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A Once and Future River, by John L. Keane

by John L. Keane
 

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
 flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

                                      — Langston Hughes
 

This old river keeps on rolling, though,
no matter what gets in the way or which way the wind does blow.
As long as it does,
I just sit here and watch the river flow.

                                      — Bob Dylan
 

Air conditioners blow and drive-time radio chatters as commuters cross the Priest Drive bridges in Tempe, Arizona. They are rolling across the wide and absolutely dry bed of the Salt River. If they bother to look at all, they are seeing a relic from another time. Where Charles Hayden used to operate a small ferry the Salt River is now vacant land, a moonscape of cobbles and sand. The powerful desert sun has faded the riverbed to a mottled, ghostly beige. Seen from above, the cobbles look like a closely packed crowd of bald white men, waiting silently for the next flood. Big floods do still come, sometimes a year or two apart, sometimes after a decade or two, putting flesh back on the river's dry bones. The flood water tugs at the cobbles, sometimes moving them bit by bit toward someplace, anyplace, downstream. At times you can even hear the grumble and clack of the river cobbles moving under the light brown water. The flood stops after a few days or weeks, and the cobbles, powdered with a make-up of fresh silt, settle down to wait for the next flood.

Just upstream is Tempe's new urban park and artificial lake. Beyond that in the city of Mesa the dry river is a disorderly series of pits and mounds, trucks and conveyer belts. Both white and Indian businesses mine the sand and gravel brought by the river. A few miles downstream, in Phoenix, past Sky Harbor Airport, the river is a pock-marked no man's land. Some of the homeless camp near it, but much of the community ignores it. The Salt used to be a real river here. "As long as the rivers shall run down to the sea" used to mean forever, more or less.

What happened?

Efficiency happened. The Salt is only one example of how the human animal has industriously transformed landscapes in the attempt to make them efficient. It is an example of the choices communities face time and again, and it provides lessons in the need for creativity and the need to build inefficiency (or a deeper kind of efficiency) into our urban landscapes as we transform them.

The Salt River in Tempe, Arizona,
The Salt River at Mill Avenue, Tempe, Arizona.
Original photo by J. Keane.

Rivers are routinely corseted, straightened, shrunk, and rerouted as they are made to fit into our humanized landscapes. Celebrating the dwindling number of relatively "wild" rivers that remain, and lobbying to protect them are right and good things to do, but the subject here is those rivers that have already been domesticated. Rivers are still rivers as they flow between warehouses and under freeway bridges. It is in these urbanized landscapes that the majority of people spend most of their lives, and it is here that people usually experience creeks and rivers. People, in their baldly anthropocentric way, experience rivers as obstacles, food sources, transportation devices, and beasts of burden. Rivers provide wildlife habitats, drainage, waste disposal, and various kinds of recreation, measured out by government accountants and economists as the number of fishing or kayaking or picnicking days per year. But rivers and streams, even small ones, mean a good deal more than that to human beings. Rivers are lines that anchor us within our made-over landscapes, tying us to the planet's own vast and subtle rhythms.

These lines of meaning, these anchors, have been cast aside in parts of the arid American West. Here people have worked their will upon rivers with remarkable engineering skills, but their work of concrete, valves, and buried pipes has neglected deeper social and aesthetic needs. The recent life history of a river in Arizona reflects a life out of balance.

The Salt was a real flowing river through Phoenix until early this century, and some miles upstream it still is. Even in its truncated form, the Salt is still a river, a member of the family of waterways that includes streams from the Hudson to the Congo. Rivers everywhere involve the same kinds of physical energy and sediment transport processes. Rivers have also generated meanings for people, meanings sometimes similar through history and across geography. They are more than just crucial parts of the physical landscape; they have become parts of our cultures, icons that help us to think and to feel. This is so even if the surroundings along the banks vary from woods and towns, like those of Poughkeepsie on the Hudson, to the swamps around Mbandaka on the Congo, to the Salt's high desert canyons on Apache tribal lands.

Rivers in all their forms have become the raw material for countless metaphors, myths, sayings, and symbols. Their endurance and sheer blind force make them a symbol of massive natural forces that can obliterate human achievements. Milton in Paradise Lost uses a "slow and silent stream" as a "river of oblivion." And T.S. Eliot's river in The Dry Salvages is an image of solid, unheeding toughness:

    I do not know much about gods; but I think
    that the river
    Is a strong brown god-sullen, untamed and
    intractable.

