A River Ran Through It

Hot, dusty Tucson was founded in a lush river valley. Will a band of green grace us again?

"... the banks of the river, and the valley itself, are covered with poplars and willows, ash-trees and plantains, oaks and walnut trees ... Some portions of the valley are of such grand, rich and simple beauty, as for instance Tumacacori and San Xavier del Bac, that they would be remarkable in any part of the world." -- traveler Julius Froebel, reporting on an 1855 journey along the Santa Cruz River

In the beginning, before there was a Rio Nuevo, before there was even a Tucson, there was the river.

Rising up in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, and curving briefly into Mexico, the Santa Cruz River meanders some 222 miles, passing north through Tucson before disappearing in the Sonoran desert on its way to the Gila River.

It's the city's reason for being.

"The mission was here because the Indians were here, and the Indians were here because the river was here," says Julia Fonseca, a Pima County hydrologist.

Thousands of years of history are embedded in the Santa Cruz's now-dry riverbed. Its waters nourished corn on the floodplain below A Mountain as early as 3,500 years ago, and subsequent waves of Hohokam, Pimas and Spaniards thrived here. The river gave the Spanish entrée into Arizona, and a riparian ribbon that connected their missions from northern Sonora to Tumacacori, and up through San Xavier to San Agustín del Tucson, west of what's now downtown.

In the 19th century, Mexicans, Anglos and Chinese continued using the waters of the Santa Cruz to irrigate crops, and even as late as the mid-20th century, Fonseca says, fish still swam in the river's watery remnants. She tallies up the fish species that once lived in its low waters: Gila top minnow, pupfish, Sonora sucker, desert sucker, long-fin dace, Gila chub.

"It was not that long ago, the 40s, that we saw the last of the fish," she says.

These days, it's hard to imagine the river as a lifeline for fish or any other species, including homo sapiens. The Santa Cruz runs north through the 21st-century city like a desiccated scar, its eroded banks replaced with an ugly construction material called soil-cement. Water runs in this glorified drainage ditch only when torrential rains fall, and marring the former waterway is discarded trash, a shopping cart here, a dead cat there.

Yet the abused Santa Cruz is the artery that courses through the heart of the Rio Nuevo development planned for the base of A Mountain and downtown. The massive project's name, "New River" in English, is a linguistic riff that's either ironic or optimistic, depending on your point of view. But there indeed are plans afoot to do something about the authentic rio viejo.

Rio Nuevo's complex of museums, its hotel and entertainment district, and its restoration of the historic Convento mission residence and Indian archaeological ruins have attracted the most attention. But the river is on the Rio Nuevo agenda, too. Outlined in a master plan the City Council approved unanimously April 9, the development will lie, more or less, on the east and the west banks of the river.

In between, the Santa Cruz, if not exactly resurrected as a naturally flowing river, will be resuscitated as a "ribbon of green." The ugly concrete walls will be banished, replaced by terraces and trees. The river waters won't quite run as they once did, but they'll be evoked periodically through captured rainwater and treated sewer water.

"We propose a riverwalk and a cienega (marsh)," says John Jones, the city's point man for Rio Nuevo. "We want to create an environmentally friendly habitat ...

"We want to figure out a way to have a green river channel, with grasses to line the channel bottom and shrubs. We're talking about harvesting rain water, and ponding it."

Rio Nuevo's disputed price tag has now hit the $757 million mark. Jones contends that the number has not soared from the $360 million in public and private funds city voters OK'd in a November 1999 vote. He accounts for the higher figure by saying that planners subsequently lumped various other projects, including the Southern Pacific Depot, under the Rio Nuevo umbrella.

In any case, about $35 million of the Rio Nuevo cash will go to re-green the Santa Cruz. About $5 million would come from tax increment funding, the state sales-tax kickback that underpins the whole project. The city would contribute $5 million in matching funds, while Jones hopes to attract another $5 million in "philanthropic" money or grants. The plan lists $20 million in public funds for "reclaimed water infrastructure."

Another river rehabilitation project, the lyrically named Paseo de las Iglesias ("Trail of the Churches"), would overlap with Rio Nuevo. A joint undertaking of Pima County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Paseo would green the river between the San Xavier Mission and its vanished visita, or chapel outpost, at San Agustín on the west bank of the Rio Nuevo district. The city, Jones says, is "eager to participate" in the Paseo effort.

