Arizona’s Rivers, Lakes, and Streams: A Sustainable Economic Engine


By Haley Paul

Outdoor recreation along Arizona’s waterways—think fishing, wildlife-watching and picnicking—is a thriving industry, generating $13.5 billion in economic output and supporting 114,000 jobs annually statewide.

Audobon’s recently released report, The Economic Impact of Arizona’s Rivers, Lakes and Streams: How water-based outdoor recreation contributes to statewide and local economies demonstrates just how important natural resources such as flowing rivers that support outdoor recreation are to Arizona’s economy.

The Research to Back It Up

The study found that water-based outdoor recreation as an industry ranks above mining and golf in terms of total economic output to the state. Outdoor recreation along water contributes $7.1 billion to Arizona’s GDP, provides $4.5 billion in household income, and generates $1.8 billion in tax revenues. The economic contributions were determined by analyzing the expenditures generated from the nine different outdoor recreation activities evaluated.

The study evaluated outdoor recreation along water as defined by bicycling, camping, fishing, hunting/shooting, picnicking/relaxing, snow sports, trail sports, water sports and wildlife-watching. Expenditures across waterway recreation can include fuel, food, admission fees, guides, lodging, equipment purchases, supplies, permits, apparel accessories and other related expenses.

Measuring the participation in water-based outdoor recreation and its associated spending is a way to evaluate the economic activity generated from having water in rivers, lakes, reservoirs and streams, because without water, much of the economic activity would be lost.

Creating Tourism

“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,” says Colleen Floyd, director of research for the Arizona Office of Tourism. “This creates significant tourism revenue for our communities and an economic incentive to preserve our waterways.”

The study also examined the economic contributions generated by local waterways, breaking the results down by county. Equipped with this resource, local officials and community members can better define the economic contributions of waterways in their area, and contemplate further actions to preserve, protect, and restore these special places.

For example, in Northern Arizona, Clarkdale Mayor Doug Von Gausig says, “We have always known that the Verde River is the economic backbone of the Verde Valley. Now we can quantify that the waterways of Yavapai County contribute $1 billion in economic output and support 9,400 jobs, and that protecting these special places helps our local economies and communities. I am grateful our community has this data—it will be invaluable to many across the state.”

Community Involvement

Similarly, in other parts of the state, such as along the Colorado River in Yuma, the results from the Audubon report justify the investments made by communities.

“Many visitors come to Yuma for the unique birding opportunities and water sports, and to picnic along the Colorado River,” says Lowell Perry, executive director of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. “The community’s efforts to embrace the river are paying off. The rivers of Yuma County generate $372 million annually and support upwards of 3,000 jobs for the state. It is gratifying to see how the waterways of Yuma County contribute to the overall statewide picture.”

The Tracking of Tourists Water Activities

Water in the arid West allows for large metropolitan areas, millions of acres of agricultural production and myriad industries. What has been less studied is the economic significance of water in rivers, lakes, reservoirs and streams to state and local economies. This report builds off a 2012 analysis conducted by Southwick Associates that examined the economic contribution of outdoor recreation along the Colorado River and its tributaries in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

For this study, Southwick Associates conducted a representative survey of Arizona residents in 2018 to learn where in the state people engage in outdoor recreation and how much of each activity occurs on or along water bodies. The number of nonresidents who visit Arizona for outdoor recreation, as well as the total spending attributable to outdoor recreation, comes from a 2016 survey of outdoor recreation across all 50 states conducted by Southwick for the Outdoor Industry Association. The survey was used to identify what proportion of outdoor recreation participation and spending occurs on or along the water in 2018 and where this occurs within the state.

Audubon on Arizona’s Economy

With this data from 2018 describing the contributions that outdoor recreation along Arizona’s rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and streams has on Arizona’s economy, Audubon hopes to make the case that these places are worth protecting. Climate change, groundwater pumping, and continued growth are all factors that can negatively affect this industry, and we need to think strategically about balancing the needs of all industries when making decisions on water resources and land use planning. Audubon sees the fate of birds and people as deeply connected. Our waterways need to be protected, for not only the vital bird, fish and wildlife habitat they provide, but also to sustain Arizona’s economy today and into the future.

For the full report and executive summary, visit


Haley Paul is the Policy Manager for Audubon Arizona, and in this role seeks policy solutions that benefit people and birds. Audubon protects birds and the places they need.

Photo Courtesy of Audubon

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