January 5 - January 11, 1995

[Out There]

Little Fish, Big Pond

By Kevin Franklin

OVER THE PAST 10,000 years, Quitobaquito Springs, an obscure little pond west of the Ajo Mountains, has served as a water depot, rest stop, holy site, mini-mart, mining camp and a host of other functions forgotten over time.

Today it's one of the premiere historical and ecological sites in Arizona.

Located in the southwest corner of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Quitobaquito Springs is at once a place of incredible significance and a place of understated grandeur.

It's a natural spring formed by a fault line that creates a wall of dense rock. This rock forces groundwater to the surface.

Quitobaquito was once the last source of reliable water heading west to the Colorado River. As such, any California settlers daring to cross the dreaded Camino del Diablo, or Devil's Highway, had to tank up at Quitobaquito. Images of the water and surrounding oasis of Quitobaquito were probably one of the last thoughts on the minds of the many travelers on the Camino del Diablo who never made it to the Colorado.

The stop became so well known and of such critical importance that for awhile a small trading post was operated there by a fellow named Michael Levy, says Ami Pate, a biological technician with the National Park Service and a connoisseur of local history. At one point there was even a coin minted there with the name Quitobaquito stamped on it.

Unfortunately, a local gravesite is all that remains of the collection of little homes and buildings that were in the area. Back in the 1960s the Park Service leveled the buildings, deeming them unsightly blemishes on the area.

That was a regretable decision made under an old administration, says Charles Conner, also a biotechnician with the Park Service.

So while most of the archeological sites were destroyed, the stories and pond remain, as does some of the plant life of the era.

There are pomegranate and fig trees on the south side of the pond that many believe find their genetic origins in plants Father Eusebio Francisco Kino brought, says Pate.

The monument recently received a national registry award for maintaining the population of historical plants, says Pate.

Hundreds of years before European settlers were trying to set up shop or grow plants there, Native Americans in the region used Quitobaquito frequently. The HiaC'ed O'Odham, meaning sand people, used the area as an agricultural center, complete with irrigated fields. The HiaC'ed O'Odham, southern relatives of the Tohono O'Odham, continue to use the area as a sacred site.

Before them, the vanished culture of the Hohokam people used Quitobaquito as a stopping point to and from their salt and shell collecting grounds on the shores of the Sea of Cortez. The Hohokam, who lived to the north, would use the area as a refueling stop for precious water and as a camp to process the shells they'd collected for jewelry and tools.

But perhaps the group with the best claim to the springs as their home are the desert pupfish which live there. The pupfish are tremendous survivors capable of withstanding the extremely low oxygen levels and the high heat and salt conditions found in desert ponds, says Conner. Somewhere around 10,000 of the fish live in the small pool, he says.

They represent their entire species.

These are the only pupfish in Arizona and are a distinct species from any other pupfish in the world. A few are being kept at places like the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum in case something happens to the wild population, but otherwise that's it.

Fortunately for the pupfish, they are prolific breeders and are able to recoup their numbers rapidly, Conner says. He knows of another species that lives in Salt Creek in Death Valley that drops to about 1,000 fish during the dry season and then blooms into a population of several million fish when the area floods. The pupfish population at Quitobaquito remains fairly consistent because conditions are relatively constant.

The Park Service's primary concern is to manage the area for the fish's benefit, since they're an endangered species. That can be difficult, Conner says. The Sonoran mud turtle, a threatened species, also lives in the pond. Those concerns must also be mitigated with all the non-wildlife uses the pond endures by being so many things to so many people.

"We deal with conflicting management demands," says Conner "between the other species, the sacred site considerations, its historic value and its designated wilderness area status.

"If you ask all different kinds of experts about what ought to be done there, you'll get that many different answers."

That seems to have always been the story with Quitobaquito, a single place meeting a multitude of needs.

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January 5 - January 11, 1995

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