A citizen's group called the Santa Cruz River Alliance for two years has been pitching its dreams of a river returned to some semblance of watery life. In late March, the Alliance helped conduct a public conference on the Santa Cruz, promoting their idea that the river could once again be a community asset. The organization even rounded up old-timers to reminiscence about their childhood splashes in a flowing Santa Cruz.

A steadily expanding assault on the Santa Cruz that began when Europeans arrived finally claimed the last vestiges of the river in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

"Tucson has turned its back on the river," declares the Rio Nuevo master plan, produced by Hunter Interests, Maryland-based consultants hired by the city. The planners propose making the Santa Cruz once again the "heart of the city." Their drawings picture verdant riverbanks full of towering cottonwoods, and their written document rhapsodizes like a romantic poet over the possibilities of water, of trees and of wildlife.

"Restored river terraces, islands and sand bars, and new weirs and ponds to slow and collect reclaimed water ensure a healthy ecosystem and wildlife habitat through the core of downtown Tucson," the report reads.

"Small cottonwoods can be planted among the islands and bars, providing habitat for the wildlife that in turn contributes to pollination and seed dispersal. Larger cottonwoods, willows, Arizona ash and other riparian trees and shrubs can be placed on the river's terraced banks to help seed the river bed and to provide year-round habitat for wildlife."

IF THE MASTER PLANNERS' WATERY paradise sounds impossible or even unethical in a desert city, think again. Today's Tucson--city of cracked riverbeds, bastion of eroded banks, domain of denuded floodplains--is a Tucson less than 100 years old. Its desecrated ecosystem is a human-created disaster of epic proportions, bearing almost no relation to the riparian oasis of old.

Even the circumspect Jones says that humans have inflicted "100 years of abuse to the Santa Cruz River."

For millennia, reliable year-round springs bubbled up at San Xavier and at A Mountain, though the river sometimes grew marshy in between. Cottonwood trees lined the stream, and mesquite bosques hugged its banks. The shallow bed was on the same level as the surrounding floodplain. During the monsoon season its waters gently and safely flowed out over floodplain fields; today's river rages treacherously through its incised ditch during heavy rains. A rich collection of wildlife--from wolves to coyotes to turkeys--thrived on its shores, and there were even sightings of beaver along its tributary, the Rillito.

A spectacular mesquite forest, four or five miles wide, survived into the 1940s on the now barren Tohono O'odham land in the San Xavier District. Ornithologist Herbert Brandt measured the trees in the 1930s, recording girths up to 13 feet and heights up to 72 feet. These centuries-old colossi were home to legions of birds, among them the now-endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.

"A woodland of giant mesquite trees ... drew to itself such a fine list of unusual birds that I feel it merits designation as a separate type of desert area," Brandt reported. The forest had died off by the early 1950s, the last survivor of an ancient riparian wilderness.

IN JULY OF 1855, A GERMAN traveler by the name of Julius Froebel camped along the Santa Cruz a few miles south of what is now downtown Tucson. The little village of some 250 souls had recently passed from Mexican to U.S. hands. The U.S. had won Arizona north of the Gila River (along with much of the rest of the Southwest) after defeating Mexico in a war in 1848. The U.S. bought the remainder of the future state from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase of 1854.

Froebel, like many early travelers, faithfully recorded the beauties of the land.

"We encamped a few miles above the town, in a pleasant part of the valley," he wrote. "A rapid brook, clear as crystal, and full of aquatic plants, fish and tortoises of various kinds, flowed through a small meadow covered with shrubs ... The sides of the hill were so covered with cactus-columns that it might have been called a Saguarro [sic]-forest."

Froebel was not the first English-speaker to sing the praises of the river valley. In 1849, a horde of 49ers pouring through the valley on their way to California recorded their impressions in diaries and letters. They marveled at the abundance of the wildlife; not a few mentioned wild turkeys at Tubac; another feasted on pronghorn near San Xavier. The river waters kept them alive; the lush grasses fed their burros. George Evans, a native of Ohio, came into the upper Santa Cruz in August of that year and declared it the most beautiful valley he had ever seen. "All kinds of wood grows on the hillsides and fine towering cottonwoods mark the course of this river," he wrote.

The U.S. government sent out surveyors, and they too issued enthusiastic reports. In 1852, surveyor John Bartlett headed south from the Gila, through Tucson and down toward Nogales.

"The valley continued a half mile wide, thickly covered with mesquit [sic] trees of a large size," Bartlett wrote. "The bottom-lands resembled meadows, being covered with luxuriant grasses and but few trees. The immediate banks of the river, which is here as diminutive as near Tucson, are lined with cotton-wood trees of a gigantic size ... In some places there are large groves of these trees, rendering this part of the valley the most picturesque and beautiful we had seen."

