Wet Winter Brings Arizona’s Salt River to Life

A river flows through the heart of the Phoenix Valley.
Green Heron. Photo: Dennis Widman/Audubon Photography Awards

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Throughout the Colorado River Basin, it’s been a wet winter. There is great snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, where the Colorado River and many of its tributaries begin. And in Arizona, the Salt and Verde Rivers benefited from the above average winter precipitation. This spring, Phoenix Valley residents received a beautiful reminder that there is a river running through the heart of the region—the Salt River, or Rio Salado.

The river, which is typically dry due to damming and water demands in the Valley, has been flowing through the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and the cities of Mesa, Tempe, and Phoenix since late March. The Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center sits on the south bank of the river, just two miles south of downtown Phoenix.

Spring flooding used to be a regular occurrence before dams were built in the 1900s on the Verde and Salt Rivers. Indigenous communities have thrived in the region for millennia thanks to these rivers. Spring floods benefit the ecosystem by hydrating the soil, germinating riverside plant seeds, replenishing groundwater, and attracting birds like Great Egrets and Green Herons.

Here are some questions asked and answered about the Salt River/Rio Salado: 

  • Why is the Salt River flowing now?
    • The Salt River Project (SRP) manages the Salt and Verde reservoir systems that bring water into the Phoenix region. This winter created an impressive snowpack that resulted in a special occurrence—the SRP reservoirs filled up to near-capacity. In early March, to prepare for spring’s rising temperatures and increasing snowmelt, SRP began releasing water—from the Verde River through Bartlett Dam and on the Salt River through Roosevelt Dam—to create additional storage capacity within the reservoirs to safely capture the upcoming snowmelt and river runoff.
  • How much water has flowed down the river so far? 
    • According to SRP, more than 700,000 acre-feet of water from the Salt and Verde Rivers has been released from their reservoirs downstream. This has meant there is enough water to flow to the Gila River, and the Gila River has rejoined with the Colorado River near Yuma. One acre-foot of water can provide for approximately 3.5 Arizona households per year. 
  • Will the Salt River flow like this every time we have a wet winter?
    • It depends. When there is more water than the reservoir systems can hold, SRP has to release water into the riverbed (yay!). SRP is also planning infrastructure projects to raise the height of Bartlett Dam to increase the water storage capacity in Barlett Reservoir. This will capture and store more water on the Verde River, for delivery to water users. This could also mean less water released downstream into the Salt River, depending on rain and snowfall amounts. 
  • Will this wet winter bring us out of drought?
    • While this winter provided relief to our short-term drought conditions in Arizona and throughout much of the Colorado River Basin, it would take many years of greater-than-average snow and rainfall to recover from the record-breaking megadrought we are experiencing. To stabilize Lake Mead and Lake Powell, we need to use less water.
  • What can we do to support birds, people, habitat, and rivers?
    • We can turn towards our waterways—by reinvesting and revitalizing key stretches of rivers with habitat restoration projects to bring back the trees and plants that once thrived, creating not only habitat, but green spaces, bike paths, and community amenities as well.
    • We can also manage groundwater throughout all of Arizona. Right now, in more than 80% of the state (outside of the "Active Management Areas”), a landowner can drill a well and pump unlimited amounts of groundwater, even if it causes declines in or dries up neighboring wells; even if it leads to the depletion of a nearby community’s water supplies; and even if the pumping depletes the water flowing in connected rivers.
  • Where can I enjoy the Salt River near downtown Phoenix?
    • You can visit the Rio Salado Audubon Center at no cost. Located along the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area, you can use the accessible trails. Come experience native plants and wildflowers, wildlife like racoons and beavers, and of course, birds—more than 200 species of birds have been sighted along the area. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Abert’s Towhees are frequent visitors to the Rio Salado Audubon Center.

We are grateful for years like this one when we see the Salt River come back to life. And while we don’t expect years like this all that often, it reminds us of the importance of rivers, lakes, and steams—for people and birds.

Watch the recent local news coverage of the flowing Salt River / Rio Salado near the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center: