Dos Aguas in Bouse

On an ordinary day there are two classes of water in Bouse, Arizona – water for local use (supplies pumped from the Ranegras Plain aquifer 50 and more feet below the surface), and water just passing through (Colorado River water being pumped uphill, south and east in the canal of the Central Arizona Project, or CAP). On the last day of September, 2012, these two sources of water were mixed unexpectedly and with much drama. Here is a Dos Aguas report from the key locations of the story: Bouse, CAP Headquarters, and Lake Pleasant.

Bouse and Its Local Water

[+]Groundwater…

Dos Aguas drove to Bouse on a Monday in August, straggling behind the California traffic racing west from Phoenix across the desert. We exited Interstate 10 at Vicksburg Road, and headed north. The highway was soon surrounded by irrigated land – green rows or circles on both sides of the road, hay stacks, irrigation booms, spray rigs in the fields, long rows of Holstein heifers eating hay in the shade of the sheds. Just as quickly – in less than 6 miles – all this activity disappeared and the desert returned, creosote, palo verde and sand. The route to Bouse then turned northwest on Highway 72, a two-lane blacktop which parallels the Arizona and California Railroad on its way to Parker and the Colorado River. The railroad has a mostly level roadbed, but Highway 72 follows the rolls of the land, dipping down into each wash and climbing out the far side. Dos Aguas gained slowly on a freight train off to the right, in spite of the washes.

On an August afternoon movement is sparse in Bouse. The temperature that Monday was 111 degrees under a clear sky. Yet when Dos Aguas pulled into Desert Pueblo RV Resort (now well ahead of the train), Leonard Jordan met us at the entrance. He stood bareheaded in the sun shoveling dirt from the bucket of a front-end loader into a flower bed. “The water here likes to run off.” He pointed to muddy patches in the gravel driveway. We asked him about the park’s water. “Our well is about 100 feet deep. We have it tested every month – some outfit from Fountain Hills,” he said. “It has a lot of minerals in it. If you’re looking for the definition of hard water, this is it.”

Bouse rhymes with mouse. The town is located on the edge of the Sonoran desert about 130 miles west of Phoenix, with a population of 996 (in 2010) and an elevation of 948 feet. Many of its dwellings are manufactured homes, some RVs and some mobile homes, single- and double-wide. Highway 72 is the main road through town.

Tuesday morning at 6:30 am Dos Aguas met Dallas Hillhouse, the Maintenance Supervisor for CAP Aqueduct West, at the CAP offices on Joshua Road, a steel building across from the Bouse school. In the graveled parking lot sat a road grader, several pickups, and three dump trucks. Dallas was alone in the building, sitting at a computer just inside the door, in a room with big windows looking into the adjoining conference room. He is a solid man, middle-aged, dressed in jeans (low on his hips) and a red plaid work shirt. He has a flat-top haircut, a horseshoe mustache extending to his chin, and a big smile. Dallas has worked for CAP in Bouse for 16 years, and for the last two years has been maintenance supervisor for the first 94 miles of the canal (not including the pumping stations).

[+]Irrigation near Bouse…

We asked him about his home water supply on the farm. “It’s salty water,” he said, “but good enough for irrigation and for animals.” The well is drilled to over 200 feet, and has water at about 60 feet. For household water they use reverse osmosis treatment. “When my daughter took her 4H heifer to the fair north of Parker, the animal smelled that river water and said ‘I’m not drinking any of that!’ So for the whole fair we had to haul water from the farm.”

At one time his in-laws farmed here over 2000 acres of cotton and alfalfa. They considered joining CAP, but at that time this land belonged to Yuma County, which would never agree to the extra taxes to support membership. When Dallas took the job with CAP, he moved back to the farm with his family, fixed up the old house, salvaged the farm equipment, and for some years grew about 90 acres of cotton. It was a lot of work. “We didn’t make much money,” he said, “just took it from one hand and put it in the other. But it was a good thing for the kids. They learned to hoe cotton, and tramp the bales, and haul bales to the gin south of Parker.”

