Bearing Witness: Voices of Climate Change Part III: The Changing Verde River

Jun 11, 2019

This week, we're running a series of interviews called Bearing Witness: Voices of Climate Change. They're stories told by longtime Arizonans about changes they've seen in the familiar landscapes of their lives. While personal experience, in and of itself, is not scientific conclusion, many researchers believe long-term observation is a critical component to understanding how climate change affects humanity and the planet. Doug Von Gausig is the fourth-term Mayor of Clarkdale and has spent much of his life in Yavapai County. He is also the head of the Verde River Institute, a group dedicated to ensuring the health of one of the largest perennial streams in Arizona. From the banks of the Verde, Von Gausig talks about the river he grew up with. 

Doug Von Gausig, Mayor of Clarkdale and head of the Verde River Institute
Credit KNAU/Zac Ziegler

Well, I was born in Sanford and we moved to Prescott in 1958, and I've been in Yavapai County since then . . . got a song Sparrow singing there . . . I have been a conservationist in one way or another all my life. I've been a birder, I've been hiker on the Verde River, I've been a fisher person.

The Verde River today is flowing right here where we're standing at about 69 cubic feet per second. If I were to look back at the chart of what the same stream gauge showed 10, 15, 20 years ago, we would be looking at 80 or 90 CFS. The average trajectory of the streamflow is downward. And it's pretty severely downward especially since the drought, but it was already going that way even before the drought.

The kind of plants that are now common in the Verde Valley, and especially around the river the kinds of birds that we’re seeing up here, universally they're moving up from the south. White wing doves is an example. When I was a kid there were no white-winged doves, and they seem common to everybody now around here. Javelina weren't here when I was a kid.

We had a really good year last year for rain. There was over 12 inches of rain in the Verde Valley. That used to be normal, now it was extraordinary.

The Verde River is one of our principal economic development centers. So we are attracting people that are eco-tourists. They want to see a river.  They want to see this riparian vegetation. They want to see the birds that live in it. They want to go out in kayaks, or they want to fish or they may just want to sit by a river and be peaceful. And those are uncertain futures.

People are the biggest, quickest threat to the river. Climate change is this kind of overriding whole thing with a lot of doubt and uncertainty.

The first places it would go dry because of climate change would be those places that are already heavily impacted by diversions or wells or whatever.

We had a hundred-year period in our history where there were no trees and no grass and no bushes and nothing. We had smelters operating in the Verde Valley, three at one time. Also people were cutting trees and using them for fuel. We had 100,000 cattle in the Verde Valley. They clustered around the river. They would eat whatever tried to come up. There were no trees at all.

So, when I first got here in 1958 the smelters had only closed down five years prior to that, and what we saw when we first saw the Verde River was rocky gravel and some water flowing down. It looked like a canal. As we look around us today, we see full grown cottonwoods. They're shielding and protecting a whole under story of other trees like this Arizona ash that's right here with us or this Gooding willow.

What happens with climate change is there's a mindset where ‘this is already out of control. There's nothing I can do about it. We might as well just learn to like it.’ And that's really not accurate at all.

Just downstream from us was a major farm right there. There were no trees. There were just fields, and now there is not one indication that there ever was a farm there. It heals very quickly if you allow it to heal. There is still time to stop this, and it will work. It doesn't have to move inexorably in one direction.