BUYING A GILA MONSTER

FARMERS IN THE GILA RIVER BASIN HAVE ALREADY SUCKED DOWN $500 MILLION IN GOVERNMENT PORK. NOW THEY WANT ANOTHER $20 MILLION FOR A SENSELESS FLOOD-CONTROL PROJECT.

The desalted water is then unceremoniously dumped back into the Colorado River for delivery to Mexico. It's dumped, that is, when the plant is operating.

The plant, which critics say was obsolete by the time it opened its doors, ran for only nine months before it was shut down by the 1993 Gila River flood. The Clinton administration is opposed to restarting the plant because of high operating expenses.

In the meantime, the Wellton-Mohawk district continues to dump its drainage water into the Colorado River delta in Mexico.

In January 1993, five severe winter storms swept across northern and central Arizona, dropping record rainfall and snow on a 50,000-square-mile watershed drained by the Gila River.

The Gila runs the width of Arizona, receiving flows from the San Francisco, San Pedro, Santa Cruz, Salt, Verde, Agua Fria and Hassayampa rivers on its way to its confluence with the Colorado River north of Yuma.

By January 10, flows into Painted Rock Dam on the Gila River reached a record 204,000 cubic feet per second. The dam, located 20 miles west of Gila Bend, soon backed up the largest lake in Arizona, more than twice the size of Roosevelt Lake.

"You could stand at the dam and look out at the horizon and see nothing but water," recalls Joe Dixon of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The flood waters crashing down the Gila already had ripped a hole through Gillespie Dam 30 miles upstream, and were now threatening to go over the top of Painted Rock.

Fifty miles downstream, farmers and irrigation workers, assisted by the National Guard, were bracing for the flood that was sure to come. Thousands of tons of rock were added to levees to protect three essential pumping plants at the Wellton-Mohawk district.

For nearly two months, the district worked around the clock shoring up the river's levee system under the eye of Larry Killman, the district's superintendent of river operations.

Killman had been responsible for an $8 million channel and levee project since 1986. It had almost been completed when the flood waters hit.

But these floods dwarfed any Gila River flow since 1960.
"It was a beautiful, sunny day when the flood peaked," Killman says, describing that day in early March 1993 when 26,000 cubic feet of water roared through the Gila each second. The Wellton-Mohawk's levees and channels were designed to handle less than half that much water.

For months--until December, in fact--the Gila River danced in its reclaimed flood plain, inundating at times up to 16,000 acres of low-lying Wellton-Mohawk farm fields. The river destroyed a handful of cottonwood and willow stands that the Game and Fish Department and the irrigation district had nurtured over the years. At the same time, the river's power to create new habitats was clearly displayed in an area now dubbed Growler Ponds, near the eastern end of the irrigation district.

There, the water began crashing into the north bank of the river channel, gradually carving into the bank and digging a deep hole in the river bottom. After several days of excavation, the river suddenly shifted its main flow to the west, leaving behind a series of deep ponds.

In the last year, a cattail marsh has emerged on the edges of the ponds, attracting an array of wildlife that includes egrets, herons and ospreys. The depth of the ponds ensures an inflow of groundwater, keeping the area a wetland, even though flows in the Gila have slowed to a trickle.

On another part of the riverbank, John Kennedy (no relation to the former president) surveys a dense tree line for an opening before easing into a thick understory of sticky salt cedar, pushing aside branches of the evergreen with wide, sweeping motions of his arms.

Ten yards into the thicket, the Arizona Game and Fish Department wildlife manager stops, placing his hand around the five-inch-diameter trunk of a cottonwood sapling. It towers 20 feet above the salt-cedar thicket. "There hasn't been anything like this in decades," Kennedy says, smiling at the vigorous growth displayed by the yearling cottonwood.

The cottonwood in Kennedy's grasp isn't alone. There are a hundred more cottonwoods sprouting from what had been a farm field on the south bank of the lower Gila River, 45 miles east of Yuma. Nearby, another field boasts an equally prodigious number of young and hearty willow trees.

Kennedy can't believe what he's seen emerge from the fertile Gila River flood plain. For the first time in memory, Kennedy says there is the potential for regeneration of a desert river ecosystem in Arizona.

"I know we haven't seen anything like this in more than 30 years on the lower Gila River," he says.

The ebb and flow of streamside habitat along a flowing desert river is a natural phenomenon. The river's power to destroy habitat is countered by its ability to create ideal conditions for new riparian areas to appear.

The Game and Fish Department has spent millions of dollars over the last decade trying to encourage the development of cottonwood and willow forests along the lower Gila through plantings. These efforts have largely been failures.

The 1993 flood did what the best efforts of the department couldn't do. The Gila created the perfect conditions for a streamside habitat.

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