J. Ross Browne, author of the book Adventures in the Apache Country, came through in 1864. He dismissed Tucson as "a city of mud-boxes, dingy and dilapidated, cracked and baked into a composite of dust and filth."

But its natural setting was something else again. He found the river valley south of town "one of the richest and most beautiful grazing and agricultural regions I have ever seen. Occasionally the river sinks, but even at these points the grass is abundant and luxurious ... Mesquit [sic] and cottonwood are abundant and there is no lack of water most of the way to (Mexico)."

WHAT HAPPENED TO THIS desert oasis? Historians and hydrologists don't necessarily see eye to eye on which depredations had the worst effects but they agree on culprits of greater and lesser guilt. Grazing, mining and farming all helped suck the river dry. When 19th-century Anglo settlers built dams and ditches to serve these economic interests, they tore out its banks and turned it into a deep, dry channel.

"Over the last 200 years, but mostly in the last 100, human activity has caused the riverbed to incise over 20 feet and widen to more than 1,000 feet in some places," according to the exhibition text for a new show at the Arizona Historical Society Museum, Life of the Santa Cruz River. "What was once a perennial stream is now a yawning, sandy gap that flows only in response to large storms."

As early as 1691, the peripatetic missionary Father Kino noted that "the Indians were alarmed because the Padres pastured so many cattle that the watering places were drying up." But the Indians could not have foreseen that astonishing numbers of cattle would be brought in three centuries later. After Arizona became U.S. Territory, the new railroad brought in so many cattle that by 1885, Pima County alone was home to some 10,000 head, every one of them hungry and thirsty.

Their owners, newcomers to the region, "didn't know about deserts, they didn't understand its cycles," says Barbara Tellman, a researcher at the University of Arizona's Water Resources Research Center and a member of the Santa Cruz River Alliance. Tellman has co-authored two histories of the river. The ranchers didn't expect the five-year drought that hit in the late 1880s, she says, nor the "the big rains that came in the 1890s. There were major floods."

Already damaged by overgrazing, the topsoil washed out in the big inundation. And the lush grasslands, so often praised by the 19th-century travelers, never recovered.

In the city proper, where humans for centuries had shared the waters, new Anglo immigrants quickly set to damming the Santa Cruz for fun and profit. Tucson soon had two lakes.

Silver Lake, now memorialized in the road of the same name, was created in the 1860s when James Lee put in a dam on the river a mile south of Sentinel Peak, now known as A Mountain. The lake's water power ran Lee's mill and provided wet recreation for the desert dwellers. Eventually a couple of bathhouses even cast their unlikely reflections onto the desert lake's surface.

Solomon Warner, not to be thwarted by Lee's capture of the waters, built his own dam to the north in about 1883, drawing water from the perennial spring and marshes at Sentinel Peak. He had a mill too. Both the lakes attracted hunters and fisherman, as well as weekend picnickers and bathers.

But Sam Hughes, immortalized in the name of a school and a posh Tucson neighborhood, did even more damage than the other Anglo tinkerers. In 1888, he cut a canal across the river downstream from Warner's mill; Tellman believes it was in the vicinity of today's Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind. The idea was to grab some of the water in his new ditch and use it to irrigate fields north of town. It was a spectacular failure.

"The canal blew out and became a sort of river," Tellman says, "and eventually caused erosion all the way down to the [San Xavier] mission." The river henceforth was a permanent trench, eroded deep into the earth.

A growing population was cutting the riparian trees for firewood, to use for cooking and for heating. But Anglo technology again added to the carnage with the invention of a wood-fired water pump. This dramatically increased locals' ability to suck up the groundwater underneath the river. With this new, seemingly bottomless pool of water, farmers began to plant water-intensive crops--wheat, citrus and pecans--that had heretofore been unimaginable in the desert.

The new pumps were a double-edged disaster for the river habitat. Their insatiable appetite for wood further spurred the axing of the riverside bosques; without the old trees, erosion of the riverbanks accelerated. And the pumps sucked up the groundwater that had kept the riverbank trees alive. The ancient cottonwoods began to die off.

By 1900, Tellman says, the U.S. Geological Survey found that "all of the low flow of the river was diverted before Congress Street."

Less than half a century after the Anglos arrived, the river was mortally wounded.

