Tag Archives: Gila River

Clifton Copper Civilization Savers

East of Tucson in high desert 175 miles by road is the copper mine in Morenci, Arizona. This fifty-thousand-acre beast is North America’s largest. Water from Gila River passes through here, then there is the San Francisco River, and Eagle Creek too. The copper mine is by tonnage the world’s third largest. The electrification of our transportation system is going to lean hard on this source of copper.

Clifton is near the Morenci mine, then there is Three Way and Rattlesnake Canyon too. Between Willow Creek and Cold Creek, you’ll find some folks growing hay, not much, but there’s some. The pair of creeks are tributaries to the San Francisco River, the two are intermittent streams and they flow near and next to never. Pioneers gave them names all in the good hope of praying for rain.

Work at the mine pays $25.00 an hour, maybe up to $31.00. That’s a good wage for rural Arizona. If you are an outdoorsman there is plenty to do here. Drive out to Gila Box Canyon for fishing, hunting and whiskey drinking. If you are inclined to continue east to the New Mexico border, you’ll have to drive 93 miles on mountain road until you find Silver City where something like 9000 citizens celebrate an off the beaten path life.

If you go west of Clifton instead of east, you’ll find Safford, Arizona, a town of about the same size as Silver City. The agricultural community is as frisky as a cowboys’ fingers tugging on the latches of a bustle fit snug on a girl that this rodeo roping expert just has to have. There is free love, there is paid love, and then there is love you cannot have at any price. Any unrequited lover knows that hard truth and heartbreak.

Now the mine in Morenci is properly named Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. Nearby Clifton claims 3900 people have come here to live out their hopes and dreams. Like most lunch bucket towns, where men and women work more by physical labor than by toiling at a desk there is a problem with controlled substances. We know booze is popular, opioids come next then methamphetamines.

Trying to make a good life in Clifton is not impossible, but an unmarried buck working at the mine will tend to run their four-wheel drive hard and do as he damn well please. Smuggled drugs cross the Mexican border are disbursed by gangs working in collusion with the Sinaloa crime syndicate─ this is a brutal and murderous gang. So called drug mules cross on foot in the dark of night with pieces of carpet tied to their feet so that their tracks can’t be traced back to their shoes. Most are captured but not before their contraband has been dumped for pickup by couriers working on the American side.

Churches are plentiful and if a man can find a wife and then start a family, he’s on the road to a better fate. Men that keep to themselves are more at risk. Without the salutary influence of a woman in their lives a feral male tends to go find mischief and temptation at the local taverns.

There is a Dollar Store, Clifton Bakery and the Lone Eagle Gun Works in town. In the case of guns, here their purpose is for hunting, sometimes shooting, but this ain’t Tombstone and Wyatt is dead and gone but the deer and elk remain. Filling out your meat locker is found at the end of a barrel. What I mean to say is that Greenlee County is purpose built for sportsmen and long guns.

County courthouse is here along with the city library. Then there is the Hard Hat Bar and Grill, The Miner’s Diner and Bar, and Clifton Hotel and Bar. As best I can tell you cannot find saloons or brew pubs anywhere nearby. Clifton is not putting on no fancy airs, you come here you’ll know you’ve hit plain and simple with no excuses.

What is here in my view is a vital piece of the whole project we refer to as Arizona. The Gila River and her tributaries converge then continue clear across the state until the river meets up with the Colorado River in Yuma. The Morenci Mine has a 50-year lease agreement with the San Carlos Apache Tribe pursuant to the San Carlos Apache Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act of 1992, as amended in 1997, “to lease up to 14,000 acre-feet per annum of its allocation of Central Arizona Project water by means of an exchange at the Black River.” In addition to the surface water, they pump Gila River basin groundwater too. Come January 2022 the Colorado River water allocations are going to be cut due to the ongoing drought. Bureau of Reclamation officials will have to cut water off to a variety of farms and ranches across the entire state, but the strategic importance of keeping Morenci Mine operating is on a list of highest priority water users.

