Monsoon and Frogs at Empire Gulch

The Place

Arizona Monsoon (Courtesy  Zack Guido, University of Arizona)

Arizona Monsoon (Courtesy Zack Guido, University of Arizona)

Dos Aguas skidded down the hillside from the ranch house, and started across the meadow toward the gulch. The grass was higher than the knees, and the ground spongy. One of the cottonwoods on the near side of the meadow had toppled into the grass, the canopy branches broken off or fanned out against the sod. Dos Aguas looked up through heart-shaped leaves to see the full August moon pasted onto the blue sky in the west. He heard a voice from behind, up on the trunk.

“You are going into the arroyo?” the voice asked. Dos Aguas looked up to see Paco (Francisco Eduardo Valdés Acuña) sitting astride the tree as if in a saddle.

“Yes,” Dos Aguas answered, “to find out how high the monsoon waters reached, and how the frogs weathered the flooding.” He added, “It’s a pleasure to see you.”

Igualmente,” Paco said. The pleasure is mine. “The water did not yet rise up here into the meadow,” said Paco. “But in the time of Anora this was all garden,” he pointed down to the trees along the gulch, “and she used to water all of it from the floods.”

“Ah, Anora,” Dos Aguas said. “Last time we met you were going to tell me her story.”

Por eso vení,” Paco answered. For that I came. “There is another full moon today.” He gestured for Dos Aguas to take a seat on the tree.

“Can you allow me to check on the gulch first?” Dos Aguas asked. “I will sit with you when I return.”

Bueno,” Paco answered. “I’ll wait for you here.”

Gulch is a vivid name, suggesting hot sun on a jumble of rocks, some bleached cattle bones lying in the dust, a crusty prospector leading a mule into the hills, temperatures over 100 degrees, and occasional torrents of water. But Empire Gulch this August morning, just steps away from the surrounding Sonoran Desert, was shady, cool, deserted, covered with a carpet of greenery, and sporting a muddy stream channel winding through its downed timber.

Empire Gulch, AZ (Courtesy Rick Bowman)

Empire Gulch, AZ (Courtesy Rick Bowman)

[+]Empire Gulch…

It felt more like a Midwest woodlot, damp soil, insects buzzing loudly in the humid air, weeds growing head high in the full sun along the edges. There is a bit of year-round water in Empire Gulch, fed by a meager spring, but the periodic torrents whose aftermath was so visible that day are provided by the Southern Arizona summer monsoon. Dos Aguas came to see if the recent storms had affected Empire Gulch’s frogs, one of a few dozen remaining populations of the threatened Chiricahua leopard frog.

Dos Aguas walked east along the Empire Gulch stream bed, climbing over cottonwood branches, trying to avoid slipping into the muddy center, skirting around the cut-bank which sheltered the spring. Below the spring the short sequence of perennial pools seemed much as they had before the monsoon, quiet, partially covered with surface algae, with a slow trickle of water sliding from pool to pool. The main difference from June to August was the appearance of many Chiricahua leopard frog tadpoles, feeding at the surface and darting about. In a narrow, shallow passage from one pool to another the the tiny current was visible, curling around the bottom stones, sparkling in the sunlight, while along the wide banks above the pools the long grasses were still bent flat on the ground from the heavy monsoon current two days before. The tadpoles seemed not to have noticed.

The Water

Southern Arizona Monsoon Flooding (Courtesy Michael Collier)

Southern Arizona Monsoon Flooding (Courtesy Michael Collier)


The perennial water in Empire Gulch is fed from groundwater moving eastward through the Valley from its rim mountains – the Santa Ritas and the Empire. It is a small flow, measured in tenths of a cubic feet per second (cfs), but steady enough to support the Chiricahua leopard frogs which live in its few pools. In assessing the impact of the proposed Rosemont Copper Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, there is an argument about how much this flow would be affected by mining operations – see The Hydrology Debate in Controversy at Ciénega Creek.

The monsoon season delivers about one third of the annual 15-inch average precipitation in the Ciénega Valley. Some of this water goes to runoff, for a few hours increasing the streamflow up to a hundred times its normal rate. The crest for a one to two inch rain brings a muddy torrent through Empire Gulch, roiling water four to eight feet wide (instead of one or less) and three to five feet deep (instead of one to two inches). It moves rocks and logs, picks up soil and debris, and rushes northward through Ciénega Creek and Pantano Wash toward the Rillito River. Eventually it will sink into the desert sands, joining the aquifer in the Tucson Basin, without reaching the Gila or the Colorado Rivers at the end of this watershed. A smaller portion of the storm water penetrates to the local aquifer, replenishing the supply to be doled out to this small stream over the rest of the year.

