Santa Cruz River near Tubac
Back when the Rio Nuevo project to revitalize downtown Tucson was first hatched, there were elements in the concept to restore the Santa Cruz River. There was a “rio” – a river – in Rio Nuevo.
The restoration of the river fell by the wayside as grand schemes of aquariums and rainbow bridges danced in front of the eyes of Tucson planners. There were also some serious environmental problems as the river’s flood plain has been used as a garbage dump for decades. The river restoration project, called “Paseo de las Iglesias” (Path of the Churches) was projected to cost $92 million.
But have you gotten the sense that Rio Nuevo is somehow cursed?
Maybe it is.
Tucson owes its very existence to a flowing river we now call the Santa Cruz. There are ancient Indian ruins beneath downtown Tucson that prove people had lived on the banks of the river for thousands of years, irrigating crops on the floodplain
Did you ever wonder why San Xavier Mission is where it is? When the Jesuits were looking for Indian souls to convert, of course they went where the Indians lived. The Santa Cruz River was a reliable flowing river just south of Martinez Hill in the late 1600’s. People lived there since “time immemorial” to quote the O’odahm when they sued Tucson, the mines and the farms in the late 1970s for stealing their river.
As you drive down I-19, you can still see the ruins of an irrigation ditch on the side of Martinez Hill (east side of the bridge as you cross the river).
When the Presidio of Tucson was founded in 1775, it was built on a little mesa overlooking the Santa Cruz River. You can still sense the elevation change as you drive west down Alameda past the Tucson Art Museum. The flood plain of the river was still being irrigated for crops.
As late as the 1890’s surface water was still being diverted from the river into irrigation ditches around where the Congress Street bridge is now located. There was a river water driven flour mill at the base of “A” Mountain. Two very popular recreational sites for Tucsonans of the late 19th century were Carrillo Gardens and Elysian Grove, both located on the edge of the river.
There was even a lawsuit over who got water first from the river that was decided in 1887. In a dispute over diversion of the surface waters between various farms along the river, the Judge ruled:
“There is something to be deplored in the spirit of that neighbor, who would take the crust from his neighbor’s lips. These people should live together as neighbors, sharing each other’s misfortunes and rejoicing in each others blessings, in our conscience from the testimony we believe there is sufficient water in the Santa Cruz river if only a necessary a, economical and reasonable use thereof is had, to irrigate all these lands. There can be no doubt of the paramount importance of this water question. In a county where water is so scarce and so precious as it is in this Territory, it is of the utmost importance that its distribution and use should be as extensive as vest rights and material interests will admit. It is the policy of the law to encourage the building of new homes, the opening out of new farms. The prosperity of the Territory depends largely upon this policy; while motives of patriotism and good citizenship prompt to its hearty support.” Dalton v Rentaria 2 Ariz 275 decided in 1887.
The judge also noted that for the preceding 50 years the various farms shared the waters of the river, not on a priority date of who got there first, but on the basis of “equitable distribution of said waters; regard being had to those fields needing water the most.”
This is a radical departure from the American view of “I got mine, you go pound sand” that is the essence of modern Arizona water law.
Obviously the early American settlers of the Santa Cruz Valley did not heed the judge’s admonition to live together as good neighbors
With the arrival of the 20th Century, people began to pump groundwater from wells to feed a growing Tucson. The water table beneath the river dropped, the cottonwood trees died, and then Santa Cruz River died. The green ribbon of farms and the riparian area that ran through west of downtown Tucson was moved east of the city. The Hispanic community that depended on the river lost their farms so Anglos could have lawns.
The attack on the river area was relentless.
What was once the heart of Tucson, its very soul, was turned into a trash heap. It was if modern Tucsonans were determined to not just suck away the water of the river, they had to utterly smash every remnant of the thousands of years of life that was sustained by the river.