People have used the figure of the river to comprehend and express the unstoppable flow of time:

    Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
    Bears all its sons away;
    They fly forgotten, as a dream
    Dies at the opening day.

                            - Isaac Watts, in a Christian hymn

And the river has also been invoked for visualizing emotions under a calmer surface:

    Below the surface stream, shallow and light,
    Of what we say and feel-below the stream,
    As light, of what we think we feel, there flows
    With noiseless current, strong, obscure and
     deep,
    The central stream of what we feel indeed.

                      - Matthew Arnold, St. Paul and Protestantism

Rivers are often boundaries or obstacles, and crossing them can be an ordeal, an achievement, almost a rite of passage. For the pioneer and the traveler, successful river crossings have symbolized progress toward a goal or progress in a spiritual journey: crossing the River Styx, or "one more river to cross" in the old spiritual.

Rivers have been used as a metaphor for cleansing power, a force for washing away sins or distractions, of simplifying and renewing life: pilgrims bathe in the Ganges and other sacred rivers; and John and Jesus used the Jordan for baptism. Rivers and the life they sustain in dry lands are a favorite Old Testament image of God's support and nourishment. The first Psalm likens the godly man to a tree whose roots are by a river, whose leaves will not wither in times of drought or distress.

A few months ago, I went to a memorial service being held for an eminent geographer, teacher, and mountaineer, less than a mile from the now dry Salt River. The man had dropped dead in the high snow fields of the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. He was a big man, a generous and wise man, searching for the perfect martini, the perfect chicken-fried steak, and the perfect mountain. This good man was not religious, not in any conventional sense, and although he was not a churchgoer, the service ended with an old friend of his, an operatic soprano who had flown in from the East coast, slowly and simply singing the hymn that ends:

     shall we gather at the river,
     that flows past the throne of God?

This was not a very religious crowd. Yet those slowly sung words struck a deep chord within the people there. Even where rivers have been all but abolished, the idea of rivers carries meaning and emotional power.

"The river of God is full of water," as the Psalmist says (65:5). In dry lands, people know that some streams don't always flow. Perennial streams are a blessing. If rivers traditionally have had such special power and meaning, why did people dry up the Salt River?

Repairing the Arizona Canal.
Repairing the Arizona Canal, 1907.
Original photo by W. Lubken, courtesy of the SRP Research Archives.

Rivers, like people, have their contexts and ancestries. The Salt, and rivers like it, are integrators, summarizing the basins they drain, the basins that shape them and give them their character-they distill a region down to its essentials. Their shape and taste is partially derived from the basin's geology. Every change of season, every storm, every dry spell is reflected in due time, in the river's time-rivers are the changing pulse of their basins. The amount and timing of a stream's flow, the water's quality, and the amount of sediment the water carries are all influenced by the ways people live in the river basins.

The Salt is a modest-sized river. By the time it leaves the mountains and canyons and flows through the Phoenix area, the Salt is draining an area about the size of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island combined. The Connecticut River, with a somewhat smaller watershed, produces about 13 times more water each year than the Salt does. The Salt may drain some of Arizona's wettest country, but that country is still Arizona, where evaporation and aridity are inescapable. Arizona's highlands have sharply pronounced wet and dry seasons, and the river reflects that. Arizona is prone to extreme year-to-year variations in precipitation, and so the river is small and feeble one year and fat and strong the next.

For millennia the Salt River system has carried silt, sand, cobbles, and clay down from Arizona's higher, greener central mountains, like the Mazatzals and Sierra Anchas, the Mogollon Rim and the White Mountains near New Mexico. When the river reached the flatter Sonoran Desert basins, it would slow down and deposit most of this load, gradually filling in the vast spaces between the taupe and tan desert mountains. Down there, the heat is intense, and the summers seem to last forever. Nature's seven inches of rainfall per year in the lower Salt River Valley won't grow much more than the tough, astringent, and utterly inedible creosote bush and the short-lived weeds and wildflowers that appear after good rains. But the soil is quite good if you can find some water for it, and the frost-free growing season may run for years at a time.

About a thousand years ago, the people we now call the Hohokam (a word the Pima used for "those who have left," that is, "those who have died") began digging irrigation canals to lead water away from the river. The one Salt River was ultimately diverted into many smaller, man-made channels. Over several centuries the canals grew longer and larger, and the Indians dug more of them and cultivated more land. This canal system dug with sticks and stone hoes represented vast amounts of strenuous manual labor. In the early 1400s this increasingly complex culture crashed; the towns, villages, and canals were abandoned. No one knows why, but many scholars suspect that the unpredictable behavior of the Salt and its watershed, so prone to droughts and floods, had something to do with this social and economic collapse. The branching canals were left dry, and the river water returned to its bed and its own ways.

