Controversy at Ciénega Creek

Water for Copper Mining and Streamflow?

Arizona’s Empire Ranch

Ciénega Valley (courtesy Diane Drobka)

Ciénega Valley (courtesy Diane Drobka)

[+]Empire Ranch…

The Empire Ranch entrance road transports its travelers from 21st century Sonoran Desert – scattered desert scrub, paved highways, speeding traffic, Border Patrol checkpoints, copper mine arguments – into a world of different dimensions. The sun is still bright in a cerulean sky, but the land has quietly opened up – a wide vista, grass waving in the breeze, a few cattle scattered over the rolling hills, tall trees bunched along the distant stream. One could mistake it for the set of a Western movie. (It would not be a mistake – Red River was shot in this valley during the summer and fall of 1946.)

On a warm June morning Randy Serraglio and Dos Aguas drove into the ranch from Tucson to verify the pre-monsoon water conditions in Ciénega Creek and Empire Gulch, its tributary. We also came to survey several of the endangered or threatened species which depend on the water in this corridor, including the Chiricahua Leopard Frog, the Gila Chub, and the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. There are other species on the list of mine impacts (the jaguar, the largest cat in the Americas; Coleman’s coralroot, an orchid unique to the oak habitat in the Sky Islands of southern Arizona and New Mexico; Lesser long-nosed bat, a migrating mammal adapted to nectar gathering; the ocelot, a nocturnal hunter also known as the dwarf leopard) but we were focused on those species closely linked to the water in Ciénega Creek.

The entrance road wanders about three miles across the high grassland to the original ranch headquarters. In Mile 2 Randy saw a Red-Tailed Hawk jumping along the hillside above the road with prey in its beak. The binoculars were pulled out quickly. And immediately after the hawk Dos Aguas noticed a family of American Pronghorn, including two youngsters, grazing below the road. They watched our passage carefully, but did not flee.

Randy has been with the Center for Biological Diversity for seven years, as Southwest Conservation Advocate. He leads the Center’s efforts on the Rosemont mine, and works on various other issues, including those related to the San Pedro River and the US-Mexico border. He is thin, with a small mustache and goatee, wire-framed glasses, and a determined walk. He was dressed that day in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, hiking shoes, and his trademark – a dark, stiff-brimmed hat.

Empire Gulch

The cottonwood canopy along the far reaches of Upper Ciénega Creek is seen first as a splotchy green line curving around the foothills of the Empire Mountains, just above 4000’ elevation. To the south and east of the creek stretch the dry grasslands of the Sonoita Plain, heart of the ranch. To the north and west the rocky ground slopes up toward the highest Empire peak, above 5500’.

[+]Southwestern Willow Flycatcher…

We parked in the circle drive of the newest ranch house (built in the 1950’s but now empty), walked past the boarded-up windows, and headed down the hill to Empire Gulch. Randy was immediately busy with the birds. In the meadow below the house we heard a series of short, rising squeaks coming from high up. “There’s a kestrel,” he said before looking, then wheeled up with his binoculars. “An American Kestrel.” As we scouted for a place to drop into the channel of the gulch Randy saw movement above us. “A flycatcher,” Randy said. He found it on a mid-level cottonwood branch, flitting out to grab insects. He studied it for several moments. “It’s likely a Southwestern Willow. But it’s not making a peep, and I didn’t bring the bird guide.” The banks of the gulch here are lined mostly with cottonwoods. As we slid down the bank and entered the shaded corridor we saw several hackberry trees, a gooseberry shrub, a few willows, but no water. The corridor is two to three hundred feet wide, spacious, dusty. We turned east, looking for the short segment of this streambed which has perennial water. We passed occasional patches of bright green reeds, so the water table was close to the surface. Randy stopped suddenly and swung his binoculars to the left. “A Tanager,” he said, pointing. Dos Aguas found the red head with no searching.

Ciénega Creek Stream Flow Data (Courtesy US Geological Survey)

Ciénega Creek Stream Flow Data (Courtesy US Geological Survey)

[+]The Stream Flow…

This riparian corridor and the species which inhabit it have been the subject of many environmental discussions. At one time this creek had a strong year-round flow – the Total Wreck Mine pumped all the water for its operations from Ciénega in the 1880’s, and its storage tanks still stand rusting at the foot of Pump Canyon. Now sections of the streambed are dry much of the year, and the advocates for conservation are worried that any small change which reduces the remaining water could cause this desert oasis to die. The proposed mining project of Rosemont Copper in the Santa Rita Mountains to the west is the most immediate threat.

We admired a more prolific patch of greens, reaching down to touch the crisp leaves and smell the damp soil, and then suddenly found ourselves at the edge of a deep head cut in the channel. The eroded ground dropped sharply 8 or 9 feet, and at the bottom was cradled a pool of still water covered mostly with algae. Here begins the ‘perennial water’ of Empire Gulch. We followed the green channel to the east, crawling over exposed cottonwood roots and sliding down closer to the water. There was another pool ahead, this one with an area of clear water in the center. As we approached there was a single plop, the resulting wake expanding across the pool. We stopped at the water’s edge. Another plop. Randy was glued to his field glasses, adjusting the focus to see below the surface. “It’s hard to tell a body from a clump of algae,” he said. Then, “There he is, in the middle! Two eyes and a green nose.”

