Gila River: Plight of the Desert

Nothing so captures the human impact on the Sonoran Desert as the plight of the Gila River, once its most important river system. The river has all but vanished into reservoirs, irrigation ditches, and thickets of exotic salt cedar along most of its once epic length. The ghost river originates in the highlands of New Mexico and runs down to join the Colorado River at Yuma and has played a vital role in the history of the American West. Along this river armies, gold seekers, Indian fighters, and explorers all struggled. Here also a brave but reckless family met its fate in a massacre that shocked the nation.

The river returns only fitfully, when winter floods fill Painted Rock Reservoir, built mostly to prevent floods from ripping through farmland near Yuma. Serious flooding in 1993 washed out great swaths of farmland, provoking an ongoing debate about whether taxpayers ought to pay for the flood works necessary to reclaim the farmland, especially since the series of channels and dikes would doom the patches of cottonwoods and willows that have sprouted after the ’93 floods. Dense galleries of cottonwoods and willows once lined many desert streams and rivers in the Sonoran Desert, but woodcutters, dams, diversions, dropping water tables, and the invasion of other trees like the salt cedar have devastated most of the cottonwoodwillow habitat, which biologists say are the most biologically productive habitat type outside of the rain forests. Now only during flood does the Gila rise with a liquid gurgle from its dusty tomb and flow unhindered to the Colorado once again.

Desert rivers like the Gila and the Colorado have long offered a lush living to millions of migrating birds. Early accounts indicate that the meandering course of the Gila was marked by groves of cottonwoods and dense thickets of willow, both of which seed readily and grow like weeds on wet sandbars. The river meandered along this gentle incline, hedged by tangled mesquite bosques (forests), crowded with stands of grass half the height of a horse, punctuated by groves of cottonwood and willow, and attended by half-abandoned river meanders filled with bulrushes and reeds.

Desert-adapted fish glided through its muddy waters, surviving the rushing floods of spring and enduring the sluggish torpor of summer. Fish like the Gila sucker, the humpback chub, and the Colorado squawfish ranged through the interconnected desert river systems, living out complicated life cycles that stretched from the burbling chill of the rivers’ headwaters to the endless marshes in the delta of the Colorado. Beaver, otters, and a host of other animals made their living along the Gila.

The first European explorers reported a thriving succession of groups living all along the Gila. Most were Pueblo cultures, which greeted the early Spanish explorers amiably enough. Outriders for Francisco Vasquez de Coronado explored the Gila, searching for the fabled and completely fictitious Seven Cities of Gold. Coronado’s most valuable and level-headed lieutenant, Melchior Diaz, led a small scouting party hundreds of miles through unknown territory, only to die on the banks of the Gila when impaled on his own lance chasing Indians who had stolen livestock. Franciscans like Father Francisco Garces and Father Francisco Eusabio Kino traveled repeatedly along the Gila, for the most part winning the admiration of the Indians.

Many of the great names of Western history connect at some point with the Gila River. Early trappers quickly converted the Gila’s beavers into hats, which worked a major change on the ecosystem all along the river. Explorers like Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson, Pauline Weaver, and John Walker passed repeatedly along its banks; the famous Mormon Battalion hacked out a wagon road; and General George Kerney’s ill-fated Army of the West lugged cannon along its inhospitable banks in an effort to conquer California during the Mexican-American War. Assorted detachments of cavalry chased the elusive Apaches up and down its broad valley, 49ers rushed along its length toward the gold fields of California, and the Butterfield Stage plied its banks until shut down by the Civil War.