"They are going to be under water," says Bob Michaels, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation natural resource specialist.
The northeastern shoreline of Lake Pleasant--easily accessible only by boat--reveals some bizarre and unsettling sights. Thin wisps of bleached saguaro ribs, denuded of vegetable matter, protrude from the water, waving in the wind like some aquatic mutant of the ocotillo.
Here and there, saguaros stand a foot deep in water, their bases nearly eroded away but somehow still holding up a 30-foot-tall cactus. Nearby, the water laps at the roots of other saguaros, future victims of the expanding lake.
Heavy springtime rains are blamed for the swamping of saguaros so far, but it is just a prelude of what is to come. Beginning November 19, Central Arizona Project canal water will be pumped into the reservoir, eventually raising the water level another 40 feet.
Michaels says the bureau, which operates the lake, has "no idea" how many saguaros and other native cactus remain in the path of the rising water.
"We believe we have done everything we can do" to save saguaros, Arizona's state plant, Michaels says.
A visual survey by New Times and interviews with boaters familiar with the lake indicate that thousands of saguaros on the north end of the lake along the Agua Fria River will soon be inundated.
Richard Shaw, owner of the Pensus Group, which operates a marina at Lake Pleasant, says his company asked the bureau last month for permission to harvest saguaros by using a barge with a crane attached. The bureau, he says, vetoed any salvage operation.
"Their tone was if you take even one cactus, we're going to have the sheriff after you," Shaw says.
Several native-plant contractors claim the bureau did little to encourage removal of thousands of saguaros from the lake's perimeter. Rather than allowing private contractors who were skilled at removing cactuses to dig up the plants, the bureau primarily relied on the general public, they say.
This resulted in one fiasco after another, as unprepared citizens tried to load heavy saguaros into ill-suited vehicles, sometimes snapping springs and axles and more often than not damaging the cactuses.
"They were slapping them around like pickles," says Sandy Schott, co-owner of a New River cactus-transplant company.
Schott says many of the cactuses could have been saved if the government would have awarded a removal contract to a company experienced in transplantation. Instead, the bureau awarded a salvage contract to a company that had very little experience in transplanting large saguaros, Schott says.
Michaels says criticism of the bureau's efforts is unfair. He says the bureau has overseen removal of thousands of native plants from the shoreline since 1985, when work began on New Waddell Dam. State Agriculture Department records indicate that at least 46,000 permits have been issued to remove plants in that area.
The bureau also awarded a $1 million contract to Arrowhead Landscaping and Maintenance either to remove or cut down saguaros that the public didn't want, bureau officials say.
But the company was required to transplant only a handful of the thousands of cactuses in the rising water's path. The contract called for Arrowhead to transplant 50 large saguaros, 400 medium saguaros, 400 barrel cactuses, 400 chollas, 400 prickly pear cactuses and 200 ocotillos. Efforts to reach Arrowhead, which is no longer listed in the Phoenix telephone directory, were unsuccessful.
A state Agriculture Department official says the bureau was supposed to transplant or cut down all saguaros below the 1,720-foot level at the lake to prevent the cactuses from becoming boating hazards. The lake is currently at a depth of 1,650 feet; once pumping begins this month, the lake will rise eight inches per day until the depth reaches 1,696.
"They weren't supposed to drown whole saguaros," says Doug McGinnis, manager of the state ag department's native-plant program. "They were supposed to knock whole saguaros down."
But a New Times survey along the northeast reaches of the lake shows scores of saguaros partially underwater or completely submerged.
Michaels says any cactuses left standing will be uprooted and float on the lake's surface for several weeks. Eventually, they will become waterlogged and sink to the bottom.
"After a couple of weeks, nature just gets rid of them," Michaels says.
Saguaros, along with several other native cactuses, shrubs and trees, are protected by the state. It is illegal to damage or remove the plants on public or private land without a state permit. Just who owns much of the land where many of the doomed cactuses stand is uncertain. McGinnis says the bureau owns the land and, as a federal agency, needs no permits to destroy cactus. But the bureau says the land is in private hands.
In any case, it appears little can be done to rescue the saguaros, unless the government wants to spend a lot of money on an 11th-hour salvage operation.
Schott says she and other native-plant operators remain frustrated with the bureau's handling of the operation.
"Most of the cactus people are just standing there with their mouths open," she says. "It's sad to see this happen.