The era of blasting billionaires by rocket ship into orbit is only the latest wrinkle in our jam-packed events calendar. This summer’s Southwestern monsoons were much less stingy than the previous below average years, but even still it wasn’t enough. Billionaires I wouldn’t describe so much as tightwads as finicky and prone to developing an aversion to taxes. The billionaire’s suffer mood swings, too much attention from honey-pots and an overinflated sense of entitlement. Maybe that’s just me, or have I missed those duty to country jumbo tax payments? I don’t think so.
If you didn’t know that China burns half of all the coal in the world well now you do. Getting our Asian economic powerhouse to stop releasing these heat trapping greenhouse gases isn’t going to be a walk in the park or a night on the town. I mention this for a reason I will come back to. Before heading off might as well mention Fukushima and the stinking pile of rubble that mess continues to threaten all of humanity with and how just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. This is a no brainer. Put the stinking Genii back in the bottle.
I hiked along the San Francisco River in New Mexico. Outside Glenwood after a mile and a half on a dusty trail you’ll discover the San Francisco Hot Spring beckoning you to remove you clothes and hop on in for a good long soak. The 157-mile river is the largest tributary to the Gila River. You wanted to know this right?
The mighty 648-mile Gila River cuts a path right through the heart of Arizona ending west in Yuma. Wait, you mean Arizona has a heart? Plenty and a big one too. What water remains at its confluence with the Colorado River, this gets a little complicated due to salting from irrigation, but what is left flows into the Colorado then meanders south into Mexico before emptying into the Sea of Cortez.
North of Silver City, in this other newfangled New Mexico the headwaters are fed from runoff from the Pinos Altos Range. We are talking Continental Divide alpine peak stuff here people; some water is destined for the Pacific, some travels east joins up with the Rio Grande emptying into the Gulf of Mexico on the Atlantic Ocean.
Let’s do some mansplaining about this river. On the brighter side of life is the glory of civilization that has grown up along the river’s banks. There are cowboys and cowboy hats, there are barrel racers and barrel racing loving cowboy hatted skirt chasers. All along the Gila River, up and down her banks there is a thriving farm and ranch culture. If you didn’t know and why should you, this important riparian habitat is in stress brought on by drought and under threat by changing times.
Our climate emergency has put most all of this ecosystem into hardship, and like I said or didn’t say, and I am saying now the revolution will not be televised because who in the hell is going to drive all the way out to this dusty corner of nowhere and report on a few thousand disaffected souls finding out that there is not a drop of water remaining to farm by. By the way─ that is one hell of a long sentence.
What I know about Arizona’s waterways comes from my living two years on the banks of the Verde River. In 1993-1994 with my wife and then 2-year-old daughter we moved from San Francisco to live along this watercourse. Our property was covered in mesquite, cottonwood and sycamore trees. Coyote, bobcat and javelina were common sights. Bald eagles, great horned owls and scarlet tanagers were regular visitors. Wolf spiders the size of raven’s hunt for supper here. You’ll discover you are sharing a very sentient world with the black shiny Arizona carpenter bees. At dusk you’ll see wood duck chicks follow mom up to nest safe from predators in the hollow of the tree trunk. You can pretty much get stung, stuck or made miserable by every form of thorn and sticker known to creation. Wild pig can be trouble and mountain lion once the first shot of a rifle goes off will be long gone soon thereafter.
Verde Valley in Yavapai County cultivates hay and alfalfa. The Sinagua─ ancient’s first people, having lived here for thousands of years have been switching to growing Malt barley for beer brewers. Local corn is cultivated here. You’ll find some pecan orchards too. Over near Cornville there are enterprising winemakers making rustic Italian reds from grapes grown out of rock.
The river can go up and down, more down than up, and still the river does persist. I was living there when a 500-year flood came within an inch of our front door sill. We’d been warned to move our cars to high ground. We lollygagged imagining we’d have time, then all hell broke loose and after moving our cars we ran door to door to help neighbors who same as everyone was caught asleep at the switch. Not a soul alive could ever remember the river ever getting so high. On average the river flows at fifty feet wide maybe at best measures 600 cubic feet per second, what we saw was the granddaddy of gully washers, a river nearly one quarter mile wide river flow measured at 100,000 cubic feet per second, and well to a soul everyone felt that they were lucky just to be alive to tell what there is to tell about such an impactful flash flood. Unless you are a good audience these stories and photographs mostly illicit a shrug. Fine.
