The rise and fall of a desert stream
I stopped. Swallowed. Looked around my feet, my eyes burning with sweat and light. A hundred and nineteen degrees Fahrenheit, at least. This was the hottest July on record for Arizona. It was, in fact, the hottest single month recorded in all of North America. If I prayed for rain, the sky would laugh at me. Last time I listened to a radio, I heard that 40 people had died while trying to cross the border. They had all run out of water.
The creek bed on which I stood, stretching across the boundary of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts in southeast Arizona, was dry. The air carried no sound.
I am never any good in this kind of heat. I lose track of directions, not minding if thorns stab my legs, the same thorns I would have avoided at dawn. I crawled into the narrow shade of a cliff, watching a single cloud, waiting for it to become huge and pendulous, scratching its belly with lightning, splitting open with rain. Instead it huffed into nothing, as if exiting a boiling kettle.
I left the cliff shade and walked into the shade of cottonwoods, where I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake. It was a western diamondback stretched inconspicuously across dry leaves, not even rattling from two feet away. I made a sound - something like whoaholycrap - and swerved my boot the other way. The snake did not move, did not twitch, did not flick its tongue.
Saguaro cacti stood all around the low slopes of the canyon, coming down to the edges of these deep groves of trees. I walked into the brothy darkness beneath alder trees, ducking under some of the larger, more boldly strung spiderwebs. Inside the shade I found a place to wait, arranging leaves behind my back and leaning against them. I waited for night, six hours away. When shadows went long at about five o'clock, I returned to a place in the creek bed where earlier I had detected a trace of dampness. I organized a stopwatch, a tape measure, and my notebook on the stream cobbles and watched the spot, which was still moist. At about 5:30 water came out of the ground. It did not spew up, but slowly escaped into the surrounding sand and small rocks. The wet circle grew until water became visible. Then it bubbled out like a small fountain and the creek began.
Many of the desert streams that flow through the summer emerge in this way. They come out at night, as if fearful of the sun, rising through small gravel-filled corridors that connect the stream on top to the subsurface stream flowing far beneath. By midnight, this entire creek bed would be the site of a clean, swift stream. Walking across during the day, you would find this absurd to imagine.
As soon as light strikes leaf surfaces at sunrise, the riparian forest sets its higher metabolism into motion, photosynthesizing and pumping phenomenal amounts of water up to the canopy. The thickly arranged plants along the creek are known as phreatophytes, meaning they have no control mechanism for water. They are not true plants of the desert. They take as much water as they can get (a day's worth for a single tree being enough for a few lifetimes of a large cactus), sending it out the leaves, into the heat, making the understory as humid as a New Orleans summer. Instead of flowing across the ground, the creek is hoisted 100 feet into the air, into the leaves of sycamores, willows, cottonwoods, alders and Arizona walnuts. What is not taken shrinks into the ground and returns to the water table. The surface creek is sucked dry.
As light faded from the trees, the creek saturated the surrounding ground before actually taking depth. I drank it there, at its source, my lips against the rocks. Within an hour it was moving. Here and there a new channel broke forward with swift fingers, liberating the wing of a moth, the doily veins of a decomposed cottonwood leaf, a dead beetle. Then it slowed, testing the route, finding places into which it spilled. Dusk came. The creek gained speed, making sounds, pushing pieces of gravel around, sucking air from the soil. As soon as the creek had about 80 feet of ground, longfin dace, supple little fish about an inch or two long, began darting about. There must have been a hundred of them. They had spent the day in sponges of soaked algae protected under leaf piles, or in rotted pieces of wood where water had collected, surviving in a half-alive torpor as the rocks baked around them. Water beetles, who had hidden in the same fashion, spun into action.
Crouched at the water, squinting to write measurements in the coming dark, I glanced to the darker tunnel of overhanging trees upstream. Fireflies had appeared. They besieged the tall grass. Their lights were not constant or sharp, but rather were ephemeral, green lanterns fading in and out, describing brief paths through the air. They were accounted for in my notes, along with the rates of flow from the creek:
- 1st firefly at 7:45
many more by 7:49
dazzling by 7:54
Finally, in the dark, the gurgling sound of the creek became loud enough that the bottom of the canyon had transformed. Through a parade of fireflies and the dance of fish and diving beetles, the water had come. Tomorrow, in the sunlight, all of this would again be gone.
