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Restoring Flow to a Dry River

By:  Jon Radtke Apr 22, 2013
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Arizona Verde River

Imagine paddling down a beautiful flowing stream through the desert landscape in Arizona and suddenly most of the water in the stream is diverted into an irrigation ditch leaving you high and dry on the bottom of the streambed.  This is exactly what happens in Arizona’s Verde River almost every day during dry periods.

The Verde River is one of the few rivers in the desert southwest with natural flowing water year-round. However, excessive withdrawals for irrigation have reduced the flow in this beautiful river to a trickle in certain areas.  As you can imagine this has a significant impact on the river’s ecosystem, not to mention the recreation opportunities on the river like kayaking and fishing – two of my favorite hobbies!  It also impacts downstream users in Phoenix where we have our only Arizona bottling plant.

Jonathan Radtke at the Arizona Verde River

In my position as Water Resource Sustainability Manager for Coca-Cola North America I get to spearhead lots of cool projects to restore rivers and watersheds through our Company’s water replenish program (2012 Replenish Report).  The Verde River in Arizona is one such project that I’ve had the privilege to work on recently.

As a hydrogeologist (yes that’s a real profession), I feel extremely privileged to work for a company that takes water as seriously as Coca-Cola does. After all, water is the number one ingredient in almost everything we make. Without sustainable water supplies we wouldn’t have a business! That’s why Coca-Cola has pledged to be a leader in water stewardship and one of our biggest goals is to balance our total water use by returning to nature and communities an amount of water equivalent to what we use in our beverages and their manufacture.  We do this primarily through on-the-ground watershed restoration projects on impaired rivers like the Verde.

I was approached by folks from Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) and The Nature Conservancy of Arizona (TNC) to see if Coca-Cola would be interested in supporting a multi-year project to restore water to dry sections of the River.

AZ Verde River overflow

On my first visit I was amazed to watch how residents and farmers open up their irrigation valves and flood their bermuda grass lawns and fields with water until it looked like a big lake – in the desert! Meanwhile there was hardly any water left in the river.  It’s hard to blame the residents and farmers since they own the water rights and have been doing it this way for generations.  However, they could accomplish almost the same result with using much less water.  Unfortunately they can’t control the amount of water they take out of the river because they don’t have the right infrastructure in place to “fine tune” the delivery of that water.

That’s where we were able to help! With the Coca-Cola’s financial support, and lots of cooperation from the residents, farmers, irrigators and our partners (BEF and TNC), we were able to install new mechanisms on the ditches that allow farmers to more accurately control the water they divert for their needs.

AZ Verde River New Head Gate

We kicked off the project in 2012 and just recently completed the pilot phase, improving diversion structures on one major irrigation ditch which provides water to about 60 users. So far the residents and farmers have been pleased with the results and we have been able to re-wet several miles of river.  I can’t wait to expand our work with other farmers and irrigators to restore even more flow to the river. 

Somewhere on the Verde River there is a kayaker or a fisherman enjoying a nice day on an actual “flowing” river. I wonder if they know that the ice-cold Coke in their hand is helping to make it possible. 

Now I’m off to start a new replenish project, this time with the U.S. Forest Service, restoring a high mountain meadow in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. I love my job!

Jonathan Radtke is Water Resource Sustainability Manager for Coca-Cola North America.