Life for citizens in Clifton could not be more different than the lives people shape for themselves in Scottsdale. Both Arizonan’s dodge the occasional rattlesnake, both know it gets hot and water is scarce, but from there not much is the same. Total population of Greenlee County isn’t even 10,000 where if you live in Scottdale you share this one town with a quarter of a million people. But you just hold your horses because Greenlee County’s mean income is $63,497 compared to Scottsdale’s $47,290. Copper mining has been good to folk making their lives here.

Geronimo was born in Clifton. I’d bet he wasn’t pulling down some great big fat salary back in his day and age. Best as I can tell unless you are working at the Morenci mine you are likely to be living hand to mouth, life is likely touch and go, you might wish to reconsider and put an application in at the mine for steady wages and half a chance.

Heading north from Clifton out Highway 191 is devil of a twister with two lanes and a blacktop. You’ll go a good long slog north toward Apache County while gaining elevation until the high desert gives way to forest and woodland. Ponderosa pine dominates, next most is Douglas fir, then alligator juniper and then best of all the delectable two-needle pinion pine. I’d reckon Clifton isn’t a cup of tea in paradise for everyone, where the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest is a sight that steals the heart of near every last dang one of us. This is a mashup of ecosystems, partly desert partly forest, then it’s all thick with the plausible—- if you can’t imagine wanting to live here, you can’t imagine wanting to be alive anywhere. Coyotes could care less where I’d reckon the non-coyote eye of the beholder would see into the glory that I am trying to tell you to drive out to see for yourself.

Returning to the banks of the Gila River there is something vital to explain, a piece of what Arizona claims to be is all tangled up in this fated first place where the river enters the state. One colossal fact is I lived on the Verde River, ultimately a tributary that feeds the Gila. Next most important is that the Gila River defines Arizona’s watersheds, this is her bank account, this is without any fancy engineering a primary source of the state’s water inventory.

Clifton is nearest to where this waterway begins its journey. The river cuts like a jagged lightning bolt east to west, from New Mexico to California, where all along the river has grown up a thousand and another thousand more interests that use what allotment they have been able to secure.

Lucid Motors the new electric car company manufactures near Casa Grande, then there is the Morenci copper mine, both fundamental building blocks to our world’s future energy system.

I would add one more advanced technology, a disruptive technology, and that would be the development of laboratory meat. What we know so far is that it is real, that researchers are racing full steam ahead, in fact a San Francisco startup has won approval to sell sushi grade laboratory grown salmon beginning early next year. There are many intricacies involved in the development of lab meat but there is every reason to believe it can be scaled and provide a commercially viable product to consumers.

All along the Gila River farms and ranches are going to be forced out of business, water allotments and groundwater will dry up. Where there is opportunity, this is in my mind a near perfect idea, is to build out facilities that will produce laboratory meat. It uses 95% less water than conventional meat producers use. Laboratory meat uses a fraction of the land too. There are no pesticides, no antibiotics, and no animals to face slaughter. Laboratory grown meat does use electricity and with plenty of sunshine solar would pencil out as competitors worked to bring down costs. Like anything that is living lab meat uses grains grown on farms and happens to convert the grain to meat at a much higher efficiency than cattle, pigs or chickens. Researchers are still working to artificially synthesize various pieces of the process, that’s a longer conversation, and they are not tampering with the genetics of the various meats they are growing. What this emerging industry is trying to do is grow the same tissue cells all of us have been eating at the dinner table since the beginning of time. In 2010 the electric car was regarded as a long shot, that it had limited appeal, and in 2021 it is all the rage. Laboratory meat is in the same spot, but I’m betting it can scale and play a role in our world’s race to fix the climate emergency we find ourselves being overwhelmed by.

Our climate emergency continues to worsen. This week British Columbia was hit with record floods. Climate events touch us all. Millions of us on the west coast have lived for months in smoke choked air. Heatwaves have been relentless. Still, we can see the outline of the new technologies that the world is going to use to fight back. Renewable energy, battery storage, non-carbon-based aviation fuel, residential heat pumps, non-carbon-based manufacturing of concrete and steel, regenerative farming, laser leveled row crops and digitized drip irrigation. The list is long, and hope is too. Doom, doom, and more doom won’t get the job done, and proponents of using more coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear power count on people being discouraged, people just throwing in the towel, people giving up.