I should not give the impression that all the creeks here appear and disappear completely. Like the creek of the fireflies, many have surface water for 20 yards or 10 feet or half a mile, with dry stretches between. At night these grow and sometimes connect, and during the day they recede, but not all of them entirely. Small waterfalls can still be found in the deepest shade during the day, and some of the creeks keep miles of water on top day and night.
I had come walking the creeks below the Galiuro Mountains, one of the more remote ranges in Arizona, northeast of Tucson and northwest of Willcox. Depending on what you count, there are well over 10 good, running streams here. In the winter they run full steam, bank to bank, all the way to the San Pedro River, a river that flows north out of Mexico into the Gila River, which runs south of Phoenix, curving across the state to meet the Colorado River before returning to Mexico. In the summer these small creeks are piecemeal, consisting of wet and dry sections scattered haphazardly through the canyons.
Although the Galiuros reach as high as 7,663 feet, they do not account in size for the amount of water produced in the springs and creeks below. These desert creeks, all around a 4,000-foot elevation, are too numerous. Even larger mountain ranges that feed the surrounding deserts cannot produce this volume of water. For the number of cattle historically grazing this area, about 25 windmills would be expected. There are only six. Much of the water is actually a remnant of the ice age. Stored and doled out in the increments of small streams, this Pleistocene water slowly drains from aquifers buried in the mountains, joining banks of much more recent runoff water. Radiocarbon dating on the groundwater here places it back 10,000 years, while the oldest water goes back to over 15,000 years. Hydrologists call it fossil water.
The Nature Conservancy in 1982 purchased 49,000 acres of private land and government land leases below the Galiuros. Even as a neighboring rancher sued the Conservancy for not grazing cattle on this leased land, the conservation outfit talked the Bureau of Land Management into a five-year riparian and grassland restoration plan for the area. The plan mostly involved doing nothing, letting the place get back about its business. The boldest moves were the removal of cattle that had been grazing the area heavily since the late 1800s, and an experimental controlled burn program. The canyons at the northern boundaries of the Conservancy property are within two federal wilderness areas, which, when combined with the Conservancy's Muleshoe Ranch land, encompass the entire watershed of these desert streams.
For the most part, surrounding ranchers are complimentary of work that has been done at Muleshoe Ranch. Most of these ranches have voluntarily kept their stock below maximum numbers. Because of the ensuing quality of their ranges, after the last three years of hard drought, these ranchers were some of the few to survive without major economic losses.
The ranch manager at Muleshoe, Bob Rogers, is a congenial man in his 30s who no longer deals in livestock. He does not boom his voice, and he scratches the dirt with his work boot in the middle of a conversation. He is far less at ease in political situations than he is repairing fences, a task that had to be done on one fence 16 times in a single summer after a barrage of floods. Other pieces of land belonging to the Nature Conservancy are of higher profile and have provoked disputes: quarreling with local government or citizens over water rights or grazing or public access or hunting. Muleshoe, on the other hand, is 30 miles down a dirt road that is sometimes washed out. Scientists doing work out here usually vanish into the backcountry for the length of their research. Public visitation is minor. Rogers is pleased with all of this.
He found the only known pair of endangered Mexican spotted owls in the range. Government biologists were skeptical about his claim, saying that sycamore forests with understories of oak and juniper are no good for spotted owls, so Rogers took them there, showed them the birds. He has a good grasp of the land, how to get around. His grandmother was born beside Aravaipa Creek, which crosses the northern point of the Galiuros. Most of his family background is in the ranching business, which he considers himself to still be in. It is only that he is tending to creeks instead of cattle.
I spent some time talking with him about the creeks, getting an idea of what the different seasons are like, sorting through his records of flow measurements. We spread maps on the floor at the headquarters, got on our hands and knees. "Now this is some lost country," he said, scribbling his finger over a series of canyons to the north. "I don't know where this water comes from. Just doesn't make any sense to me, but it certainly is there. Right there," he stabbed his finger down. The creeks of Galiuro befuddle him. So much water in a place where there should be so little.
