Preliminary synthesis and assessment of environmental flows in the middle Verde River watershed, Arizona

Scientific Investigations Report 2017-5100

Prepared in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy and Salt River Project
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A 3-year study was undertaken to evaluate the suitability of the available modeling tools for characterizing environmental flows in the middle Verde River watershed of central Arizona, describe riparian vegetation throughout the watershed, and estimate sediment mobilization in the river. Existing data on fish and macroinvertebrates were analyzed in relation to basin characteristics, flow regimes, and microhabitat, and a pilot study was conducted that sampled fish and macroinvertebrates and the microhabitats in which they were found. The sampling for the pilot study took place at five different locations in the middle Verde River watershed. This report presents the results of this 3-year study. 

The Northern Arizona Groundwater Flow Model (NARGFM) was found to be capable of predicting long-term changes caused by alteration of regional recharge (such as may result from climate variability) and groundwater pumping in gaining, losing, and dry reaches of the major streams in the middle Verde River watershed. Over the period 1910 to 2006, the model simulated an increase in dry reaches, a small increase in reaches losing discharge to the groundwater aquifer, and a concurrent decrease in reaches gaining discharge from groundwater. Although evaluations of the suitability of using the NARGFM and Basin Characteristic Model to characterize various streamflow intervals showed that smallerscale basin monthly runoff could be estimated adequately at locations of interest, monthly stream-flow estimates were found unsatisfactory for determining environmental flows.

Orthoimagery and Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer data were used to quantify stream and riparian vegetation properties related to biotic habitat. The relative abundance of riparian vegetation varied along the main channel of the Verde River. As would be expected, more upland plant species and fewer lowland species were found in the upper-middle section compared to the lower-middle section, and vice-versa. Vegetation changes within the upper-middle and lower-middle reaches are related to differences in climate and hydrology. In general, the riparian vegetation of the middle Verde River watershed is that of a healthy ecosystem’s mixed age, mixed patch structure, likely a result of the mostly unaltered disturbance regime.

The frequency of in-river hydrogeomorphic features (pool, riffle, run) varied along the middle Verde River channel. There was a greater abundance of riffle habitat in the upper-middle reach; the lower-middle reach included more pool habitat. The Oak Creek tributary was more homogenous in geomorphic stream habitat composition than West Clear Creek, where runs dominated the upper reaches and pools dominated many of the lower reaches.

On the basis of the period of record and discharges recorded at 15-minute intervals, five flows were found to reach the gravel-transport threshold. Sediment mobilization computed with flows averaged over daily time steps yielded just three flows that reached the gravel-transport threshold, and monthly averaged flows yielded none. In the middle Verde River watershed, 15-minute data should be used when possible to evaluate sediment transport in the river system.

Data from more than 300 fish surveys conducted from 1992 to 2011 were analyzed using two schemes, one that divided the river into five reaches based on basin characteristics, and a second that divided the river into five reaches based on degree of flow alteration (specifically, diversions). Fish community metrics and assemblage data were used to analyze patterns of species composition and abundance in the two approaches. Overall, native and non-native species were regularly interacting and probably competing for similar resources. Fish abundances were also analyzed in response to floods and other flow metrics. Although the data are limited, native fish abundances increased more rapidly than non-native fish abundances in response to large floods. The basin-characteristic reach analysis showed native fish in greater abundance in the upper-middle reaches of the Verde River watershed and generally decreasing with downstream distance. The median relative abundance of native fish decreased by 50 percent from reach 1 to reach 5. Using the reach scheme based on degree of flow alteration, nondiverted reaches were found to have a greater abundance of native fish than diverted reaches. In heavily diverted reaches, non-native species outnumbered native species.

Fish metrics and stream-flow metrics for the 30, 90, and 365-day periods before collection were computed and the results analyzed statistically. Only abundance of all fish species was associated with the 30-day flow metrics. The 90-day flow metrics were generally positively associated with fish metrics, whereas the 365-day flow metrics had more negative correlations. In particular, significant relations were found between fish metrics and the magnitude and frequency of high flows, including maximum monthly flow, median annual number of high-flow events, and median annual maximum streamflow. Native sucker (Catostomidae) populations tended to decrease in periods of extended base flow, and fish in the non-native sunfish family (Centrarchidae) decreased in periods of flashy, high magnitude flows.

A pilot study surveyed fish at five locations in the upper part of the middle Verde River watershed as a means to measure microhabitat availability and quantify native and non-native fish use of that available microhabitat. Results indicated that native and non-native species exhibit some clear differences in microhabitat use. Although at least some native and non-native fish were found in each velocity, depth, and substrate category, preferential microhabitat use was common. On a percentage basis, non-native species had a strong preference for slow-moving and deeper water with silt and sand substrate, with a secondary preference for faster moving and very shallow water and a coarse gravel substrate. Native species showed a general preference for somewhat faster, moderate depth water over coarse gravel and had no clear secondary preference.

Macroinvertebrate-variables index period, high-flow year, and collection location (upper-middle Verde River, lowermiddle Verde River, or Verde River tributaries) were found to be important explanatory variables in differentiating among community metrics. Overall richness (number of unique taxa), Shannon’s diversity index, and the percent of the most dominant taxa were all highly correlated, but their response to each macroinvertebrate variable was different. The percentage of mayfly (order Ephemeroptera) taxa was significantly higher in Oak Creek and the upper-middle and lower-middle Verde River reaches, locations which have higher flows and more urbanization than other reaches. When community metrics were related to hydrologic metrics, caddisfly (order Trichoptera) populations appeared to increase and mayfly populations to decrease in response to less flashy and more stable streamflows. Conversely, caddisfly populations appeared to decrease and mayfly populations to increase in response to greater flow variability.

Six locations along the Verde River were sampled for macroinvertebrates as part of a pilot study associated with this report—(1) below Granite Creek, (2) near Campbell Ranch, (3) at the U.S. Geological Survey Paulden gage, (4) at the Perkinsville Bridge, (5) at the USGS Clarkdale gage, and (6) near the Reitz Ranch property. A nonmetric multidimensional scaling ordination of macroinvertebrate assemblages showed that the Verde River below Granite Creek site was different from the five other sites and that the Perkinsville Bridge and near Reitz Ranch samples had similar community structure. The near Campbell Ranch and Paulden gage locations had similar microhabitat characteristics, with the exception of riparian cover, yet the assemblage structure was very different. The different community composition at Verde River below Granite Creek was likely due to it having the smallest substrate sizes, lowest velocities, shallowest depths, and most riparian cover of the six sites.

Suggested Citation

Paretti, N.V., Brasher, A.M.D., Pearlstein, S.L., Skow, D.M., Gungle, Bruce, and Garner, B.D., 2018, Preliminary synthesis and assessment of environmental flows in the middle Verde River watershed, Arizona: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2017–5100, 104 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Purpose and Scope
  • Physical Setting
  • Surface Water and Groundwater
  • Riparian Vegetation
  • Geomorphology
  • Fish and Macroinvertebrates
  • Fish
  • Macroinvertebrates
  • Conclusion and Future Directions
  • References Cited

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Preliminary synthesis and assessment of environmental flows in the middle Verde River watershed, Arizona
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Arizona Water Science Center
Report: xii; 104 p.; 3 Tables
United States
Other Geospatial:
Verde River Watershed
Online Only (Y/N):
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