Arizona’s Remaining Rivers Should Not Be Dammed

Colorado pikeminnows
Colorado pikeminnows (AGFD)
Arizona Rivers Photo Album

In July of 1862 Sergeant George Hand and his squad from Company G of the 1st California Volunteer Infantry regiment were ordered to start marching up the Gila River from Fort Yuma. His unit was part of a small Union army, called the California Column, which had driven the Confederates from Arizona and southern New Mexico.

The soldiers stuck to the trail along the river until they reached the point where it makes a loop to the north, called the Gila Bend, and then took the long-used short cut through Pima Pass in the Maricopa Mountains to reach the Pima and Maricopa Indian villages on the middle Gila River. From there they crossed the open desert through Picacho Pass to Tucson, like Interstate 10 does today.

Sergeant Hand kept a diary of the march, which was eventually published in the book The Civil War in Apacheland. It’s clear from his diary that his march along the river was much more pleasant than the stretch across the open desert. He wrote, “The Gila is a splendid river to bathe in, clear and very good to drink, little alkali.” He reported that the soldiers regularly caught and ate fish from the river and that, “Game is very plenty – mourning doves, quail, cottontail and other rabbits very thick.” At one point along the river he said, “The quail astonished me. Millions. They rose in flocks. The air was black with them and their whirr was like a rolling thunder.”

The trail along the Gila River was the most popular route for travelers crossing Arizona in those days, because it provided the water and shade trees they needed to survive. If you’ve ever driven across the bridge on Interstate 10 over the Gila River, however, you might be surprised to learn that it used to flow yearlong and was lined with trees. That’s because most of the Gila River went dry after Coolidge Dam was dedicated in eastern Arizona in 1930.

And if you live in the Phoenix area you might be surprised to learn that the Salt River, the Gila’s largest tributary, used to flow yearlong through town. That’s because upstream dams were built at the beginning of the 20th century that diverted the river’s flow into irrigation canals. Like the Gila River, the lower Salt used to support wildlife and trees. Fishing was good in the Salt too, and both rivers used to have enormous annual runs of big, edible fish called Colorado pikeminnows. But today, 20 of Arizona’s original 36 native fish species are federally listed as endangered or threatened, and one has already gone extinct.

Many terrestrial wildlife species relied on these rivers too. Sergeant Hand wrote of seeing large herds of pronghorn antelope during his march. But today, the Sonoran pronghorn is an endangered species, reduced to about 250 animals. Even if there were still some water in the lower Gila River, the few remaining antelope couldn’t get to it because their access routes were severed by the construction of Interstate 8.

No More Dams Should be Built

I’m not suggesting that we should dismantle the dams that killed these rivers. There are millions of people that rely on the water they store. I’ve described their history because the ongoing severe drought in neighboring California has renewed discussion here in Arizona about the state’s water supply. The consensus of local water managers is that we have enough for the forseeable future, but we will need to pursue new sources of water as the state’s population grows. And there are ongoing problems from groundwater overdrafts in some locations, especially near the San Pedro River.

The cheapest and easiest way to increase our water supply is through conservation. There’s a lot of low hanging fruit there. And agriculture still uses about 70% of the state’s water supply, with more than half of that being used to grow livestock forage. Urban dwellers are more efficient and productive users of water than irrigated agriculture, so some of that agricultural water could be converted to municipal use. These are our two easiest and cheapest options. The other options are much more expensive.

I think the most expensive option of all is to build new dams. And I’m not just talking about the construction costs. Rivers are the arteries of our planet and Arizona’s rivers have already suffered enough. Tempe Town Lake is a good measure of how much we’ve lost. The city was willing to spend millions to fill a short stretch of the dry Salt River bed with water and it has become one of the state’s most popular destinations. Building new dams that would kill Arizona’s remaining rivers should be the last thing we consider.

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