After spending a week walking the southern canyons, I traveled north, to the place Rogers had called lost country. I started in the morning in one of the canyons, taking note of whatever I saw first: a coiled Arizona black rattlesnake (coming through again later in the day, I found the bare clearing where the snake had shoved pebbles away, leaving its coiled shape on the ground) and a yellow-breasted chat scolding me through the stained-glass light of cottonwood leaves. The creek here ran steadily. It stopped in only a few places, draining into a downwelling zone to reappear elsewhere along the floor, around the next turn. These forests were the thickest I had seen. Dangling throngs of grapevines snared my ankles and I pushed through hedgelike walls of vegetation that blocked the view of the creek. A couple of times I found myself off the ground, suspended on cribs of grapevines, then stumbling out to the desert, into the light, hoping to find a shortcut. The land beyond the thin bands of forest was nude with rock. Saguaros stood here and there, along with numerous leafless ocotillos barren as fence posts. The sky was everywhere, sharp, hot, blue. A soaked bandanna stiffened in three minutes. I fell back into the forest, looking for the creek again.
The air inside was a potent marinade of humidity and heat, causing my upper lip to taste like the sea. From in here, the creek sounded like dishes being put away, a purposeful clatter in the distance. I followed the sound and ducked through to a broad pool where a small waterfall entered at the top. Fish, some of them a foot long, flashed and scattered. A rusty-orange dragonfly dodged up and down the stream corridor, its vellum wings making the rasping sound of dry garlic skins.
A spring came in from the opposite side, draining from cracks in a sheer stone wall. Shrouds of maidenhair fern and already-bloomed monkeyflower hung below the spring, dripping 10,000-year-old water into a natural trough, which then ran into the pool where the fish had calmed after my intrusion. I held myself up by the trunks of two young willows as I leaned toward the pool. The fish settled mostly in one place, the Sonoran suckers resting heads on each other's tails the way horses lean on one another. The smaller, more stout Gila chub kept their distance, hovering higher in the water than the suckers. The streamlined dace, both speckled and longfin species, hung everywhere, high and low, here and there.
These are desert fish, found nowhere else. A number of fish biologists contend that they are, along with the water they live in, holdovers from the ice age. There are other contentions that they even precede the last ice age. Streams are threads through time, remaining through numerous climate changes as ice ages and deserts rise and fall. The fish cannot stand up and walk to more suitable habitat, so for the hundreds of thousands of years that the desert lasts, they seek refuge in these final springs and streams, adapting to the particular rigors.
I once talked with a biologist named W.L. Minckley, who had found speckled dace in a spring along the higher benches of the Grand Canyon. The only physical link between the spring and any streamflow would be during floods, and that connection consists of impassable waterfalls thousands of feet down toward the Colorado River. This, he told me, led him to believe that the fish were there before the canyons were cut. The fish would have lived in that one piece of water for uninterrupted millions of years.
Obviously humans have changed the course for desert fish by interfering with their insular habitats. Extinct in the desert are the likes of the First June sucker, three species of Mexican dace, the Monkey Spring pupfish, Phantom shiner, Las Vegas dace, thicktail chub, and numerous others. In some cases, especially with the native fishes of the less-studied Mexican streams, the extirpation occurs so rapidly that there has been no time to even document extinctions, ironically similar to what is occurring in rain forests. In Arizona, 81 percent of native fish fauna is presently classified or proposed for classification as threatened or endangered.
There have been cases of native desert fishes being actively poisoned out of waterways to make way for non-native sport fish. Referred to as trash fish, most natives are not fleshy or large enough for eating or do not put up the right kind of fight against a fishing line. I once discussed poisoning with a man who had worked on one of these eradication projects, a man who went on to become the superintendent of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the Arizona-Utah border. In his early years he had operated a drip station, one of 55 stations that introduced 81,350 liters of the poison rotenone into the Green River and its tributaries in the fall of 1962. The plan was to regionally dispose of the native humpback chub, a now-endangered fish, to make way for bass for sportfishing. "That is how we saw things then," he explained with a regretful but helpless tone, as if telling of war crimes. "We didn't understand."
