Arizona’s Rivers and Water

Water is fundamental to life for people, plants, and animals. Our programs span science, policy, direct land and water protection, habitat management and working with local communities and public agencies to achieve sustainable water management.

Photo Credit: © Hal Malde

Our rivers, streams and wetlands support vibrant human economies and a high quality of life. However, our growth has come at the expense of our environment, especially the loss of river systems throughout the state. Today, we better understand the importance of our rivers and wetlands for people and the environment and the need to manage water in a sustainable manner. With increasing demands and uncertain supplies, balancing the needs of people and nature calls for new approaches to water management to be put in place today.

Water security is critical for Arizona's future

A clean and sustainable water supply is a basic human need. Protecting our water supplies so they are sustainable for both people and the environment is also critical to our future. Our rivers and streams provide many benefits and essential services. They bring water from the mountains to our urban centers and agricultural areas. They supply power, support tourism, provide for recreation, and maintain habitat for wildlife. The debate is not about people vs nature. We depend upon the benefits nature provides free on a daily basis. Maintaining those benefits requires people to make wise decisions today to ensure we have choices in the future.

Status of Arizona's rivers

Arizona river flow status

35% of our natural perennial flowing rivers have been altered or lost in Arizona. Click map to enlarge

In a 2004 study by The Nature Conservancy that compared current and historical data, we found that 35% of our natural perennial flowing rivers had been altered or lost altogether as a result of dams, diversions, and groundwater pumping.

In a study recently published in the journal PLoS ONE, we looked at how future water demand may affect flow in our rivers. The major findings from that study were:

  1. if we maintain the status quo we stand to lose at least 7 rivers in our lifetime, as well as the benefits these rivers provide to people and nature
  2. we must act quickly while we have more options

Why? Because developing water policy, and planning and implementing new management strategies are complex and take time. Meanwhile, impacts to rivers accumulate over time, making it difficult and costly to reverse the loss of river flows.

What is TNC doing?

The Nature Conservancy’s programs span science and policy development to land/water protection and management and working with local communities, institutions and public agencies to develop sustainable water management practices. Below are examples of our work to promote sustainable water management.

Policy & community-based conservation

  • We have served on state and local commissions convened to evaluate water resource issues, such as the state Water Resources Development Commission, Upper San Pedro Partnership Steering Committee, Coconino Plateau Water Advisory Council, Bill Williams River Corridor Steering Committee, Yavapai County’s Technical Advisory Committee, and as a member of the Arizona Water Protection Fund Commission, which provides annual grants for projects that maintain, enhance and restore rivers.
  • We serve on the Upper San Pedro Water District Organizing Board, convened to develop the goals and operational plans for the formation of a Water District requiring voter approval in November 2010.
  • We’ve worked with the Arizona Legislature to promote the adoption of state-wide water adequacy standards, the expansion of the Rural Watershed Initiative, and on the enabling legislation for the creation of the Upper San Pedro Water District, three programs that empower local jurisdictions.
  • We work on effluent reuse and recharge projects, water conservation and education programs, and storm water recharge and rainwater harvesting efforts.


Land & water protection

  • We pioneered the filing of instream flow water right claims to legally safeguard flows for the benefit of wildlife and recreation.
  • We’ve protected over 200,000 acres of river and riparian habitat across the state on the Verde River, West Clear Creek, Fossil Creek and Hassayampa River in central Arizona, the Black River in the White Mountains, Bill Williams River in western Arizona, and the Gila River, San Pedro River, Santa Cruz River, Sonoita Ceek, Cienega Creek, Aravaipa Creek, Arivaca Creek, O’Donnel Creek, Ramsey Canyon Creek, Leslie Creek and numerous other canyon streams in southern Arizona.
  • We’ve worked to reduce groundwater use and restore river flows in areas where pumping has had the most direct impacts to rivers.

Learn more

Map Gallery

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