My advice to you─ support the change you can believe in, face each obstacle with good cheer, buy an electric car, trick out your outdoor lighting with LED’s, vote for leadership that supports the deployment of a new energy system for a new century. We can do this

Arizona River Cheat Sheet

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.

Home along the Verde River

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.

Wayfarers running the Verde

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 peekaboo view from deck

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.

Native Agave also known as a Century Plant

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.

My mesquite wood fire cooking instructor

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.

The Verde River

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.

last stop everyone off

Superstition Mountains with Lacey and the Coyotes

For more than a decade every October I was the rarest of birds and traveled to Queen Creek, Arizona for work. Touring by truck and trailer I parked my rig in the field northeast of Rittenhouse and Cloud Road. Most years sheep were grazed adjacent to where I camped under the constant attention of a coyote hating sheepdog.

Mark and Carrie Schnepf run an entertainment farm in the easternmost corner of the Valley of the Sun. I would play my act on a lawn in the shade to family audiences seated on haybales presenting my juggling act and performing dog.

Back in 2000 Queen Creek was the end of the line, you couldn’t go further, Rittenhouse terminated here and all you could do was make a left and head toward the Arizona State Prison in Florence.

Audiences drove in from nearby Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler, Tempe, Phoenix, Scottsdale and even sometimes from Apache Junction. Locals referred to Apache Junction by its initials, and you want to elongate them, stretch them out— real’ good, you say, “A… J…”

Sunrise on Schnepf Farms

Mark Schnepf’s father settled this corner of the valley growing potatoes with groundwater. Other crops were grown too, but potato farming was the key commodity.

The water table began to sink lower, and the cost of electricity made it expensive to pump. Early settlers to this region could punch a well and hit water at 300 feet. By the 1950’s well drillers were having trouble finding water at a thousand feet.

It was 1993 when Queen Creek started getting some limited access to water from the just completed Arizona Central Canal Project. 

In 1990 the population of Queen Creek was 2500, in 2000 the town was twice that, and  is now home to over 51,000.

The explosive growth in this corner of Arizona has transformed a rural village into a traffic clogged suburb. At one point they were throwing up houses on this side of the valley at a clip of 10,000 per month. Then there are all the cars, schools, churches, and shopping centers. Occupants to the new homes arrived with children, if they happened to be members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints they arrived here with lots of children.  

San Tan Mountains for a Hike

By 2010 morning commutes were bumper to bumper, traffic signals were in such short supply they trailered in portable units to help unsnarl the busiest intersections.

Mark Schnepf and his family treated me as one of their very own. I had the run of the place. I could use the machine bays, fix my brakes, change sparkplugs, move around on the property as I needed. His most skilled farmworkers were housed on the land too and worked all year long, many have been with Mark since his childhood. The nanny that had raised Mark was the same nanny that helped raise Mark and Carrie’s children.

Big cotton growers were active just south of the farm. Acreage measured in the thousands. If you drove the area you’d see alfalfa fields, corn and citrus.

Schnepf Farms was a way to add value to what you could grow, and the entertainment programming was an enterprising device to drum up some buyers for what you had to offer that way you could sell for retail and cut that wholesaler out of the process altogether.

My Boss Carrie Schnepf with Lacey the Performing Dog

Most of what Mark Schnepf grows is in support of the entertainment programming. He planted pumpkins for Halloween, peaches for the spring festival, corn for a maze to walk around in, vegetable crops to serve at the farm café and bakery.

Schnepf Farm grows a lot of pumpkins for the October event. Pumpkins became so in demand he’d have extra shipped in from more water abundant farming districts.

Friday nights I’d drive north into Apache Junction to go two-stepping at the local country and western saloon. Dancing was fun, beer was cold, and conversation was colorful.

