Smarter Irrigation Returns Water to Arizona’s Verde River

What do you get when 21st century “smart” technology hooks up with a 19th century irrigation ditch?

The short answer: more water-wise farming and a healthier river.

That’s the story of this innovative project on the Verde River in central Arizona, where forward-thinking farmers joined up with the Nature Conservancy and installed a solar-powered “smart” gate and water-level sensor on their 150-year old irrigation ditch.  The automated gate allows the irrigators to take just the amount of water they need for their crops, and leave the rest for the river.

Now, instead of drying up for miles during the irrigation season, the Verde keeps flowing—supporting not only local farms, but fish, river otters, birds, anglers, boaters, and those who just want to appreciate a healthy river.

And as Verde Valley farmer and “ditch boss” Frank Geminden explains in this video, he can monitor the system from his cell phone.   No more late-night runs to the ditch.

Our Change the Course pledge community can take pride in this project, because it’s a prime example of your pledge at work.  Your pledges were matched by dollars from our corporate sponsors, which enabled our Change the Course campaign to invest in this innovative project that shows how productive farming and healthy rivers can exist side by side.

If you’re not yet part of Change the Course, please join us.  Check out our website or text “River” to 77177. 

Change the Course is spearheaded by National Geographic, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, and Participant Media.   By bringing consumers, corporations, and conservation groups together, we aim to re-define how society uses, manages, and values fresh water.

As ditch boss Frank Geminden says in the video, “There’s a growing realization that we’re all swimming in the same soup.”

Together we can change the course of our water future—beginning with the iconic Colorado River and its magnificent tributaries, like the Verde.

So watch the video, join us, and spread the word.

To learn more about the Verde project, see our story and photo gallery in National Geographic’s Water Currents.

Special thanks to Silk and Coca-Cola, Charter Sponsors for Change the Course.  Additional funding is generously provided by the Walton Family Foundation.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

Verde River




  1. Sean Yarbenet
    Hilo Hawaii (Org Erie Pa)
    June 22, 2016, 6:19 pm

    This is a fantastic video, Frank is my uncle and as a family we spent our summers in the Verde area. Every morning we hopped on the ATV’s and ran to the water gates to check whats going on. Being an Automation programmer myself it makes me glad to see the technology in use with these applications.

    • Sandra Postel
      June 23, 2016, 9:51 am

      Sean, we so enjoyed meeting your uncle. Wonderful to learn of your memories of time in the Verde Valley. These automated head gates are really helping restore flow to the Verde. Thank you for writing.

  2. Henry
    Lake Havasu City Arizona 86406
    January 17, 2014, 3:57 pm

    Hi could you please send me Ms Sandra Postel email address?
    Thanks Henry McNally

  3. Mike Mecke
    Kerrville, TX
    December 13, 2013, 12:38 pm

    Thanks Sandra and other authors – very interesting article. It caught my attention as long ago I was a natural resources manager on nearby Papago/Tohono Reservation. Also, I have an old friend in USFWS Research, Al Medina, who has been involved in riparian research and management in AZ and elsewhere.
    I hope the irrigators are pulling the river water off into either pipelines or at least, lined canals to greatly reduce water losses to soil absorbtion and evaporation? And, that they are switching to intense on-farm water conservation methods and lower water-use crops. If so, eventually they will need even less water from the river. Win-win for all, especially the river and economically strapped farmers.

    Thanks and looking for a follow-up.

  4. Patrick McCarthy
    December 6, 2013, 5:26 pm

    Thank you so much, Ms. Postel, for getting the word out on the exciting work that farmers and irrigation districts are doing with my colleague Kim S and others on water-wise farming. It’s through many such local, practical steps and partnerships that real progress happens toward making our rivers whole again.