It was called a miracle when manna fell from the sky and fed the wandering Israelites, but when water falls from the sky, we think nothing of it – just another rainy day. We are so used to having as much water as we want that we take it for granted: turn on the tap and water flows, quenching our thirst, irrigating our crops, and filling our backyard swimming pools.
Few of Patagonia’s citizens are old enough to remember when Sonoita Creek flowed year round from Monkey Springs near Sonoita to the Santa Cruz River. Stream flow declined gradually; year-round flows in the early part of the last century were reduced by a month or so every decade until now the creek above Patagonia only flows for a few days each year, following heavy rains. Along with the water, the cottonwood-sycamore forest has mostly disappeared, and wildlife populations have declined. We are so used to the current degraded situation that we think that it is the norm and there is nothing we can do about it.
We could learn a lot about water from the Tohono O’odham. Their elders have a saying “Ṣu:dagī ‘O Wud Doakag” that in English means “Water is Life.” The Sonoita Creek valley was home to Native Americans long before the first European settlers arrived; by some estimates more people lived here 1,000 years ago than do now. The ancestors of the O’odham people understood the importance of water; they not only grew crops in the flood plain and hunted game in the uplands, they actively harvested rainfall with small rock structures like the ancient trincheras that can still be seen at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cerro Trincheras, less than 100 miles south of the border. The original human inhabitants of our valley built trincheras that slowed the flow of water on the land and spread it out on their crops, decreased erosion and catastrophic flooding, and recharged the local aquifers, and so can we.
The ancient art of water harvesting appeared lost until one of us (Valer Clark) moved to the Chiricahua Mountains in 1981. Valer noticed the dry, highly eroded creeks and decided to do something about it. She hired indigenous craftsmen from central Mexico who still practiced the old traditions of water harvesting to teach her and her ranch hands how to construct water-harvesting and erosion-control structures. By the 1990s, she saw year-round stream flow return to restored streams, and now over 15 miles of the once dry San Bernardino River flows again, because of her work. Valer is the founder of Cuenca los Ojos, and her work became the inspiration for the founding of Borderlands Restoration Network(BRN) in Patagonia. BRN is a network of organizations including Cuenca los Ojos, Wildlife Corridors, and Deep Dirt Farm that have joined together not only to bring back water and wildlife but to create a model restoration economy in the borderlands region.
In the very recent past, a number of Patagonians, including individual landowners and one whole subdivision, have experienced water shortages. Some have resorted to hauling water, and others have had to dig their wells deeper, trying to chase the declining water table. The problems have mostly occurred in the foothills above town, and fortunately, the town has sufficient water, at least for the near future.
There is no single smoking gun that explains why our creeks are drying up. The very large number of wells drilled in the valley in the past 100 years is surely part of the cause, but poor agricultural practices as well as climate change also contribute to the problem.
Patagonia is a microcosm of what is happening in southern Arizona and in arid lands around the world. In the Sulphur Springs Valley, to the east of Patagonia, fissures have opened up where large amounts of water have been pumped out of the ground to plant pecan and pistachio orchards, and now the earth is caving in. While ADOT is filling the holes with cement, the growers are ripping up more miles of desert to plant more trees. The ground water table is dropping, and it is only a matter of time until the wells go dry.
Similar things are happening in arid lands around the world but not because someone sets out to destroy the environment. Habitat destruction happens because we want more nuts or more swimming pools, and we either don’t think about the unintended consequences, or we think there is nothing we can do about it to change the trends.
The good news is that we can do something about it. BRN and its partner organizations, with support from many state and federal agencies and from private grants and donations, have initiated numerous restoration projects in southern Arizona and have installed many 1000s of erosion control structures. These projects not only provide jobs and contribute to the local economy, they help to secure Patagonia’s water future.
Studies by USGS have shown that these simple structures reduce erosion, increase water infiltration, contribute to aquifer recharge, and reduce the threat of flooding downstream. In addition to providing good, living-wage jobs, these projects offer many opportunities for volunteers to get involved in helping us secure Patagonia’s water future.
The world needs local examples of constructive community actions that restore water resources: examples of people building water catchments, putting in berms, planting grasses on eroding slopes, and returning water to the ground. It may take a miracle to secure our water future but we believe there is no better place for such a miracle to happen than Patagonia.