Verde River, grasslands projects get huge boost with federal grants

Joanna Dodder Nellans The Daily Courier
February 2nd, 2015
Yavapai County is one of the largest beneficiaries of a new U.S. farm bill program that emphasizes landscape-scale projects to improve everything from water supplies to wildlife habitat.
The new Regional Conservation Partnership Program appropriated $372.5 million through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, and partners are providing another $400 million in matching dollars.
Arizona got three of the approximately 100 grants this month, and two are focused in Yavapai County.
The Verde River Flow and Habitat Restoration Initiative was awarded $2.8 million to increase Middle Verde River flows through improvements in irrigation practices and removal of thirsty non-native plants such as tamarisk. The project is led by The Nature Conservancy, and local partners will match the grant with another $2.8 million.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department and its partners got $1.5 million for the Central Arizona Grassland Restoration and Watershed Partnership Program that aims to restore grasslands for pronghorn and other species. Its three partners include the Upper Verde River Watershed Protection Coalition, and they also will match that grant (please see related story).
"This is a big day for conservation," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said when he announced the grants during a trip to Arizona this month. He cited the Verde River project as a great example and later flew over the river.
Verde River Initiative
The Verde River Initiative received the largest federal grant to ever benefit the river, said Kim Schonek, Verde River project manager for The Nature Conservancy.
"We need to act on a scale large enough to make a difference," said Patrick Graham, state director of The Nature Conservancy.
The Nature Conservancy already has proven the direct benefits of improving irrigation practices in the Verde Valley over the past five years. Its work has increased the flow of 20 miles of the river by an estimated 10 cubic feet per second, Schonek said.
Now with the help of the grant, the conservation group hopes to double that accomplishment.
"This award will build on investments and collaborative efforts by conservation, community and agricultural interests along the river," Schonek said.
The partners plan to accomplish their goal by improving irrigation practices on 1,000 acres, removing non-native plants on 6,000 acres along the river, and protecting 400 acres of agricultural lands through conservation easements over a five-year time period.
Sometimes the Verde Valley ditch associations that serve a multitude of local water users on 6,000 acres remove all of the river water and redirect it into their ditch diversion canals.
With the help of previous smaller grants, The Nature Conservancy has provided ditch groups with solar-powered automated head gates that monitor and adjust the flow of water to provide only what the users need.
Farmers such as Kevin Hauser in Camp Verde say it works great.
"We really like the regulated flow," Hauser said. "This system provides more pressure and the gates are automated so we can make adjustments remotely."
The automated head gates also save the ditch association time, and they get paid for the water they save. 
The project helps pay the costs of lining ditches to reduce water loss, too. In the future, the Conservancy hopes to help farmers convert from flood irrigation to drip irrigation.
"We're conserving water, leaving more for the river, while still using the water we need to make a living in agriculture," Kevin Hauser's son Zach said.
Other partners include the Verde Natural Resource Conservation District, Friends of the Verde River Greenway, Arizona Game and Fish Department, and the Tamarisk Coalition.

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