The final blow was struck in the 1960’s “urban renewal” of downtown Tucson that obliterated most of the Hispanic parts of the city, replacing the modest adobe homes and businesses of people who traced their heritage of living by the river for 200 years with shiny new government office buildings and the Tucson Community Center.
Looking at the Santa Cruz River today from San Xavier down through Tucson, one cannot imagine what a lush place that was. One cannot imagine the uncounted generations of people who lived with the river.
The cultures that flourished on the banks of the Santa Cruz were buried under parking lots and the foundations of modern high rise buildings and public offices. It is as if modern American settlers and developers were so deeply disturbed by the ancient roots of Tucson that they had to utterly destroy anything that reminded them of our Indian, Spanish and Mexican heritages. Many may remember the stories of how the Spanish Conquistadors built their version of Mexico City on top of the ruins of the Aztec capitol of Tenochitlan. Modern Americans built their Anglo capital of Tucson on top of the ruins of the Indian and Hispanic versions of Tucson.
A tiny few relicts of that long history remain, as lonely outposts of a time that was. But the context of that earlier version of Tucson has been lost with the vanished river.
The river itself remains a wasteland of sand, old tires, rusted automobiles, weeds and construction debris.
Today what water flows down the Santa Cruz rages through the city like an angered snake, undulating in standing waves, coiling brown and turbulent, during the infrequent storms. The river today is just a means to take flood water from the south and dump them as quickly as possible in the direction of Marana.
The destruction of the river and the ancient communities that were sustained by the river has brought a curse down upon Tucson. No scheme to bring life back to downtown will succeed until the very source of life of downtown Tucson is restored. The river.
Sure, it would be very expensive to restore the Santa Cruz River into a living place again. Most of that expense would be to remove all the insults modern people have wrought on the river. Remove the bank protection. Remove all the buried garbage and waste. Remove those tacky freeway dependent motels along its banks.
Think of this as a modern form of penance for a crime that was wrought in the name of “progress”.
The ghosts of the Santa Cruz haunt downtown. Until these ghosts are appeased, and the river restored, forget “saving” downtown. Forget reviving it with hotels and museums. These are just more tombstones in the cemetery of the Santa Cruz River.
Bring back the water. Bring back the cottonwood trees. Bring back some of the fields. Bring back the place Tucsonans went on a hot summer day to enjoy the cool flowing waters .
CAN IT BE DONE?
If you want to see what the Santa Cruz River valley once looked like, come down to Tubac (45 miles south of downtown) and visit the river at Bridge Road. Drive down the frontage road between the Chavez Siding exit and the Palo Parado exit. Hike the Anza Taril between Tubac and the Tumacacori Mission (yes, it is safe).
Prior to the 1970’s this stretch of the Santa Cruz was as dead as Tucson’s, due to excessive groundwater pumping. But with the advent of treated wastewater from Mexico being discharged into the river at Rio Rico, the river came back to life. Towering cottonwood forests line the valley now.
Between recharging CAP water near Martinez Hill and building a new wastewater treatment plant somewhere near Valencia and the river, its flow can be restored through downtown Tucson.
Today all of Tucson’s wastewater ends up at the Roger and Ina Road wastewater treatment plants, and a stretch of the river’s flow has been restored out into Marana as a result. That wastewater comes from Tanque Verde, Vail and even the Canada del Oro…other places threatened by groundwater mining.
One of the on-going environmental attacks in the Tucson Valley is that the location of wastewater treatment plants has had virtually nothing to do with protecting riparian areas and recharging our aquifers.
The river corridor was the main source of groundwater recharge in the valley. However, because the flood plain was turned into a garbage dump, a massive reclamation effort will be needed so that the aquifer could be recharged without poisoning it from our waste.
More about the Santa Cruz River’s history and river restoration efforts?
The Lessening Stream by Michael F. Logan
Paseo de las Iglesias project report
More on Paseo de las Iglesais:
Tucson Weekly May 3, 2001
Arizona Republic April 10, 2006