“Where’s the River?” The goal of the event is to educate people about Arizona’s depleted waterways


The Salt River is popular for water recreation, including this spot near Granite Reef, pictured February 24, 2023. (Photo by Izabella Hernandez/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — Environmental activist Lynda Person is inviting the public to bring kayaks and water toys to an informational session called Where’s the River? near 40th Street and University Drive on Tuesday.

Spoiler alert: There won’t be much kayaking on this largely dry stretch of the Salt River south of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and west of the dam that forms Tempe Town Lake.

Person, event director for Sustainable Water Network, hopes people will see firsthand what’s happening to Arizona’s depleted waterways as the state deals with water shortages and negotiates with neighboring states that use the Colorado River.

“People don’t even remember there was a river[here],” said Person, who will host guest speakers and a scavenger hunt at the free 3-6 p.m. event on Tuesday, March 14, at 2425 S. 40th St .in Phoenix promises .

Person chose this patchy part of the Salt River to show that healthy rivers should flow year-round. The Salt River project announced for the first time since 2019 that this month it will release water from the Bartlett Dam on the Verde River that will flow into the Salt River and cause some flooding in the eastern valley. However, Person said this rare water release will not save the river in the long run.

The Sustainable Water Network, officially the Sustainable Water Workgroup, focuses on protecting Arizona’s waters through conservation, restoration and assessment. Kristen Wolfe, the Sustainable Water Network coordinator, said the event was important to “raise awareness of the lack of protection of our rivers”.

The rivers have been impacted by a combination of factors, including prolonged drought, use of surface and groundwater, and dams and reservoirs restricting flow. However, groundwater and surface water management is a major reason Arizona is seeing less water than before, event organizers said.

Since 1919, Arizona has had the Arizona Surface Water Code – now the Public Water Code – which allows any person, state or political subdivision to withdraw unclaimed water for “personal use or supply to consumers.”

This applies to Arizona’s six main rivers – the Colorado, Gila, Santa Cruz, San Pedro, Salt and Verde – which Gary Beverly of the Citizens Water Advisory Group will be speaking about at the event.

“Water is life,” said Beverly. “Without water there is no food. Without water there is no public health – and so everyone knows they need it. And right now everyone is competing to get as much as possible.”

Lynda Person is the Events Director for the Sustainable Water Network.  (Photo courtesy of Lynda Person)

Lynda Person is the Events Director for the Sustainable Water Network. (Photo by Rebecca Bloom Chapman)

Outside of six active management areas recognized under Arizona’s groundwater law, Wolfe said there are few rules and regulations about pumping.

“In recent decades, much of the development has shifted to these more rural areas,” Wolfe added.

Groundwater that doesn’t fall under Active Management Areas is primarily used by farmers for crops, Beverly said, adding that the water primarily irrigates low-value, high-water-use crops like alfalfa and cotton.

“We live in a dry region of the country. That’s how we should behave,” said Sandy Bahr, leader of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, which works with state legislatures and will attend Tuesday’s event. Bahr said good water conservation legislation is needed, but little has been done so far this legislature.

Wolfe said she supports Watershed Health Acts HB 2522 and SB 1558, which define watershed health, set standards and allow water rights to be separated in cases that would improve watershed health. Those bills have not moved forward, she said.

“It’s still important that lawmakers hear from people because lawmakers need to know that people care and that they are concerned that lawmakers haven’t done anything about it,” Bahr said. “I think that’s a really important thing – keep contacting them.”

Teal Lehto, 25 – also known as WesternWaterGirl, who has more than 54,000 followers on TikTok – will speak at the event and encourage more young people to get involved in their water future. Lehto said mainstream environmental groups and social media influencers could and should work together to raise awareness of water conservation and legislation.

“I started a water resource club on my college campus,” said Lehto of Durango, Colorado. “I’ve been trying to get involved with water ever since.”

Lehto said people could promote recreation areas to help local wildlife affected by the drought and give people a place to appreciate Arizona’s rivers.

“Recreation is a really good tool for conservation,” Lehto said. “It’s very important to get out there and really explore these ecosystems.”

Some Arizonans are responding to the drought by replacing their lawns with desert landscapes to reduce water use, since much of the city’s water use is by sprinkling or flooding outdoor lawns, Beverly said.

For those who don’t want to get rid of their lawn, Beverly said, “a better alternative would be to have them move to Wisconsin.

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