Minckley, one of the foremost biologists working with desert fishes, said he could not see the remaining few natives of Arizona deserts surviving the next 50 years. Minckley's words were short, gruff. I talked with him in his office at Arizona State University in Tempe, where he is a professor and researcher. His desk was a mess of books and papers. A poster of native fish species hung on the wall. "Western fishes are completely unique," he explained. "There are only a few examples left in the desert anymore. The value of a species is just ... just ... so hard to hold onto. These species, these fishes, are sentinels for the system. They go, and you know that the place - the larger habitat - is being decimated. One of the things that pisses me off is that it is not necessary. You don't have to introduce bass into remote streams. The biggest factor for these fishes is the competition with non-natives. Dams are not that much of a consequence. Destruction of riparian habitat is not nearly as big a factor. It's those damned non-natives."
Minckley let out a hard breath and wrenched his left hand over his forehead, having told this story before. "All a native desert fish really needs is a place where nothing preys on its young. I am really getting too old to pussyfoot around with all of this. You've got to be insane to be in this business. We are continually losing."
He lamented the lack of support for desert fishes. People fail to get excited about something so remote and unfamiliar as a fish, even if that failure draws to an end not only a large number of species but an entire form of life. Non-natives are brought into these creeks for sport, and I have been unable to argue my way through a steadfast fisherman on the topic. I started bemoaning this to Minckley, telling him that it is difficult to express the value of a fish, something called a trash fish no less. He closed his eyes, retreating to someplace far away. "I know," he said, grumbled, whispered. "I know I know I know I know."
Especially among biologists there is a respect for life and its uniqueness that goes almost unspoken, a reverence for the incomprehensible diversity of organisms that has woven itself into patterns across the earth. We, biologists or not, look at these creatures, including ourselves, the same way we observe stars of the night sky - with unspoken questions hanging from our mouths. To be privy to the eradication of a species and to know damn well what is going on is a shame beyond repair.
A recent government meeting was organized to discuss the preservation of certain desert fishes. One of the top policy makers announced that before anything was done that might hinder non-native sport fish in favor of natives, they would have to assess which of the two should take priority. To keep from bursting into a rage, Minckley stood up and walked out.
Rogers at Muleshoe Ranch told me that while walking up one of the creeks he saw a bass shoot by. It was the first non-native he had seen in that creek. Up higher is a stock tank that a family insists on keeping filled with bass for fishing. In floods the stock tank overflows and the bass tumble into the stream. Rogers swallowed and looked at the ground. It is like being told you have cancer.
To avoid the embarrassment of destroying another species, there have been mad scrambles and last-minute panics. The recovery of the Sonoran topminnow came so late that its habitat was already heavily fragmented and the species had been driven to genetic isolation. The fish that were chosen and reintroduced along numerous creeks turned out to be inbred, carrying no detectable genetic diversity at all. One of the populations in Mexico, one that was not used for reintroduction, was found to have strong genetic diversity, higher fecundity, and higher growth and survival rates. The reintroduced population from Arizona, basically engineered by humans who drove them into detached habitats, was already a dud ready for extinction.
There have also been subtle, illegal maneuvers to preserve these fish. In 1967 Minckley hauled two species out of a spring in an ice chest and transplanted them into a creek. For such a simple act, it was more consequential than many budgeted, staffed, and researched restoration attempts made since. At the spring he had found several species of native fish: the Yaqui chub, the Sonoran topminnow, and the Yaqui sucker. The Yaqui chub, Gila purpurea, was at the time uncomfortably near to extinction. He said, "I filled up a cooler with water, grabbed a hundred chub and female topminnows, then hauled ass up to Leslie Creek and let them loose. Somehow they took hold."
At the time there were no specific laws about transporting native fishes, but Minckley's move was somehow regarded as illegal, and a decade later government land and wildlife managers openly frowned on his actions. Ironically, his act prevented the extinction of the Yaqui chub. Shortly after he had transplanted these fish, the spring, which had become the final refuge for the species, completely dried. The fish he had transported in his ice chest became the only remaining population and are now the genetic stock of the Yaqui chub that have been reintroduced across southern Arizona.
I traveled 15 miles north until reaching a creek directly below the crest of the Galiuro Mountains. A canyon burrowed into the desert, carrying a length of dark, fat pools and short waterfalls. The forest was no haiku, no simple arrangement. It was a mess. Flood debris and alders. Alders grew so thick that I had to place my two hands before my face, or walk backward, my backpack parting the way until the way became too tangled, and parted me.
