When dams were young and gardenias a nickel apiece
My mother at 90 prefers the distant past to the present. When she sees the Tournament of Roses parade on television, she recalls coming of age during the Great Depression. When she hears that the nation might be sliding into recession, she tells me what hard times were really like.
Her job during the 1930s was to dole out FDR tennis balls and FDR tennis rackets to penniless players at the newly built public courts near downtown Colorado Springs. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps built those courts along Monument Creek. Then they channelized the floodplain of the creek bed, so that it would not flood the new courts during summer monsoons.
Such feats so impressed my young mother that she married a civil engineer. The couple honeymooned in Southern California, attending the 1939 Rose Bowl. She remembers their first night in a hotel room, where the groom lowered her into a claw-footed bathtub filled with warm water and floating gardenias. “They cost a nickel apiece!” she recalls.
My father’s job site was along the Lower Colorado River, where the bride learned to keep house in the Mojave Desert. “But we were deliriously happy,” she says. “My husband had a job. He was working on a great engineering project. The United States Bureau of Reclamation was lifting the country out of the Depression.”
“Lift” was the operative word. Waters from the Colorado River filled that artificial tub. The Colorado River made gardenias and football fields possible in arid Southern California. The key to getting a river of water to Los Angeles was Parker Dam. The Bureau completed it in 1938, locating it on the Colorado just at the border between the water-warring states of Arizona and California -- about 300 miles east of Los Angeles and 180 miles south of Las Vegas.
Parker Dam creates Lake Havasu, an Indian word for blue water. Near the dam, you can hear a giant sucking sound made by colossal pumps that move the water 1,617 feet up through three cavernous silver pipes to a series of reservoirs and canals that eventually lead to thirsty Los Angeles and the Rose Bowl. That isn’t all. Parker Dam also makes it possible for pumps to divert the Colorado River eastward into the Central Arizona Project. These lifelines make Phoenix and Tucson possible.
Now, the whole Lower Colorado River is a series of reservoirs, quaintly called lakes. Beneath Lake Havasu lie the remains of the villages of the Chemehuevi and Mojave Indians. The canyons of the Colorado River must have been a fearsome sight when the water flowed free, joined here at today’s Parker Dam by the Bill Williams River, the last major tributary before the Colorado headed south toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, thanks to Homeland Security, you have to view all this elegant engineering through barriers and barbed wire. An exception is the drive across the crest of Parker Dam. The drive leads to the Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge, which runs for seven miles up the river and provides habitat for neo-tropical migratory birds. When mountain man and scout Bill Williams led John C. Fremont’s expedition to this junction in 1848, Fremont found both rivers lined with cottonwood forests. Botanists named this tree with its large, graceful leaf after the explorer and presidential candidate. The Indians told Fremont that sometimes the smaller river ran higher than the Colorado itself.
To control its flows, the government built Alamo Dam upstream from the refuge in 1968. But no one figured on the aggressiveness of another invader, the tamarisk. It out-competed the native trees and made a barren jungle of the refuge.
But that was not the end of the story. In spite of the Alamo Dam, the Bill Williams River flashed in the wet years of 1993 and 1995, running so high that it ripped out the tamarisk and allowed the establishment of a corridor forest of Populus fremontii. Today, the trees are an amazing 60 feet high. Biologists and engineers have teamed up to manage the flows of the Bill Williams to nurture the cottonwoods and the endangered birds that depend on them, thus maintaining one of the last cottonwood bosques in the region.
When I tell my mother such ecological morality tales -- though I am not sure what the moral is -- her gaze goes vacant. Slipping back into memories of that gardenia-filled tub, she insists, “You can’t undo the past. And those gardenias were a nickel apiece!”
Tom Wolf is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Tom Wolf is a writer, living at Lake Havasu for the winter.