Monsoons arrived this summer, but the drought is still on. Unless you ranch, farm, or run a water dependent business the water shortage doesn’t occupy the front of your mind.

Just south of Queen Creek the San Tan Valley exploded onto the map going from a population of near zero to 96,000 in just 20 years. Two thirds are white, much of the rest are hispanic. New homebuyers moved here from other parts of the valley to get a newer bigger home for lower prices than are available as you get closer into the valley’s center.

San Tan Valley is inhabited by a people with no living memory of a place that until the new century was essentially an empty and desolate desert. San Tan Valley’s culture is in process, it is undergoing development, shaped by the new social media driven world. Your children may have gone to school here, but you didn’t, your parents didn’t, there was no here to grow up in.

Friction is building between the farms and the residents, the reasons are always the same, it’s because of the water. Some farmers saw the writing on the wall and sold their land off to developers. Get out while the getting was good.

The biggest impact of the climate shifting to being slightly dryer and hotter is that there is less water. Adapting to the shortage is uneven, some are hit harder than others. One farm because of their proximity to the Gila River continues to get their full allotment while another newer farm with subordinated water rights in a dry year is entitled to none.

Special Pyro Picture taken at Night at Schnepf Farms

Plenty of ink has been spilled on the unthinkable immediate impact of wildfire and drought. Much less attention has been given to what will come of the people here in the San Tan Valley should this drought persist. Is such a place able to survive such a crisis? Can the government function? If the drought grinds on access to residential water will become more expensive. If that doesn’t do the trick rationing will be mandated, if you use more than allowed, you’ll be fined, if you still flout the rules your water will be cut off.

If the drought persists water will be cut completely to agriculture. Herds will be auctioned off, farm equipment sold, farms and ranches foreclosed on with banks left to dispose of property certain to be worth much less, solvency issues would sure to take a bite out of the banks equity.  

Paramount to all of this is to do with the climate emergency and whether it could trigger the collapse of civilization. What keeps planners at the Pentagon awake nights has to do with cataclysmic events that trigger mass migrations, trigger skirmishes between factions in a community, the kinds of events not witnessed in North America ever before. Can our social and economic order be sustained by communities struggling through a water crisis? You start off with the given that Arizona’s politics runs hot as molten steel. I don’t know that we can know for sure if Arizona’s politics is configured to withstand such a jolt. Predictions are many, answers are few, your guess is as good as mine.

On the other side of the coin is that I know who these people are, I don’t know them by their political point of view. I know them as an audience, I have entertained these families not once or twice but for a decade. I know their hearts and minds. I know parents that love their children with everything they have. Still, for a place touched by such a crisis it will require truthful leaders, there won’t be any room for scapegoating, no finger pointing will get anyone one more drop of water, no blaming and complaining will fill a reservoir.

Scientists haven’t taken any pleasure in forecasting the impact climate change could make on civilization. Over the past half decade in California drought induced wildfires have erupted and the entire state has suffocated for days under a thick smokey haze. Firefighters struggle for months against these massive wildfires. Citizens have had to flee their homes. Whole towns have been lost. Greenville in the Dixie Fire is just yesterday. If the drought continues crunch time will arrive here in the San Tan Valley. Next year could give Arizona its first glimpse of the consequences of a changing climate. What will we do then?

Lacey retired after 5000 shows this was a good dog

What can we do now? Support climate mitigation efforts. Support expanding renewable energy technologies. Sell your gas-powered vehicle and buy an electric automobile or truck. Fly less. You don’t have to give up meat and dairy but use it wisely, be frugal, remember factory farmed animals are a gateway for zoonotic diseases that can cross over to humans and trigger worldwide pandemics. Urge your representatives to update water laws and land use policy. Perhaps the biggest problem is finding a way to keep the gas, oil and coal in the ground. Deploying regenerative farming practices, making steel with hydrogen powered furnaces, concrete too. The technology already exists, what is lacking is the sheer force of our political will to get the job done like right now, with no turning back. We can do this. The time has come.