[+]Parker Dam…

Dallas reported that among old timers in Bouse there was a belief that the local water table had been raised by construction of the Parker Dam on the Colorado River. “Before Parker there wasn’t enough water here for big irrigation,” he told us. Now there are patches of big irrigation – cotton, alfalfa, vegetables, which we passed on Vicksburg Road, and some jojoba.


The Canal and Water Passing Through

Map of the CAP System (Courtesy AZ Republic)

Map of the CAP System (Courtesy AZ Republic)

[+]The Central Arizona Project…

Along this section of CAP the canal seemed a quiet and peaceful place. From the bridge where Butler Valley Road crosses the canal, raised nearly twenty feet above the desert floor, there was almost no other sign of civilization in any direction. The water surface was ruffled slightly by the wind. In the distance a few ducks, probably Ring-Necks, floated. Across the desert there were no homes or farm buildings visible (except for a roof section of the Bouse Hills Pumping Station more than a mile to the south). No engines, no airplanes, no dust trails. A Zone-Tailed hawk sat on a fence-post along the canal embankment, and reluctantly lifted off as we got out of the truck.

The next canal crossing, McVay Road, lies about five miles southeast of the Bouse Hills Pumping Station at Cunningham Wash. Driving north on McVay Road creosote was everywhere. At times it seemed cultivated – spaced plants as far as the eye can see, almost in rows. In this desert you could feel the presence of the canal before you recognize it – the built up embankment off to the east was an out-of-place straight line across the desert, slowly drawing closer. McVay Road skirts the edge of the wash but here the canal goes underneath it. For three quarters of a mile the Cunningham Wash Siphon is laid under the occasionally flooded wash, drawing water out of the end of Pool 1, below the pumping plant, and delivering it again to the open canal beyond the wash. There is no bridge here, since the road bends around the canal and crosses the siphon. The embankment is fenced, so the only view is up to the canal – no sight of water, or ducks, and no mixing of CAP and local water.


The Breach

[+]CAP Control Room…

In the early hours of Sunday, September 30, 2012, operators in the CAP control room in north Phoenix noticed a drop in the water level in Pool 1 of Reach 2 (just past the Bouse Hills Pumping Station). The graph on Lou Oster’s computer monitor showed that between 1:37 am and 1:51 am the water depth in this Pool 1 dropped about a foot from its normal 16 feet, and it did so equally from the beginning to the end of the 5-mile section. About 2:15 am the operators called Doug Crosby, CAP’s Water Control Supervisor. It looked like a breach, but the group decided to delay any on-site investigation until daybreak.

Before 7 am the CAP dispatchers called Dallas Hillhouse in Bouse. Within a few minutes Dallas was in his truck on the way from home (a few miles southeast of Bouse) to the canal. On Highway 72 about 3 miles before Bouse’s Main Street Dallas came over a rise to see the wash below full of moving water. He knew then it was a large break (since the canal is over 5 miles northeast across the desert). His first thought was, “Phoenix doesn’t have any water until we fix this.” ADOT personnel were by the side of the road warning motorists. Dallas judged the water to be about 12 inches deep. He drove through without stopping.

Within half an hour Dallas was searching along the west-side Operations and Maintenance road (or canal-right). He suspected a particular spot along this side, but soon discovered the leak was in the opposite bank. At mile post 27.4 he saw water pooled in the desert against the canal-left embankment. One twelve foot embankment panel was gone. The water flowed out through the breach and was draining more slowly through two culverts carrying a wash under the canal. It was “… flooded across the desert like an oasis,” he said. Within minutes the upstream pumps were shut down, while the downstream pumps continued to salvage as much water as possible from this section.

Break in the CAP embankment at Mile 27.4 (Courtesy CAP)

Break in the CAP embankment at Mile 27.4 (Courtesy CAP)

This was the first break ever in CAP’s nearly 30 year history. “We have ‘washed the dirt’ a few times,” Doug told Dos Aguas – meaning the water level in certain pools has risen above the cement lining of the canal – “but there has never been a loss of water from the system.” Now it had to be fixed.

Within the next nineteen days Pool 1 was drained, an investigation done, a plan drawn up, a repair contract written, and the repairs completed. Crews were on-site 24 hours a day replacing fill, repouring panels, sealing joints, and testing at three separate locations along the 5 miles of Pool 1. On October 20 CAP started the pumps again.