When the first motley assortment of prospectors, soldiers, and opportunists began trickling into the Salt River Valley in the 1850s and '60s, it was still relatively unoccupied. A few Pima grew crops and hunted in the nearby Gila River Valley, but the old extensive irrigation system was now virtually unknown to those who lived along the Salt. White settlers began doing their own crude irrigation, and eventually they figured out that the silted-up, creosote-speckled traces across the desert were ancient canals. These white farmers and entrepreneurs had technological advantages that made wrestling with dirt and river easier: metal tools, wheeled barrows and wagons, and the sturdy blessing of horse, mule, and ox power. The ancient canals were refurbished and enlarged, and new ones were constructed. The Salt River shrank again as the canals filled and branched out. (When other settlers built canals on the Gila River to the south, they did so upstream of the Pima, cutting off that small tribe's water supply. The Pima are still bitter over this act of theft by their new neighbors.)

The Salt, however, gave white settlers the very same headaches that the Indians had endured centuries earlier. The river's rhythms-"rhythm" comes ultimately from a Greek word meaning "to flow," like a stream-did not move according to the rhythms of large-scale human agriculture. To begin with, the annual timing of river flows failed to match the water needs of their crops. Arizona's river flows come from winter rains and spring snow melts. Most of the Salt's annual flow is available January through May, when the desert climate is mild and the crops are being planted. Farmers' winter and spring water needs were far less than the flow provided by the river, so most of the river's water would gurgle on past the canals' headings and through the Valley, into the Gila River, and then on across the vast lower Sonoran Desert. Some of that water would make it all the way to the Colorado River and then on to Mexico and the Gulf of California.

Crops would be well up by the time June hit the Valley with its 110-degree heat and a relative humidity so low the air could suck all the moisture out of almost everything. But by this time of year the Salt would have dwindled to its small base flow. Every drop of the river was diverted to canals and onto fields, yet this still wasn't enough water to go around.

The seasonal rhythms of the river were problem enough, but at least these rhythms were more or less predictable. Other, wildly erratic rhythms of the Salt from year to year made matters far worse. In a wet year the farmers could watch a few years' worth of irrigation water sweep down the river in a few weeks, lost forever, taking the crude canal headings out as it went. During droughts which sometimes hung on for years, farmers with the most junior water rights would be driven out of business entirely, often packing up and leaving the Valley.

Salt River Valley farmers did what farmers have always done: they complained about Mother Nature's inconsistency, and they put extraordinary efforts into lobbying the federal government to do something to protect them from nature's whims. One of central Arizona's worst droughts took place 1898 to 1904. It was during this time that the lobbying reached a crescendo, and it paid off. The federal government, under its new Reclamation Act, agreed to build what would come to be called the Roosevelt Dam, some 60 miles east of Phoenix. The dam would convert nature's rhythms of flow into man's rhythm of water demands, and it would capture the great volumes of the wet years for use in the inevitable dry years to follow. Construction began in what turned out to be last year of the big drought. The following year, 1905, is still the wettest year on record; the Salt made its comment by wiping out much of the first year's work at the rugged and remote dam site.

Other dams were added to the Salt and to its sister river and tributary, the Verde, during the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. The dams have now largely "tamed" the river, to use that arrogant cliché so revealing about the culture of those who settled the American West. The Salt River had always flowed to the rhythms of the watershed's seasons and the watershed's radical variability. Now this was true only above the reservoirs. Below the dams, the managed river flowed according to man's calendar of needs, dominated by the rhythms of irrigated agriculture.

Grand Canal, Arizona.
Cooling off in the Grand Canal, circa 1920s.
Original photo courtesy of the SRP Research Archives.

Settlers had transformed the Salt River Valley. What had once been an erratic river and a vast empty desert became an empty riverbed, an orderly canal system, thousands of agricultural fields and farm houses, and half a dozen small towns. The messy, disorderly, and naturally productive jumble along the river banks was replaced by cleaned and scheduled canals, confined to narrow and predictable right-of-ways. Carefully controlled releases from the dams provided just enough water to meet each day's demand. The water was now diverted into canals at the east, upstream end of the Valley. There, the river stopped dead, replaced by the canals, which flowed on across the Valley, steadily diminishing as deliveries were made, until they, too, just stopped.

