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Millions of dollars going to Verde River conservation in north central Arizona

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Alex Gonzalez

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(Arizona News Connection) More than $11 million in federal grant money will go to improve land and water conservation in the upper Verde River Watershed and Big Chino Grasslands in north central Arizona.

The grant requires a 50 percent non-federal match, which The Nature Conservancy Arizona and partners will provide - bringing the total to $23 million.

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Kimberly Schonek - Arizona water director for the conservancy - said the Verde River is one of the state's last free-flowing rivers, and calls it a "critical water supply" for not only the Phoenix metro area but for the biodiversity around the river, which starts just north of Prescott.

She said the conservancy in Arizona will be using the money to purchase easements from willing landowners to ensure land preservation and limit groundwater use.

"The landowner will continue to ranch and farm their property into the future," said Schonek, "but it'll restrict that ability for them to develop it, and what that does is keep the water use on the land what it is now."

Schonek said as Arizona thinks about its future, it's important to limit the amount of water use in what she calls a "critical area."

She added that her organization has been enacting conservation easements and other measures along the Verde River since 2012.

Schonek said no landowners are required to participate, but adds many find value in being compensated and reinvesting those funds onto their properties.

Schonek said over the last 20-years, with drought, they've noticed river levels drop - and have also seen land usage around the river change.

She added that while certain areas of the river have less flow, others are now experiencing more water due to the collaborative work the conservancy and agricultural partners have fostered.

"So the future looks good, so long as the community continues to engage, and everybody has a part to play," said Schonek. "And so we are really excited and optimistic to continue partnering with rural communities and agriculture in protecting this river for the future."

Schonek said it is exciting to see this level of investment as they've been working on conservation efforts for decades.

She added that this is by the far the largest amount of money that'll be dedicated to the Verde River.