Water…in a River?

Rivers in Arizona have undergone many changes in the last century, and don’t carry much water anymore. Water/Ways Guest Blogger Victoria Hermosilla demonstrates that these changes do not have to be permanent. Because many people in Arizona are working together to restore water to rivers, our future can include flowing water and the benefits that come with it.

“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river yet to explore.” -John Wesley Powell

Colorado River image courtesy of Neal Herbert, NPS.

When John Wesley Powell ran the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon for the first time in 1869, he and his fellow explorers truly had no idea what was before them. Despite the danger and unknown courses, they went forward with their expedition and collected invaluable information about the unique landscape that was (in part) to become Arizona.

The Colorado River is alive today, although no longer in the form that carried Powell and his crew. Originally named for the red sediment it carried from mountains and canyons, today it is a serpentine green amidst the varied desert hues of brown. Where the river worked to carve the landscape out of prehistoric stone, it now works among engineers, hydrologists, and water managers to provide water for millions of people in the Southwest.

Arizona’s “Ghost” Rivers

Rivers continually tell stories of change: changing landscape, changing climate, changing peoples, changing cultures, changing waters. The Colorado River is not the only river to undergo change. Most of the rivers in Arizona have encountered changes in the last century as well. Several of these rivers used to carry water year-round (perennial stream), but are now dry, sandy washes that carry water only with big enough rains (ephemeral or intermittent stream). These ghosts of rivers past remain with us today as channels for flood water, debris, and frequently trash.

Residents of Arizona are familiar with these dry or cemented features, and do not realize water flowed in them not very long ago. The changes that occurred are very new from the perspectives of the rivers, but long ago from the perspectives of the humans who came here in large numbers only recently. For many Arizona residents, it is almost unfathomable to think about Arizona rivers with water in them. Talking about ‘the river’ is akin to talking about a dusty lane that might have paths nearby for walking or biking. However, it is important to keep in mind that what we see today is not what has always been.

Flowing Rivers: More Than Just Water

Many people and organizations within the state of Arizona are working to once again change the rivers in the form of restoration. For example, there is a large effort underway to restore flow to the Santa Cruz River through downtown Tucson.

Treated effluent water may help the Santa Cruz River  flow through downtown Tucson. Selena Quintanilla, Daily Wildcat.

Currently, treated effluent water is released from the Agua Dulce treatment plant into the Santa Cruz channel, and forms the flowing Santa Cruz River for several miles northwest of Tucson. Treated effluent also flows in the Santa Cruz River in Nogales, which is south of Tucson. This water supports many plants and animals that normally like to stick to river habitats (riparian zone). 

City and county planners are looking to take a portion of this effluent and send it to the river channel south of downtown Tucson. This water would then flow north through downtown and bring with it many of the benefits seen in the other sections of river with effluent water: lush trees and plants, native fish, birds, and insects, and more water stored underground as water soaks into the riverbed. Additional benefits include shade, cooling effects, businesses moving close to the river, residents enjoying the river park and close-by amenities, increased community connection to the river, and the lovely sense of peace one gets when close to flowing water.

Restoring Water Flow Means Reconnecting With Culture

Another example of effort to restore water flow comes from the Gila River Indian Community. The Community has been working hard on their lands along the Gila River to remove invasive plant species, reestablish native plant species, and allow for the natural development of wetlands to boost the health of the waterway. For the Community, this work has also restored important cultural connections to the river, their land, and their traditions.

The late Rodney Lewis, longtime general counsel for the Gila River Indian Community (L) with his son, current GRIC Governor Stephen Roe Lewis. Mike Sakal, East Valley Tribune.

The Gila and the Santa Cruz Rivers, like the Colorado River, have undergone many changes in the last 100 years as more people have moved into the area. While these and other Arizona rivers are dry, dusty pauses through our urban and rural landscapes, they haven’t always been so. Nor do they need to remain so. As much as rivers have changed, they can change again with some effort on our part.
From the time of John Wesley Powell and his crew to now, the rivers of Arizona are the stories of change: change from what used to be and change that we can imagine for our future.

Water/Ways is in Bisbee through July 15 and coming to Fort Apache on July 28! 

Learn more about Arizona rivers from these Water/Ways community partners and sponsors:

Friends of the San Pedro River, collaborating with Sierra Vista

Friends of the Santa Cruz River, working with Tubac

Friends of the Verde River, partnering with Camp Verde

Black Canyon Heritage Park, in collaboration with Black Canyon City

Victoria Hermosilla is a graduate student in the University of Arizona Hydrology and Atmospheric Science Department. She is passionate about all things water and wants to serve Arizona’s water in her career. In her free time, she loves to dance and ride her horse PJ.

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