If the canal system was operated with the greatest possible skill and efficiency, there would be nothing left at the end of the settled irrigated area. Any water that did return to the riverbed was considered "waste" and was to be avoided if at all possible. So where the irrigation ended, the canals as replacement rivers stopped. Downstream of the Phoenix area, the old riverbed was mostly dry.

Think of the Phoenix-area canals as ersatz rivers, as man-made, tidier, vastly simplified rivers. The river's bed may be dry, but the canals fan out through towns and farms alike, carrying the river water in new fixed channels. These canals gave farms and neighborhoods a bit of flowing water, a place for kids to play and fish, and trees whose shade was a valuable commodity under the brain-frying desert sun. Old photographs show this tree-lined look along many canals, especially along the smaller branch canals, locally called "laterals." People rode horses, walked, or drove model Ts along the canal rights-of-way. Families picnicked under the trees, and kids swam where canal currents were not too strong.

But the canals were hardly the ecological equivalents of the river they replaced. As with so many environments fashioned by the human species, the canals were vastly simplified. The river had sported a ragged and changing assemblage of cottonwoods, dense stands of willows, and water-seeking shrubs, weeds, grasses, and moss. Along many canals, settlers had planted native cottonwood trees or imported species, like poplars, salt cedars, and pecans, at regular intervals. Other vegetation was regularly hacked or burned away by the farmers and the employees of the Water Users' Association. Since a canal or lateral that was choked with moss and other plants wouldn't let water through, water users couldn't let it stay choked for long. The river was often shallow, and it was likely to make minor changes in course after each big watershed storm. The canals were fixed routes, often deeper and narrower and far more uniform than the river they replaced-they had none of the subtle patterns of shallows, riffles, pools, and gravel that fish and other aquatic animals need.

The human transformation of river to canals did not stop there. In the American West, whenever a water supply was developed, demands for water would outgrow it. People then scrambled to find ways to squeeze more water out of these systems (and hired lawyers to fight over the water that was there). From the 1940s through the mid-60s, Arizona was dogged by drought. At the same time, World War II and the decades that followed were boom years. Irrigated agriculture continued to be the main water user, but civic boosters and developers were presiding over a whirlwind of immigration and economic growth which created the vast suburban population that is still spreading across the desert. This flood of new residents did not grow up in the desert. As much as they admired the desert's stark beauty, they wanted the familiar grass lawns and the protective shade trees they had known in Chicago, Columbus, or wherever happened to be home. So while water supplies were down, water demands were as high as ever, or higher.

More usable water had to be squeezed out of the system somehow. The reservoir and canal system had to be made more efficient. And it was. After about 1940 there began a long, gradually accelerating push to modernize the canal system.

Bit by bit the canals and laterals were lined with concrete so that water would not seep out of the bottom and sides. The trees along the canals, grown large from years of canal seepage, were now deprived of their water source. Over several decades the trees died and were cut down. Canal-lining projects and more rigorous canal maintenance necessitated clear unobstructed access for workers and equipment. Efforts were intensified in the summer battle against canal moss, and more men and equipment were brought in to fork it out of the canals and into dump trucks. The new residents complained about the unsightly weeds that would quickly and briefly sprout along canal roads after the winter or summer rains, so these were kept down by spraying. All of this resulted in wide, absolutely bare banks with access roads running along both sides of the canals. Better and more precisely operated control gates were installed in the canals so that water could be measured more carefully. The Valley was filling with people, people who might fall into canals and drown, or be hurt climbing on canal gate machinery. New rules, signs, and patrols were aimed at discouraging casual community use of the canals.

These increases in efficiency paid off: the amount of "lost and unaccounted for" water decreased from as much as 30 percent to less than 10 percent today. The annual savings alone could supply an entire city. Several generations of civil engineers, water schedulers, delivery-gate operators, water-measurement specialists, construction workers, maintenance men, and now computer specialists have been single-mindedly fighting the inefficiency and waste that are always possible in such a sprawling open canal system. Economic forces and the desert sun apply a steady pressure for efficiency.

But this triumph of efficiency has also had its cost. The canals, already just a pale imitation of the river that was destroyed to fill them, are now even less a part of the community, less inviting, and less like a river. Donald Worster in Rivers of Empire wrote that the modern irrigation canal in the western United States "unlike a river, is not an ecosystem. It is simplified, abstracted Water, rigidly separated from the earth and firmly directed to raise food, fill pipes, and make money."