My wife’s family has lived in the Verde Valley since 1969 when they pulled up stakes in Fairfax, California and struck out for a new rural high desert life. Hard to explain what kind of economy you’d find here. My brother-in-law made his living as a land surveyor. I worked events in Phoenix, got hired on at the Arizona Renaissance Festival, and traveled to Laughlin to work at the Flamingo as an opening act.
Being so close to the river our water well was not drilled deep. To avoid kidney stones, it was advisable to filter your water to remove the dissolved limestone. Casey my mother-in-law thought that was nonsense and took her chances. I was instructed in how to build a proper mesquite coal fire to use for barbecuing. In 1993 AT&T still had consumers by the throat and a call routed just 15 miles away cost $1.75 for a mere 3 minutes. Walmart had come to Cottonwood and most ordinary native citizens point to that event as the beginning of the end of a small business owner having even half a chance at scraping up a living.
The wife bought a thoroughbred named Maggie. I liked Maggie just fine, but this was not any ordinary kind of horse. Maggie knocked down fences as a regular reaction to her jumpy moods she’d fall into. Made the mistake of tying her up to a fence rail while saddling her up. Jerked the rail right off the posts and fell over backwards and made a mess of the saddle that had just been synched tight.
Sunday’s my mother-in-law and I would watch football from the colossal satellite dish array that had been setup between the mesquites. We both liked Joe Montana and football was fun in this era with all the winning all the time. Casey complained about cooking but most of all she believed it important to keep the men in her life fed. She had two sons, two sons-in-law, and one ex-husband who lived one block away, and they were maybe some kinds of best friends by now, hard to know what to call them, there existed a fondness for sure, but it was not any kind of endearment most people would understand.
By my reckoning the same quirky fated culture along the Verde River is much the same for the Arizonan’s living along the Gila River. There are more curmudgeons than most other places. Every kind of pickup truck known to mankind has come here. Paint fades, upholstery rots from the beating given by the sun, but trucks here live-in suspended animation and hardly any rust out, there isn’t enough humidity, hardly any water at all. Turns out an arid climate is rust’s mortal enemy.
People build Earthships here. You’ll find adobe and strawbale construction. There are a lot of off grid types here. With this crowd you’ll find solar and wind turbines with battery storage. Slow pumps are used with solar panels to pump well water up for residential purposes. Satellite television remains common out here, but jumbo dishes are now gone and in their place, there are these demure setups. Four-wheel-driving is practically the only real fun you’ll find to do out here. Half the nutjobs arrive as birders the other half as militia members of one kind of fraternal order or another. Arizona’s rural farms and ranches are in for one hell of a drought beating. Just as everything else has changed, if you haven’t noticed things are changing plenty fast now, and a lot of the people living out in the furthest reaches of the Arizona desert are struggling to keep up with all that’s getting thrown at them. Electronic-computer controlled internal combustion engine powered pickup trucks are one thing but a fully electric powered work truck is almost unbearably odd. Chewing tobacco is still popular and now everyone is pumping on these personal computing devices they got stuffed in their shirt pocket. Pornography and titty bars are mortal sin and the high desert house of worship.
I’m plenty worried about these fragile riparian ecosystems. Worried what fate awaits this drought ravaged region. When it gets much hotter out here you won’t have to worry about growing crops, because crops won’t grow in such high heat. Maybe Miami, Florida will be overrun by the rising waters of the Atlantic Ocean, maybe some of us will see that day come, but by my mind and best estimate the climate emergency has already arrived full steam ahead in Arizona. Wildfires, drought and heatwaves have already provided all the evidence anyone needs to know that a very difficult set of decisions are ahead, unavoidable hard choices will need to be made, and how it was when your grandmother or grandfather first arrived here in the Southwest is nothing at all like is now. We just have to start reacting, put two and two together and come up with a plan. So far nobody has been thinking there was much to do.
Come January 2022 Arizona’s relationship with water is going to change. Water from the Colorado River will be shut down. That’s going to be the shock of this new century. I’m worried for folk down here, worried by a lot. I care about these parts. I do not wish to see the hard-working stiffs going bankrupt. The end of the line isn’t where the passengers get off, not in a pandemic, not in a mega-drought, not in the last chapter of a family’s hold on land they’ve worked for near a century or more. This is what a climate emergency means. It means you can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing, you have to come up with a plan that no longer includes using all this water that no longer exists.
Gully washer of a lifetime.
Good measure of the times.