"... the water was so clean, not polluted ... it was beautiful. We used to have álamos (cottonwood trees), big, big, old trees, and we used to put ropes and tires on them and then we'd swing--BOOM!--right into the water."

--Julia Soto, remembering the Santa Cruz acequia that ran through Barrio Anita, quoted in the book A Path to the River, Memories of the Santa Cruz River and Barrio Anita.

One hundred years later, there's no shortage of ideas of what to do about the sorry state of the Santa Cruz.

Almost no one argues seriously for a return to the shallow little creek of old, and its wide marshy floodplain. Erosion has cut into its banks too much, and too many houses and roads have successfully taken root in its flood plain. But the city could go a long way toward making the brown ditch green, and restoring to the river its place as the heart of community life.

"There have been very successful rehabilitations of other streams in urban areas that we should look at," says Diana Hadley, a researcher at Arizona State Museum and a co-founder of the Santa Cruz River Alliance. "Beautification projects have returned amenities, if not in the original form, as least with a sense of beauty and of the desert riparian habitat."

A historian who is compiling a detailed chronology of the river, Hadley adds, "We could go a huge way toward restoring bird and amphibian habitats, and supporting mammals."

At the Alliance's conference on the river, keynote speaker Ann Riley, an expert on urban river rehabilitation, pointed out the errors of old-style river engineering. The things that engineers typically do to ward off floods--tame rivers with concrete walls, straighten up their meanders, and block their flows with dams and bridges--are the very things trigger more erosion and flooding, Riley said.

Hadley says the river itself rebels against the straight lines engineers try to impose. "Internal terraces are beginning to form (inside the Santa Cruz's concrete bed)," she notes. "The river tries to turn itself back to what it was. Water has a will. We need to work with that will."

Fonseca, the Pima County hydrologist, says there is plenty of water for the greening projects, quite apart from the Central Arizona Project water that starts gushing out of Tucson's spigots this week.

"The city and the county have already agreed to set aside 5,000 acre feet of effluent [treated sewer water] for use in riparian projects, for releases into the channel, for tree planting," she says. "By 2005, they're committed to 10,000 acre feet ... That would support 1,500 acres of cottonwood and willow trees. If it's just mesquite, that would be 3,000 acres."

Fonseca says she was impressed by Riley's assertion that a river channel could be re-designed "for more stability without using soil cement." She hopes to launch a demonstration project of the principle on a piece of the Santa Cruz that's still innocent of concrete, south of downtown.

The Paseo de las Iglesias, she says, would complement the Rio Nuevo re-greening. The Paseo "will include recreation and cultural preservation, and interpret the great history along the river. The two anchors at either end will be San Xavier and the [restored] Convento site, emphasizing its religious significance, and its geological and hydrological significance."

A rehabbed river would be more than a natural and historical amenity. It could also add up to tourist bucks.

Water means birds, and "birds attract homo sapiens," the very species the Rio Nuevo planners are so eager to lure, Kevin Dahl, head of the Tucson Audubon Society, told conferees.

"There are more birders than there are golfers," Dahl says. In just the last year birders spent $251 million in Arizona, traveling, eating and sleeping, he says. Arizona has five of the top 10 ranked birding spots in the U.S. and a wet Santa Cruz just might turn into another one, might become the bird paradise that ornithologist Brandt found in the 1930s.

But, Fonseca cautions, we must "make sure we don't lose anything unwittingly. We need a better sense of what's left."

Right now, for example, Tucson Unified School District has proposed a bus depot near the west branch of the Santa Cruz at Mission and Silverlake. Not only would the oily depot jeopardize plans to revitalize the river, it would compromise its resident giant spotted whiptail lizard, which has somehow managed to survive decades of dryness.

Secondly, "we need to protect people from harm but we don't need to keep putting people in harm's way" by building in the flood plain," she says.

"Preserve what you've got left," Fonseca concludes. "Then think about what you can do to restore" what you've lost.

Life of the Santa Cruz River continues on exhibit through September 15 at the Arizona Historical Society, 949 E. Second St. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free. For more information call 628-5775.

For this article Margaret Regan consulted Arizona's Changing Rivers: How People Have Affected the Rivers by Barbara Tellman, Richard Yarde and Mary G. Wallace (Water Resources Research Center, UA College of Agriculture, 1997); A Historical Study of the Santa Cruz River by Barbara Tellman and Richard Yarde (Water Resources Research Center, UA College of Agriculture, 1996) and Man and Wildlife in Arizona by Goode P. Davis Jr.

Comments (5)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly