The headwaters are to the immediate west of the Continental Divide in the mountain ranges of the Mogollon, Black, and Pinos Altos in western New Mexico. In these mountainous beginnings, rainfall can be as much as 23 inches per year plus snow; at the river’s end near Yuma, rainfall can be as little as 3 inches per year. There have been four dams along its length: Coolidge, Ashurt-Hayden, Gillespie, and Painted Rock.
The Gila is one of the longest rivers in Arizona, some 600 miles, dividing Arizona as it runs east to west. It is our state’s largest watershed. Its major tributaries along its course are the Salt, San Pedro, Santa Cruz, Agua Fria, and Hassayampa Rivers. At its end, it joins the Colorado River near Yuma.
Native American people settled the length of this river. A perennial river, it was used extensively for irrigating agricultural crops. Between 1691 and 1702, Fr. Kino reported seeing an abundance of fish in the river year-round, and crops of maize, beans, and squashes. The Pima Indians raised many crops on an island in the river near Casa Grande.
Anglo-American explorers discovered the area and began to extensively trap beaver, leading to drastic changes in river ecology, with loss of habitat for many native bird and animal species. Farmers began to plant thirsty crops not well suited to the desert such as Egyptian cotton, wheat, citrus, alfalfa, and nuts. Overgrazing, mining, and railroads further contributed to loss of stands of soil-holding mature native trees and vegetation, which in turn has led to large-scale erosion and silting of tributary creek beds. The Gila began to dry up. Prior to the late 1880s, the Gila was a navigable river. Today, flow depends on released treated effluent, the Salt River chain of lakes, and sporadic rainy seasons.
Interesting fact: In 1944, two days before Christmas, 25 German sailors who had been interned as prisoners of war in a camp in Papago Park (Phoenix), on the banks of the Salt River, tunneled out with the intention of stealing a boat and then sailing down the Gila and Colorado to Mexico. They carried maps that showed the Gila to be a perennial river, but upon reaching its banks saw only a trickle of water. They set off on foot downriver. Within two days they were caught. Their leader later complained, “If the Gila has no water, why do the Americans show it on their maps?”
“The history of man is a series of conspiracies to win from Nature some advantage without paying for it.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Arizona rivers are fragile. It is my hope that this series has piqued your interest in the major rivers in the lower half of our state. Please take the time to research and explore what YOU can do to begin paying it forward for future generations by becoming a river guardian.
Sources, quotes, and map: Gila, The Life & Death of an American River by Gregory McNamee; Where Water Flows – The Rivers of Arizona, by Lawrence Clark Powell.”; Changing Rivers: How People Have Affected The Rivers – Water Resources Research Center, College of Agriculture, The University of Arizona, March 1997; plus internet searches including Wikipedia and google books.
Monthly tip: During our cold winter months, if you have bird feeders, don’t forget some special treats such as fresh fruit or suet (do an internet search and make your own). Water bowls should be lightly bleach-cleaned each week to reduce the spread of avian disease and infection.
MAKE IT PERSONAL AND BE PART OF THE SOLUTION !