[+]Daily Streamflow…

Cienega Creek Streamflow Data. Green line/scale = precip total [inches]. Red line/scale = discharge [cfs] (Courtesy USGS)

Cienega Creek Streamflow Data. Green line/scale = precip total [inches]. Red line/scale = discharge [cfs] (Courtesy USGS)

The first two monsoon rains in July, 2014, tempered the afternoon lows without producing a torrent, but from the third storm on each new rain created a short burst of heavy flooding. An inch of rain on August 1 pushed the flow from 0.39 cfs to 58 cfs.

This environment seems fragile – tiny in size, with a barely adequate water source (even in the presence of monsoons), and stark boundaries across which the heat and the aridity can be fatal to most of the life which thrives here. How do frogs, threatened frogs, survive in this place when their normally quiet pools one or two feet deep are overrun by yards-wide flood waters four or more feet deep?

Philip Rosen has some answers to these survival issues. Rosen is Assistant Research Scientist at the University of Arizona, who for more than two decades has made his professional focus “to understand the ecology and conservation biology of amphibians and reptiles in southwestern North America.” He has a long list of published studies, including turtles (the desert tortoise and the southwestern mud turtle), snakes (the Mexican rosy boa and the western shovel-nosed snake), lizards (the regal horned and the red-backed whiptail lizards), as well as several varieties of frogs, both native and non-native. Phil has a full beard, greying in patches, thinning hair, and a big smile. He loves to talk about native frogs.

Chiricahua Leopard Frog tadpole (Courtesy Jim Rorabaugh, UFWS)

Chiricahua Leopard Frog tadpole (Courtesy Jim Rorabaugh, UFWS)

Dos Aguas asked Phil a few novice questions about frog survival, beginning with “Can adult frogs in a stream like this sense a coming flood and leave the channel?

“Although no one has ‘shown’ that adults can sense and avoid floods,” he answered, “there is no need to hedge on this.”

If flood waters remove them from good habitat, can adult frogs find their way back?” Dos Aguas asked.

“Same for this statement,” Phil answered, “‘can’ is the appropriate word for both. There can be no doubt.”

Do Leopard frogs need floods to scour the channel and improve the habitat?

“The idea that exceptional flood scour is required to sustain frog habitat in streams in general is a little off-base…excessive flood scour also can degrade habitat. The point is that summer flooding (and scour) is differentially detrimental to bullfrogs [a predator to leopard frogs], and thus a saving feature for leopard frogs.”

And finally, “Does breeding early in the season protect eggs and tadpoles from flooding risk?

“This point applies to lowland leopard frogs especially (Rana Yavapaiensis),” Rosen said, “although it is not demonstrated for the CLF [Chiricahua leopard frog]…so it isn’t a supportable statement at this point.”

CLF, as herpetologists refer to them, have developed a system to sustain life in this fragile ecosystem, even with young exposed to the summer floods. They have adapted to survive where their competitors cannot. Both adults and tadpoles may be able shelter themselves in the deeper pools, where the overhangs, rocks, and downed trees can insulate them from the heavy flows. If any adults attempt to protect themselves by moving out of range, in the case of Empire Gulch they would have to move at least several yards to be successful, even with these relatively tame one-inch rains. Any tadpoles which are carried away must end up in another pool to survive (which would be a long ride in this gulch, more than a mile), but as Rosen alluded to frog census-takers have determined that adult leopard frogs can navigate over land to appropriate water, sometimes for several miles.

Dos Aguas followed the water farther east. Within a few hundred yards the pools disappeared, and then the flow itself was gone, sinking into the soggy ground in a patch of reeds. In another fifty yards by the ranch road crossing, where a slab of concrete has been laid over a small culvert, the ground was as dry on top as pre-monsoon. Only a few shorter cottonwoods survived there, and no frogs.


Dos Aguas climbed out of the gulch, crossed over the barbed wire, and headed for the cottonwood tree. Paco was in his saddle.

“Is there water in the arroyo?” he asked.

“No,” Dos Aguas answered, “only the trickle from the spring. The main channel is still muddy, but without water.”

“Climb up beside me,” Paco said. “I have just enough time before the moon disappears.” And so began the story of Anora.

