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Two Arizona Vineyards Give Back to a River through a Voluntary Water Exchange

Oak Creek in flood, upstream of its confluence with the Verde River. The first pilot project of the Verde River Exchange will benefit Oak Creek. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Gibbon.
Oak Creek in flood, upstream of its confluence with Arizona’s Verde River. The first pilot project of the Verde River Exchange will benefit Oak Creek. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Gibbon.

In an effort to stem the depletion of groundwater and keep Arizona’s prized Verde River flowing, two vineyards are buying water credits through a new exchange designed to balance the basin’s water use for the good of the river and the local economy.

Launched last week by the not-for-profit Friends of Verde River Greenway, the Verde River Exchange connects residents and businesses in the valley willing to temporarily reduce their water use with others seeking to offset the impacts of their groundwater pumping. As in many basins, groundwater helps sustain flows in the Verde, so the exchange is focused on motivating groundwater users to balance their withdrawals.

In the first pilot, a local family agreed to forego the irrigation of a small pasture for one year, generating water credits that will partially offset the use of groundwater by Merkin Vineyards and Page Springs Vineyards. The two vineyards, in turn, will purchase the water credits, providing revenue that can be used to compensate the local family.

It’s a novel approach to motivating river protection, and it remains to be seen how much voluntary action the exchange generates. But it provides a vehicle for those wanting to do their part to sustain a healthy river in their backyard.

“There are few tools for communities to manage (their water) use,” said Chip Norton, president of Friends of Verde River Greenway, “and so we believe the Verde River Exchange is launching at an opportune time.”

The over-pumping of groundwater, which is depleting crucial water reserves and drying up rivers across the United States and much of the world, is a vexing problem. Especially where laws or norms allow private landowners to pump as much water as they want from beneath their land, the threat of groundwater depletion can be difficult to pare back.

The Verde River, a stunning ribbon of green that winds 195 miles from spring-fed headwaters north of Prescott to the greater Phoenix area, is one of Arizona’s few remaining healthy river systems. An avian paradise, the Verde and its forested corridor provide habitat for more than two hundred and twenty species of birds, and help sustain muskrats, river otters and ninety other mammals.

While Arizona is often praised in water circles for its pioneering 1980 groundwater act, the law only applies to five “active management areas,” including Tucson and Phoenix. Groundwater pumping in regions outside of those designated areas, including the Verde Valley, remains more or less unrestricted.

“The exchange is something new,” said Jocelyn Gibbon, lead coordinator of the exchange and principal of Freshwater Policy Consulting, based in Flagstaff, Arizona. “We don’t know anywhere else it’s being done quite this way on a voluntary basis.”

In setting up the pilot project for the exchange, the team perceived the two vineyard owners as likely to care about the long-term health of the river and the long-term prospects for the community, Gibbon explained. “We thought they might be willing to step up and say, ‘We’ll help you do this.’ To our great excitement, both of them said yes.”

Arizona's Verde Valley is home to a growing wine industry. Two prominent local vineyards have purchased the first "water offset credits" from the new Verde River Exchange. Photo courtesy of Felice+Whitney.
Arizona’s Verde Valley is home to a growing wine industry. Two prominent local vineyards have purchased the first “water offset credits” from the new Verde River Exchange. Photo courtesy of Felice+Whitney.

Page Springs Cellars and Vineyards overlooks Oak Creek, a beautiful tributary of the Verde known for the canyon it carved outside of Sedona, a popular tourist town amidst stunning red rocks. It is Oak Creek that will benefit from this first transaction of the exchange.

Both Page Springs and Merkin Vineyards use highly efficient drip systems to irrigate the grapes for their wines, so the two are no strangers to water stewardship. The exchange enables them to go above and beyond efficient water use and give some water back to the river.

Together the two vineyards’ purchase of water credits this year will offset the impact of irrigating about nine acres of their grapes.

“Not only will it (the pilot) have an impact on the river, but also on what people think is possible,” Gibbon said. “The Verde Valley is changing and increasingly people are appreciating the river as an asset in many ways. It would be really exciting if people saw (the exchange) as a tool and something of a cultural norm.”

Three years in the making, the exchange includes among its funders and partners, The Nature Conservancy of Arizona, the Walton Family Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF), as well as Friends of Verde River Greenway.

“I think it’s a critical pilot that others can look at, understand, and consider replicating (or creating enabling conditions for) in other places, says Todd Reeve, CEO of BEF and creator of the Water Restoration Credit now used widely by water users throughout the western United States to balance their water footprints.

As water pressures intensify with population and economic growth, creative solutions like the Verde River Exchange offer some honest hope that we can actually have healthy rivers side-by-side with healthy economies.

It’s an aspiration worth toasting over a nice glass of wine.

 

[Disclosure: Todd Reeve and I co-created the water restoration initiative called Change the Course, which has partnered on a number of projects in the Verde Valley, including this pilot project of the exchange.]

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater initiative that has restored billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. She is working on a book about repairing and replenishing the water cycle.