The water used for this river restoration project flows through underground pipes and cement canals for weeks before it reaches its final destination. This water replenishes a desert riparian zone, a small stream trickling above ground for a short distance and a few hours before being absorbed beneath the desert sands. The river being restored is the Santa Cruz, a river in southern Arizona which used to flow from Mexico, north to the Gila River. The Santa Cruz no longer reaches the Gila. The Gila River used to run from deep in New Mexico, west across Arizona to the Colorado River. The Gila River no longer reaches the Colorado, drying up somewhere outside Gila Bend. The Colorado River is one of the mightiest waterways in the world – except it no longer reaches the ocean. This stretch of the Santa Cruz is being restored with water from the CAP, Colorado River water being shipped to the Santa Cruz in a sort of reverse flow.
The stretch of Santa Cruz being restored is south of Tucson, near the old Spanish Mission of San Xavier, on the edge of the Tohono O’odham reservation. The O’odham use their allotment of CAP water to restore the flow to this small stretch of river. It is more than just the pleasing sound of running water, more than the giant cottonwood trees providing much needed sanctuaries of shade, home to countless bird, bugs and spiders. It is an awareness that this small stretch of paradise is part of a much wider web, many of the creatures who live here migrate. Keeping this small desert riparian zone happy, benefits the health of many other ecosystems too, some of them very far away.
In some ways this is a doomed project. Geology now pushes the river underground before it reaches Tucson and always will. The Santa Cruz River will never flow year round again because of the 1887 Earthquake. On the morning of May 3, 1887, the people reported that all the dogs whined and trembled in the moments before the earthquake. Roosters crowed. Horses knelt and even the chickens appeared nervous. We know exactly what hour the earthquake stuck because pendulum clocks in Globe, Phoenix and Albuquerque were all stopped at the same time. Interestingly enough the clock in Las Cruces post office had been broken for about six months but the quaking of the earth shook loose whatever was bothering the timepiece and it started back up again. All across southeastern Arizona mountain ranges were so obscured by dust and smoke that they could not be seen for several days. When the dust cleared some of those mountain ranges looked very different. There were reports of some springs drying up and others appearing where there had never been a spring before, often with geysers shooting hundreds of feet into the air. The bedrock holding the Santa Cruz cracked and the river has not flown continuously since (although there are other issues such as overgrazing and groundwater pumping that have contributed as well).
Something more important was lost as well. The name Tucson is believed to have originated from the O’odham words “Chukson” which translate as “spring at the base of a black hill.” The black hill is Sentinel Peak, now known as A Mountain and the springs in question were hot springs. These hot springs had a reputation far and wide as healing hot springs. The old Spanish mission in Tucson was known as El Convento and was located beside the Santa Cruz. For many years, the church possessed a black crucifix, similar to one the Native Americans revered in Guatemala and also associated with healing hot springs. The 1887 earthquake dried up the hot springs. The giant adobe behemoth El Convento was abandoned and eventually reclaimed by the river.
The O’odham have proven in the past that a culture does not have to degrade its environment, human beings actually have the potential to enrich the landscape they live in. In the 1980’s a small group of O’odham were living at Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe National Monument. Quitobaquito Springs is an incredible place, an artesian well that is the only flowing water in one of the driest deserts of the world. It was decided that having human beings living inside a national monument violated some sort of government regulations and the band was expelled from a place that had been an ancestral home for thousands of years. Rather than repair the natural world, the absence of humans had a negative effect. The O’odham collected and propagated seeds from plants they found beautiful or useful, such as flowers or medicinal herbs. In particularly dry seasons the O’odham would feed the birds and wildlife. Scientific studies revealed that the absence of humans in this place led to a sharp decrease in the biodiversity of both the flora and fauna. In this instance, the presence of human beings enhanced biodiversity and benefitted their environment, instead of degrading it.
The Tohono O’odham have used their allocation of CAP water to restore a small stretch of the Santa Cruz River. The cottonwood leaves shimmer green as they shake in the breeze. Birds sing. One newspaper report describes Easter services held along the river. When the services were done an elder left a trail of jellybeans along the shore in celebration.
I like to picture the jellybean trail from the viewpoint of the ants. Imagine a tiny ant walking across the earth when suddenly it comes across a jellybean, bright colored sugar orb towering above it. The antennae quiver with the excitement of the discovery! The delicious smell of sugar overloads the senses. The ant tries to lift the jellybean but this treasure is far too big for a single ant to raise. A gaggle of ants arrive to lift each jelly bean and carry it towards the queen. As the gaggle of worker ants carry their giant jellybean towards the queen, they come across other gaggles of ants carrying jellybeans. A trail of jellybeans approaches the ant hole, each jellybean a different color, blue, green, red and yellow, all of them riding on the shoulders of ants who are a uniform color, size and shape. They march towards the ant hole but of course it is not big enough to allow the jellybeans entry. The ants commence digging because who would not widen the door to allow such a treasure.
I like to think of the world just below the surface of the earth as the Antosphere where autocratic queens rule with unquestioned authority. As the brightly colored jelly beans enter her lair, the queen smiles and begins to hum. The worker ants gather round, crowding the subterranean chamber from wall to wall. Ants cling on the walls and hang from the ceiling. The queen hums her happy song and the ants began to pound their feet in rhythm, all six of their feet working in unison. The queen hums and the ants begin to dance, feet pounding to the beat. The ants swirl around the jellybeans, circling the brightly colored orbs of sugar as they dance. The ants dance in rhythmic ecstasy, following the jellybean trail has changed their rituals and rites of spring time forever. Perhaps it is time for us to do the same.