Audubon study affirms importance of rivers to economy

Birding along an Arizona waterway.

PHOENIX — A recent report completed for Arizona Audubon on the economic benefits from visitations to Arizona’s waterways found these recreation areas contributed $13.5 billion to the state’s economy.

The study was completed with guidance from business, civic, governmental, outdoor recreation, conservation and tourism representatives and conducted by economics research firm Southwick Associates, Arizona Audubon stated.

The report builds on a previous Southwick study done in 2012. It examined the economic contribution of outdoor recreation along the Colorado River and its tributaries in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The impact of waterways — rivers, lakes, reservoirs and streams — are less studied on their economic significance to state and local economies.

Audubon Arizona’s policy manager, Haley Paul, emphasized, “The main reason for the report was to find the value of having water in our rivers, lakes and streams. This provides that value.”

The waterways are worth more economically than mining or golf, she added.

In this new study, Southwick conducted a representative survey of Arizona residents in 2018 to learn where in the state people engaged in outdoor recreation and how much of each activity occurred on or along water bodies. Its intent was to identify what proportion of outdoor recreation participation and spending occurs on or along the water in 2018 and where it occurs within the state.

An advisory committee was formed with members from Friends of the San Pedro River, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Tucson Audubon, Arizona Office of Tourism, Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife Conservation, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Santa Cruz County, The Nature Conservancy and other organizations across the state.

The report showed visitors to Cochise County generated $279 million annually from 78,000 visitors who come to see the wildlife, camp and fish. The tourism supports 2,000 jobs.

However, Cochise County administrator Ed Gilligan is not so sure about the numbers.

“Tourism is very important to the economic well–being of our county, and there is no question many of our visitors enjoy recreational activities along the San Pedro River,” he said. “I look forward to reading the report to better understand how the statistics were calculated, as they suggest these visitors drive 80 percent of our tourism economy and half of the supporting jobs. That’s an incredible claim.”

According to the report, waterways around the state are visited by 1.5 million residents each year and contribute $13.5 billion to the state’s economy while supporting some 114,000 jobs.

Paul went on to say, “Water–based outdoor recreation as an industry ranks above mining and golf in terms of total economic output to the state. Expenditures across waterway recreation can include fuel, food, admission fees, guides, lodging, equipment purchases, supplies, permits, apparel accessories and other related expenses.”

She continued, “Without water, much of the economy would be lost. The rivers, lakes and streams of Arizona are an economic powerhouse for our state—these results prove that. The fate of birds and people are deeply connected. Our waterways need to be protected, not only for the vital bird, fish and wildlife habitat they provide, but also to sustain Arizona’s economy today and into the future.”

Colleen Floyd, Director of Research for the Arizona Office of Tourism, commented, “Arizona’s iconic rivers — the Colorado, the San Pedro, the Verde and others — bring in visitors from all over the world who seek the one–of–a–kind recreational opportunities they provide. This creates significant tourism revenue for our communities and an economic incentive to preserve our waterways.”

County spokeswoman Amanda Baillie added, “Natural attractions like the San Pedro River and White Water Draw are actively promoted through the marketing efforts of the Cochise County Tourism Council and its member partners, who recognize the importance of ecotourism to our region. We are happy to see those efforts are paying off, and we look forward to welcoming more visitors to enjoy the animal and bird life, as well as the many outdoor activities, this county has to offer.”

Paul suggests the report, which breaks down statistics county by county, can be a resource for local and state officials to better understand the economic contributions of waterways in their area and how they support their communities.

Paul plans to hit the road with the report results and share them with chambers of commerce, economic development and conservation organizations and county and municipal governments.

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