All deliveries to customers expecting water were completed during the shutdown of CAP’s Colorado River intake. The missing Colorado River water was replaced from CAP’s buffer supply stored in Lake Pleasant north of Phoenix. An equivalent volume of water was released through Lake Pleasant’s Waddell Dam, and pushed south to join the main canal just north of Arizona Route 303. The lake was drawn down 7 feet by this three weeks of borrowing.

From the Lake Pleasant Visitors’ Center next to the dam the lake’s summer ‘beard’ dominated the view north – several hundred feet of bare ground, rocky white ‘beach’ above the water level all around its twisting shore. Above this beard was the normal Sonoran desert growth – palo verde, cholla cactus, creosote bush, and scattered saguaro. During the winter, when irrigation demand is much reduced, the lake will be refilled from CAP’s excess, pushing water from the canal under the dam and into the lake. By spring most of the bare ground will be under water again.


The Mix

Flooding Across Highway 72 (Courtesy Parker Pioneer)

Flooding Across Highway 72 (Courtesy Parker Pioneer)

By any calculation a lot of water ran out into the desert. The standard flow rate in the western sections of the CAP canal is about 3000 cubic feet per second (or cfs) – which translates to 22,400 gallons per second, or 4 acre feet per minute. The mechanics of the breach – a canal-side pool which could empty only through two drainage culverts – slowed the escape flow below that maximum. The initial estimate was that over 400 acre feet of water were lost (or about 130 million gallons). That water traveled south and west along the Bouse Hills, crossed Highway 72 (where Dallas sped through it), ran another mile west into the Bouse Wash, and then spent itself in this wide, sandy riverbed pointed north back toward the Colorado. The water never made it the fourteen miles to Highway 95, but instead soaked into the ground as recharge to the Ranegras Plain aquifer.

On that Tuesday afternoon in August Dos Aguas drove south on Main Street. The first stop, just past the bridge over the Bouse Wash, was the Bouse homestead site marked by the La Paz Historical Commission (Bouse is now in La Paz County). According to the sign Thomas Bouse came to this area in 1889 from California, and settled on this lot, near the wash and with a high water table. The house is gone now, razed in 1948. Two shipping containers sit close to the road, unmarked and apparently with no historical purpose. The only structure which remains is a concrete square, about 30 feet on a side, with walls once 5 feet high. “The cement tank in the right background,” the sign reads, “served as a swimming pool for many years.” At 4,500 cubic feet this pool would have held over 33,000 gallons – one indicator of water availability and value in this frontier valley.

[+]Recharge?…

Dos Aguas continued away from Bouse on La Posa Road, north and west, looking for access to the wash. After more than a mile the pavement ended, and the houses became bigger. Then the road turned west and the houses were gone, replaced by an occasional water tank or corral standing empty by the road. After a few miles we turned right onto an entrance lane leading north toward the wash. There were no tire tracks in the ruts. In a few hundred yards the lane came to a dead-end facing a stock watering trough – a wooden frame covered with wire mesh and then stucco – with a corral and water storage tank behind. Someone had once run cattle here, pumped water for them, checked fences, rounded them up, counted heads. Now all the water containers had multiple holes through the stucco. The corral was made with solid, creosoted timbers, but there was no sign of recent use.

Just below the water tank Bouse Wash began, at this point nearly 500 feet wide, interspersed with healthy-looking creosote and rather sickly palo verde, a few deep channels eroded among the growth. The CAP water had certainly reached this far, pushing along the several divided channels, soaking quickly into the sand – the water passing through finding a local home. Aquifer recharge, without a plan. Yet now, at this spot, there was no one to benefit from pumping it out again. It will flow slowly underground, to the west, until finally it seeps into the Colorado River basin once again.

I tried to imagine settling in this country more than 100 years ago: 111 degrees, no surface water, no electric or diesel pumps, 25 miles west to the nearest river and post office. In addition to skill and knowledge, it must have taken an intrepid spirit to build a life from scratch in this desert, no matter how productive the mine, or how shallow the well.

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