Arts & Culture » Book Feature

Riparian Revival?

Ken Lamberton shows the oft-maligned Santa Cruz River some much-deserved love



I've always considered the Santa Cruz River to be a riparian imposter. A gaping travesty of sand, weeds, trash and sun-crazed lizards, it has water in it, briefly, only after one of our increasingly infrequent Southern Arizona rainstorms. What kind of a river is that?

My perceptions of the Santa Cruz were based primarily on only a tiny part of it—the depressing portion that slinks alongside Interstate 10 between 22nd Street and Grant Road—but that never stopped me from making unfavorable assumptions about the river as a whole.

However, while reading Dry River: Stories of Life, Death, and Redemption on the Santa Cruz, by Tucsonan Ken Lamberton, my evidence-challenged preconceptions began crumbling like a dilapidated dam.

The Santa Cruz River, as revealed by Lamberton—a 2002 John Burroughs Medal winner for exemplary nature writing—is certainly not a typical river, but it's a far cry from the desiccated ditch that plows past downtown. (That part of the river is an imposter of sorts, the unfortunate result of an aquifer-draining headcut of the river's original, more-westerly running course, made by Tucson pioneer Sam Hughes.) While the Santa Cruz is not exactly an Eden, the river is surprisingly vibrant.

It's also quite lengthy. With headwaters in the San Rafael Valley southeast of Patagonia, it flows southward into Mexico before angling back into the United States near Nogales. By the time it merges with the Gila River near Phoenix, it has traveled more than 200 miles and graced the Sonoran Desert with a number of unexpected oases.

Lamberton has been fascinated with the Santa Cruz for most of his life. As a child, he was entranced by the river and its Tucson-area tributaries, spending much of his time hunting in their "magical realms of brush forts and tadpole-black pools" for whiptail lizards and gopher snakes. As an adult, he's been awed by its dramatic, bipolar personality: dry as a bone one minute, and a "river of thundering mud the next." He's explored its entire path, searching for the river's true nature that lies, he says, between the extremes.

Lamberton is a consummate explorer, and this book will give readers a sense of hiking the Santa Cruz alongside an experienced guide and loquacious raconteur. With an encyclopedic knowledge of Southwestern flora and fauna, an eye for detail that doesn't seem to miss a gnat or twig, a strong sense of history and a well-developed philosophical streak, Lamberton makes the river come alive for readers while turning it into a symbol for hope and transformation.

In the areas where the Santa Cruz enjoys a close-to-constant flow of water—the San Rafael Valley, northern Mexico and, thanks to treated effluent, certain parts of south-central Arizona, including northwest Tucson—the river blooms. (I visited one of these segments recently, near El Camino Del Cerro, and despite copious trash and an unsettling encounter with a rattlesnake, I found the tree-lined channel, with its numerous birds and gently rippling water, truly idyllic.)

Some of the more desolate and water-deprived parts of the river are experiencing remarkable changes. On the Tohono O'odham reservation, Colorado River water is helping to restore a portion of the Santa Cruz. Presently a pair of wetland ponds encircled by a lush stand of mesquite, cottonwoods and willows, this site is the beginning stage of a plan to renew the river across the reservation.

For much of his travels, Lamberton is accompanied by his wife and three daughters. He braids tales of how the river has impacted his family with stories drawn from the river's history. Of these, the most interesting chronicle the mission system established by Padre Kino, spiritual conquistador of the Pimeria Alta, and the adventures of secular counterpart Juan Bautista de Anza, who blazed a supply route from Mexico to Spain's fledgling colony on the San Francisco Bay.

Individuals and groups on both sides of the border are working to restore a river that has been damaged by both climate change and human activity. Lamberton is heartened by these efforts and envisions a day when the river will experience a renaissance.

"I see a mesquite bosque," he writes, "crowding the margins of a living thread—a free-flowing Santa Cruz River—connecting wildlife and habitats for hundreds of miles of Sonoran Desert from Mexico to Central Arizona ... once we move to more sustainable ways of living along it."

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