“On a morning in April,” Paco said, “when several of us were on roundup near the mouth of Gardner Canyon, we saw a group of horsemen come up Ciénega Valley from the northeast. It was uncommon to see so many riders at one time, especially without cows. We could not tell who they were. The group crossed over Ciénega Creek at the Empire arroyo and stayed close together between the banks, out of view, moving slowly toward the ranch house. Cowboys would have taken the shortcut across the flank of the mountain, so we suspected it was trouble. There were six of us. Paul decided two would stay with the cattle and four would go. We rode north first in order to come down the far side of the arroyo. It took several hours, so it was afternoon by the time we got near the ranch. We heard occasional shooting, two or three shots together, then silence. Alfonso crawled down into the creek bed to see the house – there, beyond the bend.” He pointed to his left into the trees. “An Apache rider was circling the house – from the creek up to the crest of the rise, then past the barn down into this meadow and back to the open cottonwoods where the rest of the band had dismounted – down beyond the pools of your frogs. Alfonso thought there were ten or twelve in all. The shots came from the house each time a rider raced across the open ground above the buildings. Paul said the Apaches were waiting for dark to close in on the house.

“We hobbled the horses back up the arroyo and went forward on foot. Alfonso and Paul passed along the meadow here, on this side,” Paco said, nodding to the west, “and climbed the hill, Paul to the house and Alfonso, the best marksman, to the barn. He hoped for a clear shot at the rider from the hay stack. Jorge and I went down the creek bed toward the group of Apaches in the trees. Paul’s plan was to carry a fight to the Apaches before dark. Jorge and I crept along the far side of the brush. The small stream bubbled in the center of the arroyo, the wind moved occasionally through the tops of the canopy. Soon we heard them talking. They were descuidados,” Paco said – careless – “without a sentry to their back. We slipped into a hollow among cottonwood roots, about thirty meters west of them, and waited. Jorge counted nine, crouched next to the water with rifles tied on their backs. A few times an hour one rider would circle the house, yelling as he crossed the top of the hill. No more shots came from the house.

“Just before the sun disappeared behind the Santa Ritas a rider began another circle. We heard his yell from the hill, followed by a single shot. We waited, but the horse never came back through the meadow. For a long spell there was no sound, then from the house three shots were fired together – Paul’s signal to make our move. The two of us supported our rifles along the edge of the roots, Jorge starting from the left, and me from the right. We opened fire as soon as we heard horses leave the ranch house, hitting three Apaches before they could take cover. The rest of the band fled on horseback, five of them climbing to the north bank and racing toward Ciénega Creek. Jorge pulled himself up onto the bank to fire after them. Paul and Alfonso and one rider from the house chased following the ranch side of the arroyo. I moved along the stream toward their encampment, carefully.

“Three bodies lay near the water, and two horses stood on the other side, nervous but not frantic. I approached slowly, moving from one tree to another. There was no movement. I began collecting the rifles, keeping a bead on the chest of each warrior while loosening the rawhide ties which held the barrel near the shoulder. I feared one of them would jump at me, but all three were dead. I jumped across the water to untie the horses. Before I could loosen a single knot, she spoke to me from behind the horses.

“’Aquí estoy,’ she said in good Spanish.” Here I am. “I was so startled I dropped the Apache rifles and nearly lost hold of my own. When I recovered I could see her standing next to a cottonwood trunk behind a screen of willow saplings. She didn’t move, or speak.

“’Quién es usted?‘ I asked.” Who are you?

“’Anora,’ she answered. ‘Anora Moreno Orosco. I am O’odham from Santa Rosa.’

“’What are you doing here with the Apache?‘ I asked.

“‘They captured me last winter while we were gathering acorns in the Santa Ritas,’ she answered. ‘That is my marido there.’ She pointed to the warrior farthest away, the one I shot. ‘He was called Tahzay. And this is his horse.’ She touched the flank of the stallion, who nickered quietly in response.

“She helped Jorge and me to bury her husband and the two other Mimbreños on the hillside above the arroyo. I asked if she wanted to say a prayer. ‘You say one,’ she answered.

“All I could remember was the Psalm we learned as children.
El Señor es mi pastor, nada me falta…
The Lord is my shepherd…

“She walked with us as Jorge and I led all the horses across the creek and up to the house. The families had the doors locked and the windows barred. They didn’t open for us, but when Paul and the other riders returned we were invited into the kitchen to hear everyone’s version of the story.

“That night we vaqueros and Anora were fed supper at the kitchen table while the gringo families and Paul ate in the dining room. Then we left in the dark to return to the roundup. Anora walked with us to the corral. She stood by the fence, as she had stood by the cottonwood, still, solemn, regal, her long, wide nose and sharp cheekbones reflecting the moonlight. I felt her watching me as I saddled and loaded.

