study is underway to offset the declining capacity of Horseshoe Reservoir by raising the height of the Bartlett Dam, according to a May 20, 2022, article in Arizona Capitol Times. (“Cost of increasing water storage on the Verde $1B” by Kyra Haas). The Salt River Project and 20 partners are working with the federal Bureau of Reclamation on the effort.

The article continues, “If the dam were raised by 97 feet, that would increase its capacity to 628,000-acre feet from its current 178,186-acre feet. The increase would provide enough room to store the existing and restored water from Horseshoe Reservoir and the current amount of water stored in the Bartlett Reservoir. …”

The importance of the Verde River to this area cannot be stressed enough. The River of Time is dedicated to ensuring the river continues to flow freely from its headwaters to the end so it can provide the precious resource to Arizona and its people.