It is not difficult to understand why urban planning and design have neglected the canals for the last four or five decades. As the Phoenix area urbanized, the canals were made more efficient and became increasingly sterile. The canal system reflected both the Valley's demand for water and the country's mid-twentieth century rush toward engineered modernity. In earlier days, the sometimes flowing, sometimes empty lateral canals and delivery ditches that ran along roadsides and front yards constantly reminded people of their ties with the river. Later, townspeople would be spared the sight of the very un-modern ditches: open lateral canals were replaced by buried pipes almost everywhere in town. Neighborhoods no longer face onto canals, nor are the canals incorporated into community design. Instead, neighborhoods face away from canals-the canal and its barren right of way are usually bordered by cinder-block backyard walls, now a ubiquitous psychological requirement for homeowners in the Phoenix area. In older parts of town, the canals are screened off from yards and businesses by the equally impenetrable walls of giant oleanders, whose tough old stalks have woven themselves through the no longer visible chain-link fences.

Some people do walk their dogs on the canal banks, or they jog or ride bicycles there. People use the canals as corridors of space to move through, not as a place to sit or rest or play: they go there because flowing water is there and because there are fewer street intersections, not because the canals are inviting or particularly attractive. Yet some do visit the canals-the water may be flowing in a concrete ditch, but it is still flowing water. Almost no one goes to the dry river bottom, which is one of the most powerful illustrations of "desolate" that anyone could imagine.

The waters of the river, becoming the waters of the canals, now supported farming towns that would grow into the sunbelt metro area of Motorola plants, Circle K stores, taco shops, coffee houses, golf courses, vast Intel chip-making facilities, dirty air in the winter, the Phoenix Suns and the ASU Sun Devils, and a stunning number of jobs, homes, and cookie-cutter suburban shopping centers. In the desert valley, the Salt's complex history can be felt, its many layers like that of an onion, with the ancient river at its core, followed by the accretions of the prehistoric Hohokam canals, and then the river again; then the leaky tree-lined dirt canals, today's concrete canals, and finally, the spasmodic floods that again bring back the river. Like the onion, the stages are all present together; all these historical incarnations of the river have left their marks on the valley landscape. And there are a few signs that the river and its offspring canals may yet mean more to its people than just a buried pipeline that secretly leads from canal-side treatment plants to a faucet or toilet.

The Salt in its desert valley might be dismissed as an aberration: people in a very dry land obliterating a stream by efficiently consuming it, using heat and drought as their justification. But aridity is not the only excuse for obsessively engineering a stream into sterility or nonexistence. Wetter places have their excesses of efficiency too, but for different reasons. Narrow-minded, oblivious development can impoverish city landscapes and city lives in any natural setting.

Property owners along rivers seem to figure that one of government's basic responsibilities is to protect them and their belongings from the natural variability of rivers. Just as in every other place where settlement, rivers, and government intersect, owners in the Salt River Valley wanted flood protection. They also wanted the government to even out unpredictable river flows and to provide their farms with a reliable water supply so that the value of their land would increase. People expect to live predictable and orderly lives right next to inherently erratic streams, streams that dance to their own nonhuman rhythms.

Engineers and civil servants view their jobs as protecting their fellow citizens from nature's unpredictability and messiness, from biological and hydrological exuberance. Politicians set about finding government money to fund the reconstruction of channels and the construction of levees and upstream dams, or all three. And the people who live on or own property in a natural flood plain are appeased by these works and become their grateful supporters. This system results in the destruction of wildlife habitats and can leave an ugly, sterile corridor. Trees are referred to as "obstacles" that increase a stream's "roughness coefficient," and bottom-land habitats for raccoons and blackberries become "frequently flooded low-lying areas" that must be "rectified"-a term used by flood control engineers which means straightened, dredged deeper, reamed clean of vegetation, and partially paved, all so that water can move through more quickly while still staying within its engineered channel. These fixes can create almost as many problems as they solve, resulting in worse flooding, erosion, or silt deposition somewhere else, upstream or down.

Lateral canal, Phoenix area.
Branch or "lateral" canal, Phoenix area, 1909.
Original photo by W. Lubken, courtesy of the SRP Research Archives.

