River Rebirth

A weekend conference looks at efforts to restore the Santa Cruz.

When Opha was a boy living along the Santa Cruz River in the 1920s and '30s, he and his twin brother Okey used it as a playground.

"We'd ride our horses in the riverbed," says Probasco, now 81 years old. "We used to ride our horses up and down Congress Street, then leave the horses at a livery stable and go on over to the Fox, or the Lyric or the Plaza. The show was only a nickel."

Back in the 19th century, there was still enough water in the Santa Cruz to support a beaver population and numerous species of ducks. But by the time the Probascos came to Tucson from Colorado in 1925, and settled on 80 acres near Mission and Ajo, "it only ran when it rained," Probasco says. "There were still some cottonwood trees along the river and mesquite."

When the river ran high after a heavy rain the Probasco boys would dive on in. "We'd float down to 29th Street," he says. "I guess it was dangerous. Mother didn't know about it."

Occasionally Opha and Okey would earn half a dollar by rescuing motorists stranded in the river. The bridge at Congress was the only one crossing the Santa Cruz and then, as now, drivers would try to cruise through the water. "We'd tie a rope on and help pull them out. Fifty cents was a lot of money in those days."

Probasco will share his memories of life along the river at Walking and Talking the River, A Symposium on the Santa Cruz River Urban Corridor, a conference to be held this weekend at the Manning House downtown. The conference, free and open to the public, takes a look at what Tucsonans want to do now with the river they've almost killed. It will open with a roundtable discussion on "Happy Memories of a Living River: Old-Timers on the Santa Cruz," in which Probasco and other long-time Tucsonans will participate.

"We're going to talk about what both sides of the river looked like in days gone by," Probasco says.

The river might have been dry most of the time, but in Probasco's boyhood it wasn't isolated. This was before the freeway cut it off from the living city, and before concrete walled up the riverbed, turning its once lush beauty into the stuff of a drainage ditch.

The conference, jazzed up with free meals, a live band and tours of the river and archaeological sites, comes at the confluence of several different restoration projects that could bring the river back into circulation.

The Army Corps of Engineers is seeking public comment on pilot projects envisioned for both the Santa Cruz and the Rillito. Pima County is entertaining a proposal for a Paseo de las Iglesias, a trail of churches along the river from Mission San Xavier on up to Mission San Agustin, the former church at the base of A Mountain. And of course some locals want the massive Rio Nuevo project to put water back into the Santa Cruz.

Besides the panel of old-timers, the conference will offer an array of speakers, some of them local university experts and environmentalists and some nationally known. Ann L. Riley, author of Restoring Streams in Cities: A Guide for Planners, Policymakers and Citizens and head of the Waterways Restoration Institute in Berkeley, gives a keynote address at 11 a.m. Saturday. Her talk is titled "What to Do, What Not to Do: Urban River Restoration, Disasters and Successes."

Lewis MacAdams, founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, what he calls a "40-year art work" to bring that river back to life, will also speak on Saturday, at 3:15 p.m. The author of the just published Birth of the Cool, he'll also do a book signing.

Here's a rundown of the main conference events:

· Walking and Talking the River: A Symposium on the Santa Cruz River Urban Corridor opens at 5 p.m. Friday, March 30, at the Manning House, 450 W. Paseo Redondo Ave. A reception with no-host bar goes from 5 to 8 p.m., livened up by the music of the Santa Cruz River Band. Directors of 15 different river projects will do a poster session during the reception. The old-timers' roundtable is set for 5:45 to 7 p.m. From 7 to 8 p.m., the public is asked to answer the question: "What Do I Want the Santa Cruz to Be?"

· Saturday, March 31, registration opens at 8 a.m. Free breakfast is offered. At 8:30 a.m., Diana Hadley of the Santa Cruz River Alliance discusses "The Importance of a Living Santa Cruz River." Luther Probst of the Sonoran Institute also speaks. At 9 a.m. is slide presentation of the Santa Cruz today, followed by a panel discussion that will include John Jones, the city's point man for the Rio Nuevo project. The day continues with panel and roundtable discussions, with Riley giving her speech at 11. A free lunch is served at noon. The day wraps up at 5 p.m.

· Sunday, April 1, is a day of field trips along the Santa Cruz. Carpooling is encouraged and maps will be provided. First stop is the Ina Road Treatment Plant at 9 a.m.; next is a look at native vegetation at Silverbell and Camino del Cerro, followed by a noontime picnic lunch at Rio Neuvo, at Congress and the Santa Cruz. Picnickers will tour the archaeological excavations. Final stop is a visit to "remnant natural areas" at Silverlake and the Santa Cruz West Branch.

The conference is free but participants should register by calling 622-1933. Conference organizers are seeking historic photos of the river.