“One by one we rode out of the corral. I waited to be last. Looking only at my feet, she placed her hand on my boot and said, ‘Que le vaya con Dios.‘“ Go with God. “That’s how I remember her – touching my foot. I heard later from Paul that she chose to remain at the ranch rather than go back directly to Santa Rosa. She cooked for the gringo families and the vaqueros, sleeping in the small lean-to off the kitchen, slowly putting the time of the Apaches behind her.

“I was not at the ranch house the rest of April. We used local corrals near Gardner and Rosemont to brand and castrate calves and to inspect and treat the cows. At the end of the roundup in each sector we drove the culled heifers and older cows to headquarters. When we delivered the Rosemont culls to the holding pasture along Ciénega Creek, at the spot where we had first seen the Apaches, the Ciénega foreman told me to report to the ranch house. ‘For what?’ I asked.

“’They’ll show you,’ he said with a small smile. ‘They need some help at the house.’

Pues,” Paco hesitated. So… “before that day finished I was down in this meadow breaking open a garden plot behind a pair of oxen and an old, wooden plow. Most cowboys would die of shame to be seen behind a walking plow, but Anora could talk me into almost anything.

“’Prepare me a manzana,’ she told me as I hitched the yoke to the plow – almost two of your acres. She was clearly the new jefa of the kitchen.” The boss. “She had convinced even the gringos with her idea for a garden in this meadow, watered the O’odham way by summer floods from the arroyo.

“’Ay, Señora, a manzana will fill this meadow, and take me a week,’ I said. ‘Paul only gave me two days.’

“’Then media manzana,’ she answered.” Half a manzana. “‘And I am no longer a Señora.’ She paced off the corners for me, 50 varas wide from the lower cottonwoods up to the beginning of the hill, right here, and 100 varas long down the center of the meadow. ‘Save a few hours tomorrow to cut an acequia through the trees to the edge of the creek.’” An irrigation ditch.

“In addition to shameful work, turning old sod can break ribs. I remembered plowing my father’s corn plots in Sonora – how to keep the furrow straight, when to scrape the board clean, how to stay clear of the handles when you hit a rock. I didn’t finish the first turning until the next day, and only then by shrinking the corners some.

“’This is smaller than media manzana,’ Anora said when she saw it.

“’Pues, yes, but to make it bigger will require much work with the cottonwood roots.’

“’Another year,’ she answered simply, and gave me a light heart. In the midst of sore arms and ribs and the teasing I would get from the other vaqueros, the thought that she might stay at Empire gave me pleasure. I admired her determination, her skills with gardens and gringos and Apaches, I liked her dark skin.” Paco looked at Dos Aguas with a big smile. “And I liked her style of few words, not like me.”

“She walked into the trees, there by the fence, to mark the acequia, a curve from the upper corner of the garden to the edge of the arroyo. I whipped the oxen to follow her. The path crossed many roots, but by turning two furrows out in each direction we opened a rough ditch for flood water to reach the garden. When Anora returned to the house, she said without looking back, ‘Meet me here after dark.’

“In the late afternoon I sat here on the hillside, smelling the open earth, watching that rocky slope across the creek turn from yellow to orange, purple, black. Anora came down at the west end,” Paco said, looking to the left, “with her arms full. ‘Venga,’ she called to me, and followed our ditch into the trees. She spread a reed mat on the edge of the arroyo, set an olla on it,” – an earthen jug – “and squatted on the mat. ‘It is time to call the rains,’ she said.

“She sang then, songs I didn’t understand, slow, repeated verses accompanied by the rhythm of a dried willow branch she shook. Between verses she drank from the olla, and each time offered it to me – tiswin, red, fermented syrup from fruit of the saguaro cactus. There were many verses, and many drinks, enough to feel bien borracho” – plenty drunk – “‘like the plants when the rains come,’ she told me.

“’My Apache marido took me because he owned me,’ she said. ‘You can take me now to call the rains, and because I’itoi sent you to help me.’ I held her then with happiness, bien borracho on the reed mat under the June sky, in full view of her I’itoi, Elder Brother. And I hid the sadness inside, for I knew she was watching for the next turn in her maze, when she would journey west to Santa Rosa.” Paco stared down at the meadow. The low afternoon light stretched the cottonwood shadows to the far side, the silhouettes of high fluttering leaves nearly touching the gulch. At ground level the air was still.

“What is Anora’s maze?” Dos Aguas asked. There was no answer. When he turned to look, Paco’s saddle was empty – and the moon had slipped below the horizon.


For an abbreviated version of this story, see National Geographic Water Currents.

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