The twentieth century has witnessed an American-led crusade to set aside "wilderness" areas and "wild and scenic" rivers, places where the impacts of the human species are less obvious. But a single-minded focus on the notion of wilderness as the "real" nature can lead people to devalue, dismiss the nature that is routinely around us. Populations almost everywhere are increasingly concentrated in urban and suburban areas. We live most of our lives by the urban Salt River, the local canal, the small patch of trees in the city park, the neglected bit of an orchard down the street. These, too, are "nature," the nature that is experienced by most humans, in most places.

We need to weave more elements of nonhuman nature into our urban and suburban worlds. Rivers, highly visible and with their long history of provocative metaphors, similes, myths, poems, songs, sports, and mesmerizing silences, are fine focal points for this creative work. We need to learn how to use our creativity to "make nature visible," as Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan say in their book Ecological Design. When we cordon off wilderness areas, we do perform a wonderful act of respect for nature-nature without one of its strangest and most precocious creatures. When we build dams, freeways, shopping malls, and domed stadiums, we show our prodigious precocity by manipulating the world we find, almost without regard (and usually without respect) for what was there before us.

Both our ability to honor nature by keeping most of us out of it, and our ability to ignore nature and create our own things, like freeways and Wal-Marts, can feel like unreal extremes to live by. With the wilderness area 300 miles away, our modern urban lives spent in the office and at the mall can leave us feeling rootless, artificial, and exhausted. Creatively integrating parts of the nature that bore us into the elaborate business of human life is a more satisfying display of our species' wisdom and maturity. A pleasing backyard garden or a well thought out city park along a river may turn out to be the more human and meaningful products of our species than are either the spectacular feats of concrete engineering or the "nature preserves."

People living in cities and suburbs, wound up in the vast and fast web of modern life, are no longer quite so well anchored in the physical world that shaped our species. Our connections to nature seem more tenuous. Our senses and brains are filled with the man-made-the million choices in the supermarket aisles, the swarms of electronic images and words. This careening postmodern smorgasbord has powerful appeals. It's fun. Urban eyes and ears, though, are less likely to encounter the unselfconscious and profound things that nature does so well. There is less time for the often slow and subtle stuff of nature. Those nonhuman phenomena can have a deep power to move the human heart and inform the soul. Our urban worlds squeeze out so many of these phenomena, leaving us to be enthralled only by the majestic rhythms of weather. (Media weather coverage seems to become more popular as we become more detached from rivers, soils, forests, grasslands, game animals, and other natural systems.) Natural rhythms like those of rivers are replaced by the rhythm of rush-hour traffic and the rhythm of Wednesday and Saturday night Lotto drawings. Urban homo sapiens bobs about in a man-made torrent, deaf to the rhythms that are often deeper and slower. We need some natural ballast as we navigate the cultural rapids of our own making. We need to redesign and reinforce our connections to the rest of nature, and we need to do this within the context of the towns and cities where most of us live.

After we in the western United States have done away with all but the traces that remain of our rivers, we begin to feel their absence. When fur trappers first saw the Arkansas River, it flowed all the way from the Colorado Rockies to the Mississippi. Now our thoroughly efficient systems of water capture, diversion, and use have broken that river into fragments, leaving only a dry, sandy doodle on the map of western Kansas. In the summer of 1995, the melting snows in the Rockies were so deep that after all the reservoirs and water users had been satisfied, there was still water left over. This "excess" had nowhere to go but down the old river channel. The U.S. Water News reported at the time that the people of Dodge City "were nearly ecstatic with their short-lived river" flowing from the far-off mountains. People in Phoenix are thrilled when exceptionally wet years cause the Salt to flow through Phoenix again. They come from all over the huge metropolitan area just to stand and look at the temporary river.

Rivers are deeply satisfying to a community. When we get rid of them for the ever-so-efficient reasons of water supply and flood control, we eventually long to have them back. How can we retain some of the landscape blessings of a river and still cope with our water supply needs? Until recently, few people in the Southwest thought to ask this question.

Signs that the people of the Salt River Valley desire a change from the pure engineering efficiency of the Salt and its offspring canals can be seen in the movement that has grown, albeit slowly, to "beautify" the canals. Some people have lobbied long and hard to make the canals more a part of community life, to make them more "user-friendly" and less stark and sterile. Several Valley cities are planning canal-side parks. Canal operators are finding new ways to do their maintenance work that could coexist with canal redevelopment. In a few places, trees and benches are being added to the stripped-down canal banks. Scottsdale hopes to have canal-side shops and cafés in a few years. Change is extremely slow, and even small improvements take extraordinary amounts of time, energy, and money; but small changes can be found.