The alders were so abundant due to a large flood that came through a decade earlier, spitting the remains of cottonwoods, sycamores, and willows into the San Pedro River. The alders were the first to come back.
Floods get rid of things, cleaning the creeks. Along with tearing out the forests, floods dispose of non-native fish. One thing natives have over these non-natives is that they can survive incredible hardship. Floods come down like rolling loads of cement. In Aravaipa Creek north of here, which carries one of the largest assortment of native fish, half of the creek's entire water output is discharged over 22 days of the year. A quarter of the year's water appears within three and a half days. An autumn flood on Aravaipa sent the creek 50 feet above its normal waterline, and more than half of the riparian forest was destroyed. Most aquatic insects were wiped out. Researchers returned to find that the fish had hardly even moved, that the populations kept roughly the same proportions, as if the flood had been nothing to them but a shrug.
The razorback sucker has a peculiar hump of muscle on its back, shaped like a top keel, located close to the heart to deliver immediate bursts of swimming power against overwhelming currents. As one fish biologist told me, floods mean nothing against this one muscle. While other native species - aquatic plants, invertebrates, and amphibians - must often repopulate a previously flooded stream in the form of seeds, eggs, or airborne adults, adult razorback fish are often still there.
Consider the proportions. A two-inch dace and 50-foot wall of water, boulders, shattered cottonwood trees, and mud. The flood subsides. The dace has not moved. A researcher named Gary Meffe, working at Arizona State University, planted Sonoran topminnows and non-native mosquitofish in a Plexiglas flume. The mosquitofish has wiped out topminnows throughout most of Arizona, largely by preying on juveniles, but tends to disappear after heavy flooding in narrow canyons, while topminnows remain. This piqued Meffe's curiosity. When he sent a pulse of high water down his flume, the native topminnows quickly faced into the current, taking nearly motionless positions along the sides or near the bottom of the flume, wherever frictional drag gave the water a slight pause. Mosquitofish panicked and darted anywhere. If they oriented into the pulse, it was with hesitation. They would not hold their places, flashing from side to side or turning completely around, their bodies catching different currents, their tails tucking into eddies and pulling them off course. They were flushed out of the flume. Even newborn topminnows snapped to the correct position and stayed there when a pulse came down. The mosquitofish had no genetic memory of water behaving like this, while native fish hovered in the eddies and shear zones, hunkering down, refusing to move or even twitch their fins in the wrong direction.
Few environments in the world are in such a constant state of violent expansion and contraction as this. If these streams were forests, they would vanish suddenly, understory and all, leaving nothing but hard ground, then reappear from nowhere. Devastating fires would charge through, sometimes several times in one year. The common assemblage of rabbits, elk and bears would never do in a forest like this. An entirely new means of life would have to be invented.
On the other end of the spectrum from floods are the retreat and disappearance of the streams, sometimes daily, sometimes once a year. Rather than avoiding retreating sections of stream, some beetles and water bugs seek out these habitats in search of prey. Predator densities rise quickly. Raccoons and coatis scoop beleaguered fish out of the last pools, and black hawks drop from the canopy to find whatever else has been stranded. The stresses and cycles of desert streams are uncountable. If not floods, then drought. At one desert stream in the last stages of drying, researchers saw eight predacious water bugs fly into two pools and consume 20 fish within a matter of a few hours.
Fish scattered ahead of me as I slid through the water. They schooled around each other, darting beneath tree roots. These were all natives. This canyon has yet to see a non-native. Dragonflies flitted and poised on the ends of twigs and snatched prey from the air. A researcher had walked into one of the nearby canyons last summer studying these insects, finding a tropical damselfly, Palaemnema domina, that had never been seen in the United States. In canyons west of here, he captured three species of damselfly that had never been recorded anywhere in the world. Down in the rich forests along one of these Galiuro creeks, he cataloged 25 species of damselflies and dragonflies, some with zebra-striped abdomens, others with colors scripted into their wings. With these creatures hovering in and out, the place verged on primeval.
