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Beer industry could be key to saving Arizona’s Verde River

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PHOENIX — A solution to saving the Verde River, one of central Arizona’s most important rivers, could come in an unlikely form: A cold glass of beer.

Outside Magazine reported that the Nature Conservancy, a charitable environmental organization, has been urging farmers near the Verde River to grow barley — one of the primary ingredients in beer — instead of other crops.

If one-tenth of farmers make the change, it could keep as much as 200 million gallons of water in the river annually.

The river is one of the Lower Colorado River’s most significant tributaries and is home to hundreds of animal species, including endangered fish and rare reptiles. The Verde River is threatened because of the state’s ongoing drought and its excessive use by farmers to water crops.

Kim Schonek, projects manager for the conservancy’s Verde River team, said she has been working on an idea to save the river for years. She said barley, which uses less water than other crops, is typically grown for animal feed at a loss to farmers.

However, beermakers will pay about 50 percent more for barley.

“It’s kind of a new conservation technique,” Schonek told the magazine. “Instead of paying farmers every year to reduce the water they’re using, we can create a market that will drive farmers to change their water use.”

Experimental changes by some of the river’s largest landowners have yielded good results so far. Zach Hauser, whose family owns the largest farm in the Verde Valley, planted 144 acres of barley.

Some of that was sold to Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company in Chandler, which planned to switch entirely to barley crops planted to save rivers.

“Brewing is a water-intensive activity,” Chase Saraiva, head brewer at Arizona Wilderness, told Outside.

“It’s pretty much a water sport, so we need to be conscious of where our water is coming from and be proactive in taking measures to help in any way we can.”

But barley is only part of the plan to save the river. Schonek partnered with a Colorado brewery to open a Camp Verde facility to malt the crops, another key step in the beer making process.

The malting facility, Sinagua Malt, donates all of its profits to river conservancy efforts.

If Schonek’s plan works, it would be the first time an environmental group has created a market to keep a river flowing. Her plan could also be used to save other rivers around the Southwest.

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