What about the river itself? A few people dreamed for years of turning the waterless, God-awful Salt riverbed into a linear park and natural area, with a very small flow of water as its centerpiece. The City of Tempe liked this "Rio Salado" idea, but since it would have cost a lot of taxpayer money, Tempe has opted instead to build an artificial lake in the riverbed. A removable rubber dam holds back a lake filled with imported Colorado River water and water from nearby wells . The lake is being financed largely by taxes on the surrounding land that is developed commercially. A couple of very small, token "riparian vegetation" areas may be added. Re-creating the natural Salt River to flow through the middle of town is simply not possible, for a long list of economic, legal, political, and ecological reasons. But there are other design possibilities in and along the riverbed that would combine plants, rocks, vegetation, buildings, people, and water. While Tempe's project on the Salt is a bizarre form for a river, it may still be a somewhat satisfying recreational area. It might at least remind people of the old river, and the park is more satisfying than the neglected nothing still there immediately upstream and downstream.

Just a few miles downstream, the Army Corps of Engineers (of all agencies) and the City of Phoenix are discussing the possibility of adding a little flowing water and vegetation back to part of the river's bed. They are proposing an intricate system of wells, pumps, pipes, and ditches to recreate a very small flow in part of the Salt. The plan would include recreational areas and walking paths. The proposal has some appeal, even if water conservation, water pollution and flood plain problems, and conflicting demands of nearby residents have resulted in a plan with a rather "Rube Goldberg" feel to it. Like Tempe, Phoenix doesn't want to shoulder the financial burden of constructing this symbolic river. There is a rich irony here for those who have the historical perspective to appreciate it: Phoenix will be lobbying in Washington for the lion's share of the money needed to artificially recreate the Salt River, or something a little like it. About a century ago, Phoenix had lobbied Washington for the money to begin drying up the real Salt River in the first place.

There is another irony for Phoenix and its Salt River: The steady conversion of farmland into housing subdivisions has resulted in more water being used for toilets, showers, and dishwashers, and, consequently, more dirty water is being piped to sewage treatment plants. In the interest of efficiency, much of the treated waste water is used by cotton and alfalfa farmers, and some is used to cool a nuclear power plant. But much of the waste water just pours into the Salt River bed at the far lower end of the Valley, where it then flows for miles, unintentionally supporting the growth of lush wildlife habitat, just as the river had a century ago. The Valley cities, always seeking more water, are planning to reuse more and more of this "wasted" effluent, but they are also becoming aware that some of the water should be left alone for this odd but pleasant, accidental "river."

Cross Cut Canal in Papago Park, Tempe, Ariz.
The Cross Cut Canal briefly becomes an
aqueduct in Papago Park, Tempe, Arizona.
Original photo by J. Keane.

These are awkward first steps toward ecological urban design. They don't go far enough. The ecological and physical roles of rivers still get superficial treatment at best, but our mania for replacing nature with plumbing has peaked. People are designing changes for the Salt, the Arizona Canal, the Trinity in Dallas, changes along a canal in Reno and a creek in Denver. These city rivers cannot become again what they once were. The cities have grown around the rivers by diverting their waters, by crisscrossing the rivers with infrastructure for cars, water, sewage, electricity, and fuels. People have developed parts of the floodplains and changed watersheds so that they behave in radically different ways. They have plunked down land fills, Superfund pollution sites, and political boundaries all over the landscape that the river once dominated. Bitching about the sheer number of these human blots on nature's Southwestern landscape is an understandable and satisfying sport, up to a point. Beyond that, the bitching becomes empty whining.

Our goal should be to create the finest places we can with what is there, using the natural, cultural, and historic elements of each place. To recognize and celebrate the natural landscape of each place and then design and weave from it new fabrics with new patterns-thicker, stronger, and more sensual than what we have made before. A powerful part of our urban evolution will be to give space and attention to the rivers that have largely been erased from our 20th-century sunbelt lives. We may again learn to draw upon their deep, slow rhythms. We may rediscover, even in Southwestern cities, the evocative, simple power of rivers and the meanings we can harvest from them.

  

John L. Keane is an environmental analyst for a large public power and water system in the Phoenix area.  He also teaches in the School of Planning and Landscape Architecture at Arizona State University.
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