How does your river flow?

Of Time and A River

I know the Colorado River where it flows through canals across sweltering fields of lettuce, and where it runs under highways, past skyscrapers and homes. It spreads over shallows where it rises into a cerulean sky to join with clouds.

Yet, the ghost of another river abides here, too.

My first encounter with the Colorado River occurred as I travelled over the Laguna Mountains in California into the Imperial Valley of southern Arizona. My body understood before my brain that I had entered a place of tight margins.

It was early March. I thought the region would be cool. As I reached the desert floor—a descent of 6,000 feet—the temperature rose and the balmy sea air from which I had emerged, dried into hot metal fumes off the hood of my truck. Air streamed hot and unfriendly past the open windows. Yet I was surrounded by a surreal sight of sprinklers throwing arcs of water over row upon row of broccoli and lettuce. Discovering farms in a desert initiated my long meditation on the conundrum of how 40M people came to live in a place where water is the limiting factor, where life balances on a sharp edge.

At the time I did not know that I was meeting the river itself.

In Yuma, Arizona I instructed children descended from the River People who were among my middle school students. Through them I learned the long history of human settlement along the river. For them history reached back thousands of years. Their culture observed the river’s spring floods and tranquil summer flow by moving to the hills when it flooded, returning as it receded to plant crops in the flood plains. They were expert fishers. Legends of people walking across the river on the backs of abundant fish persist in memory. They hunted game in the mesquite forests and among the reedy banks of the river developing a sustainable technology and material culture.

When the first Europeans began to explore the area, one tribe alone had an estimated 20,000 people living above and below what is now the U.S. – Mexico border. Today, desert people abide in and around current day metropolises of the American West. The old cultures knew how to live well on the land under their feet—knowledge that persists to this day.

Read about the history of the Cocopah Nation in Yuma, Arizona.

Fast forward to the 20th century. The United States sent John Wesley Powell to answer a question: “Could the West be farmed like the eastern half of the United States?” Powell made three expeditions to determine the feasibility of farming and city-making in dry lands. A scientist, he studied the watersheds, which was logical. He consulted native people, farmers, and cattle owners. His answer to the lawmakers was not popular. He reported that any development in the west should be done according to the watershed and a set of rules. Annual rainfall for replenishment of ground water would provide the limitations for growth. For example, if a farmer buys land in dry country, he should pay to bring that water to his enterprise and observe the natural recharge limits.

Powell mapped the available water sources. He had lost an arm in the Civil War making his accomplishments even more astounding, including navigation through the Grand Canyon by raft and boat when the Colorado was still running free and fierce.

Congress and colluding business tycoons paid no heed to Powell’s report (1879), lusting over the profits. They asserted that the country could prevail over nature, somehow, someway, with massive dams, canals, and all manner of concrete and steel. The river became the locked and labored one that I came to know. Now, a record drought, dwindling ground water, and water wars over a jerry-rig of litigation known as the Law of the River, exhibits their folly. Forty million people face a doubtful future.

Powell was right.

What gives me hope is the knowledge that the Colorado River Indian Tribes exist today. Could they lead us out of this crisis? Help us reset to a new relationship with the river?

Over my years of meditating on “the water issue,” I have imagined that not too far in the future children bicycling through abandoned roadways, past forlorn and silent high rises, might ask their parents, “What place is this? What happened here?”

Preposterous, you say. What could be more so than what we created in a land where life exists in narrow margins? A river has a body and a spirit that is interrelated with ours and all living creatures that imbibe its life-giving waters. That is not fiction but science and lived experience. These principles can never be violated without consequences. Eventually the river dies and all life dependent upon it. Desert peoples observed, experimented and then fit their lifeways to the river’s way. That is what we must learn to do, using our advanced technologies to mimic nature’s circular systems that regenerate energy and recycle materials.