A wind shoved through at 2:30, launching a fresh and unmistakable smell. Rain. Cold rain and hot rocks, the smell of a summer storm. There was not much of the sky to see, but there were certainly no clouds. I kept moving, trying not to wish too hard for rain, not to disappoint myself.
After half an hour a thunderstorm moved over the canyon rim, lumbering in like a floating city. Thunder came through with low, gravelly echoes off the walls. I looked up. My god, I thought, I prayed, pummel us down here. Ravage us. Please.
I found a 50-foot boulder in the stream and climbed its back to where I had a clear view of the canyon and the heavens above. It was like standing on a glowing woodstove. The boulder sent heat straight through my body, up my raised arms to the sky. The clouds were dark with water, bulging down as if about to rip open. A few drops of rain fell. Fat drops. I closed my eyes, turned my head upward. One hit my cheek. My first rain since sometime in the late winter or the spring. But that had been a different kind of rain. So much desire in the summer desert. So much goddamned, furious desire. I was begging out loud, holding my hands up.
It did not come. The drops ended. Thunder lost its sharpness to distance. The boulder was still hot, having evaporated each drop, not letting them stain the surface for more than two seconds. I crawled off the boulder feeling self-conscious. I had made a fool of myself begging at the sky.
When dusk came, I unloaded gear onto rugs of fallen leaves, where I would make my camp. The forest had become disturbingly dark. I glanced up, my ground pad in hand. I did not move as I looked through the offhanded crossing of branches, leaves and vines. Dark, closed places like this make me uneasy. It is not the wild beasts or the idea of a lunatic with an ax. It is not facing my dreaded interior self. It is the informality, the thoughtlessness, the brooding wisdom, the endlessness, the closure of darkness. More than that, it is the thing in darkness I cannot name. I was once called in by an adventure travel magazine where a number of writers at a table were asked to do a piece on their fears in the wilderness. Someone said she would take spiders, and everyone laughed sympathetically. Another person said heights, and another being lost, both of which elicited noble nods and mmm sounds. I said dark, and not one of these outdoor folk said anything. They all looked at me to see if I was kidding. "Dark," I said. "You know. The Dark." They all kept looking at me.
I stayed in the forest for a few minutes, reasoning with myself. Then I packed and climbed out. I went up only 200 feet, scrambling in the loose rock around prickly pear cactus, before dropping my gear again. It was easier to breathe up here. Hard, definite edges and blocks replaced the boiling, fleshy shapes of the forests. It was not dusk, as I had thought. Orange sunlight embedded the cliff tops. The nest of solid green below sounded like an aviary. No matter how loud the birds became, they still seemed secretive, hidden in the trees around the water. I kicked away the larger rocks and lifted off the balls of cholla cactus. There I could sit and look down into the stirring, breathing forest. I finally stretched back, pulled off my clothes, and covered my body with a sheet.
Sometime in the night a brilliant white light branded my eyelids. I woke. There were no stars, only a black sky. The air smelled wet. The breeze, liquid. My hands were clutched over my chest and I did not move them. In fact, I tightened them, bracing for what would come next. It sounded like a block of marble cleaved open with a sledgehammer. The sky broke in two with thunder. Echoes pounded back, thrumming against my spine.
Lightning shot to the southeast. The air exploded again. Lightning then fell all around, snagging on the higher terrain. Scraps of lightning showed from behind rock towers. I counted the canyons by how many echoes of thunder were returned. Four pulses of thunder: four canyons. Then I heard the tapping. Rain began to fall. Another bolt of lightning. The rain increased, dabbing my face, making the sound of bean-filled rattles. I could hear it up on the cliffs, rain sheeting against rock. Rain dimpled my sheet, then sopped the fabric against my skin. I kept my hands folded on my chest. Water ran like tears out of my eyes, into my hair, through the rocks and into the forest. The creek grew by just that much.
My prayers. I remembered my prayers.
This story is excerpted from Craig Childs' latest book, The Secret Knowledge of Water. Craig is currently working on three new books, all centered in the Desert Southwest - one on "the archaeology of desperate places," one on flash flood stories, and one on environmental transition zones. When he isn't searching for water in the desert, Craig lives outside Crawford, Colo., with his wife, Regan E. Choi, who illustrated this story.
Copyright © 2001 HCN and Craig Childs