Filler Life Is But A Stream

Hope Springs Eternal For Pima County's Cienega Creek.
By Kevin Franklin

NATURAL, RUNNING WATER on the desert floor in summer seems more like a miracle than a hydrologic phenomena.

Out There But there it is. I'm standing on Pantano Road, just east of Vail, looking down into a little canyon with a sliver of clear water running through it.

For the most part, desert riparian areas hibernate in the summer. Sure there may be deep-rooted cottonwoods and a few marshy spots left, but actual running water is an endangered resource when things turn hot.

We scramble down the hillside and stroll along Cienega Creek. We're not the first to rejoice in these waters--before highways, most Arizonan's traveled by river.

Of course, what we call rivers the rest of the country calls streams or rivulets. Even in their watery heyday, most were incapable of supporting rafts or boats. But they could support life. The diminutive size of these water courses belied their importance as wayfarer life-support systems.

Humans and animals alike stuck close to the little waterways that made the difference between life and vulture gourmet. Under the current circumstances, a rider would be hard-pressed to make the multi-day ride from Bisbee to Casa Grande.

But 125 years ago, in the right season, a traveler could follow river courses from Bisbee to Flagstaff and never be far from natural water. A knowledgeable rider could follow the flow of the San Pedro River north from Bisbee to Benson. From there he could amble along Cienega Creek west to Pantano Wash and the Rillito. The Rillito connects with the Santa Cruz River and that could take him all the way north to Casa Grande and the nearby Gila River. The Gila could then be followed to Phoenix and west to Yuma or east to New Mexico. Heading north along the Verde River, Oak Creek and assorted tributaries could take him within 20 miles of Flagstaff.

Sadly, the Gila carries more weeds than water in many places now and the Santa Cruz only runs during floods, unless you count sewage treatment- plant water. About 95 percent of Arizona's riparian areas are gone. Overgrazing, population increases and absurd crop choices, like alfalfa, have sucked most everything dry. The practice continues today with the imminent destruction of Honey Bee Canyon in Oro Valley. The canyon itself won't be paved over, but the influx of houses, roads and new wells will deplete the water table until it becomes little more than another wash to lose golf balls in.

Happily, not all riparian areas share Honey Bee's misfortune. A few watercourse areas are being set aside. Cienega Creek, just east of Vail, is one such place. The creek is being managed by an inter-agency agreement between Pima County Flood Control and Pima County Parks and Recreation. A free permit is required to use the area, but is easily obtained by fax or mail.

"I think the main thing the permit does," says Gale Bundrick, Pima County natural resource park superintendent, "is let us know who is in there. Cienega Creek is extremely important to the Tucson basin to recharge the aquifer. It is a very sensitive and precious area."

For that reason the Pima County Board of Supervisors ruled that no more than 50 people at a time should be within the 10-mile preserve, Bundrick says. But he's quick to add there have only been a few occasions on busy winter weekends that people had to be turned away.

The amount of water is minimal and intermittent as we hike along, but the difference even this amount makes is clear: Gigantic cottonwoods and mesquite trees 30-feet tall line the banks. Wildlife is abundant--even fish. The water, forced up by impermeable rocks from its otherwise subterranean existence, is surprisingly cool.

There's no established trail here, which, as use increases, might be a good idea in order to keep plants from being trampled. We follow as closely as possible where others have gone before. Where the stream dries out, we hike along its course. On one such stretch we find a young mountain lion carcass. Desiccated to little more than a furry bag of bones, the cause of its demise is impossible to determine. Nevertheless, the animal's hapless presence amid scores of tracks belonging to other, presumably more animated, critters indicates the tremendous importance of this area to wildlife.

Hopefully this place will stay intact, unlike so many other areas before it. Maybe then we can return on some future summer evening with hopes of glimpsing a living mountain lion chasing prey through this riparian area, much as its ancestors did in 1871.


Take Interstate-10 east to the exit for Sonoita and Highway 83. After exiting turn north and follow the frontage road east as it veers away from the freeway. A little more than three miles down the road are two train trestles and a bridge. A parking area is on the left. The easiest way into the canyon bottom is by scrambling down the lower trestle on the opposite side of the road from the parking area. Permits can be acquired by calling Pima County Parks and Recreation at 740-2690, or writing to Pima County Parks and Recreation, 1204 W. Silverlake Road, Tucson, AZ 85713-2799. TW

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