Monsoons over Sonoran Desert – Photo by Susan Feathers

When I moved to Tucson, the first night there I attended a poetry reading by a Tohono O’Odham elder who described her childhood living in a one-room adobe far from the nearest river. Ofelia Zepeda’s nation captured water from rainfall during the summer monsoon. The people practiced “dry” farming in which no irrigation was available, only rainfall and gratitude. She told us how the old women pulled the rainclouds from the sky with their harvesting sticks. I was moved by her beautiful poems and stories.

Upon walking to my car, thunder rolled above and a deafening crack of lightening played in a vast display across the heavens. Dark monsoon clouds released buckets of rain that filled streets, making gullies in the soil, and immediately chilling the air. It was July and the monsoon rains. For me it was a baptism, an initiation and welcome to the real and living desert.

Places – Imperial Valley

Yuma, Arizona Farm Fields

Imperial Valley, Below Sea Level, 1990

The Colorado River was a wild, red fury in its natural state. It flooded its banks in southern Arizona and Northern Mexico on its way from the Rockies to the delta on the Sea of Cortez, Gulf of California. This was true for thousands of years. Early people learned its rhythms and developed cultures in sync with the river’s seasonal flows. They are called The Colorado River Indian Tribes—distinct communities that still exist along the river’s course. Their history encompasses the dramatic changes wrought by damming the great river to create one of the most extensive desert gardens known to humankind.

When I crossed the Continental Divide atop the Laguna Mountains, under a brilliant star-studded black sky, I was entering a dimension so subtle it would take me years to define it. Something more than gravity pulled me down the steep, winding road as it descended into the Imperial Valley. The sun was just breaking above a distant horizon as my vehicle finally leveled out onto the valley floor. Immediately an aroma of soil, mist, and something close to boiled peanuts filled my nostrils. It is a scent that I have only experienced in this part of the U.S. – distinct and overtaking. It is not unpleasant but haunting in a way. You know it is not natural for the valley but something created by a great deal of struggle, sweat, and industry.

In the far distance a range of ruddy red mountains formed the eastern border of the valley with Picacho Peak soaring into unbroken blue. I recall my daughter’s reminiscence after moving to Washington, D.C. from Arizona: “Mom, I miss that big dome of sky that made me feel protected under its blue canopy.”

Openness, expansion, mystery and fear were the emotions that churned in me that day.

The Imperial Valley stretches over 100 miles from the foothills of the Laguna Mountains in southern California to Yuma, Arizona at the juncture of California, Arizona and Mexico. It is a vast alluvial plain, rich in minerals and, before the irrigation of the valley, a low desert dotted by barrel cactus and rolling tumbleweed. Once the dams and extensive canals were built (a colorful history of drastic measures, tragic mishaps, and powerful men with big dreams and money to back them) the desert floor flowered into one of America’s most productive bread baskets. In 1990 the lettuce crop alone harvested $16M for growers.

As the sun rose higher, row upon row of lettuce and blue canals appeared and disappeared from view like an old-time flickering movie. Egrets and gulls flew above or walked among the rows! Did they migrate from the oceans of southern California or up from the delta on the Sea of Cortez?The whole experience was surreal. Then I began to notice the heat…oh, dear. My un-air-conditioned beach mobile! I was unprepared for this region of the world. I was sweating profusely now and had brought only a small bottle of water with me. Suddenly I felt threatened. Where was the nearest town?  Where were the people? I saw nothing but huge sprinklers like warriors from Star Wars on thin metal legs rolling across fields throwing streams of precious Colorado River water onto American grown vegetables and cotton. On and on I drove, past a feedlot that stank for miles, past an ostrich farm and more green flushed with blue sparkling water. Was there any water left in the Rio Colorado? I wondered.

The heat grew ever more oppressive. At below sea level, the Imperial Valley is a heat sponge. I nearly fainted before finding a small town and limped into Wendy’s where I remained for three hours slumped over a table. The waitresses were empathetic. Many California beach combers succumbed to the valley’s record temperatures. It reached 119 degrees that day in May.

Cadillac Desert Video

Imperial Valley, CA