Chiricahua Leopard Frog (Courtesy of Jim Rorabaugh, US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Chiricahua Leopard Frog (Courtesy of Jim Rorabaugh, US Fish and Wildlife Service)

[+]Chiricahua Leopard Frog…

Randy pulled out his guide (A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona by Brennan and Holycross) and kneeled down to verify the sighting. After a few minutes of leafing through the frog pages, he said, “It’s definitely a Chiricahua. It has the dark spots,” he pointed to the Guide illustration, “the round eye, and the greenish face.”

We were about to turn back for destination two – Upper Ciénega Creek and the Gila Chub – when Randy stopped and held up his hand to listen. Then Dos Aguas heard it also – a repetitive, hollow knocking sound, like a stick on a woodblock. Randy smiled. “Yellow-billed cuckoo!” he said. “Our bonus for today.” We stood quietly waiting, necks bent back to watch the cottonwood tops, but no second call came. Then we saw a movement from one cottonwood to another. More straining, waiting. We never did get a clear sighting after it disappeared into the very top of the cottonwood canopy, but finally we did hear again its distinctive call. Click-click-click-click-click.

As we passed by the ranch house Randy pulled out his field glasses to examine a lizard clinging to the stucco wall. He said nothing, but once we climbed into the truck he took out the Field Guide to leaf through the lizard pages. As we passed the corral he announced, “Slevin’s Bunchgrass Lizard. It has the gray stripe down the middle, and a lighter stripe down each side.” He held out the page for Dos Aguas to see, but it was impossible to drive and look at the same time.

Ciénega Creek

Gila Chub (Courtesy of Scott A. Bonar,  USGS Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit)

Gila Chub (Courtesy of Scott A. Bonar, USGS Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit)

[+]Gila Chub…

We headed north and east in the truck, crossing first Empire Gulch (by then dry again) and later a dry section of Ciénega Creek. The destination was obvious – the eruption of tall and very green cottonwood canopy along the middle section of the creek, about a mile northeast of us. But finding the right trail, and passing through the right livestock gates, was a bit of trial and error. Dos Aguas drove and Randy watched the trees. “Summer Tanager,” he called out in one meadow. We passed the bottom below Fortynine Wash, crossed Mattie Canyon, and then doubled back northwest along a ridge aimed directly at the creek. At last we found a trail descending to the creek bed facing Sanford Canyon. Along the dusty path we skirted several deep sink holes, some more than six feet deep and encroaching on the roadbed. As we descended to the creek bed there were more willows, some young ash among the cottonwoods, and a few walnuts. As soon as we entered the canopy shade we found ourselves on the edge of a clear pool, two to three feet deep, with steady current. We stood for a few minutes and soon could see many fish hanging together. We walked to the south, passing another deeper pool with larger fish. Randy examined them carefully with the field glasses, and then identified the adults as Gila Chub. A bit further south the creek is shallow enough to see the current – a steady, sparkling gurgle just steps from the desert. Dos Aguas guessed a flow of one or two cubic feet/second, Randy guessed from 3-5 cfs. (Neither of us were close. The USGS Upper Ciénega streamgage located a bit further north would report less than 0.5 cfs for the day of our visit.)

“The fish seem a bit anti-climatic, after the frog,” Randy said with a smile, and then bent down for a handfull of cress, which he ate. In the damp soil near the water was a patch of showy white flowers – white ‘petals’ (brachts, actually) surrounding a central spike of florettes, with large green leaves which hung close to the ground. Randy later identified the plant as Yerba Mansa, or lizard tail.

[+]The Hydrology Debate…

The controversy about this mine is based partly on science, and the interpretation of facts, but it also grows out of a philosophical difference. Randy is a watcher of Nature, a proponent of limiting humans’ interventions in natural processes. On the other side of the table, Rick Grinnell of the Southern Arizona Business Coalition has said in defense of the Rosemont Project, “Mother Nature has a way of taking care of herself….”

We started back to Tucson, heading west and north along eleven miles of rough dirt back to the highway, passing through five gates each of which Randy opened and closed. The truck was pointed west and north, mostly at the Santa Ritas. “I helped fight this same battle 17 years ago,” Randy said in a subdued tone. “At that time it was against ASARCO’s plan for a mine.” He was quiet for a time as the truck wobbled and scraped over the washed-out roadbed. “I hope there can be a final resolution this time, rather than postponing it for another decade, or longer.”

Only twice during the day did we see creatures from outside the LCNCA conservation cocoon – one Federal vehicle near the ranch, and one well-fed farm dog roaming in Mattie Canyon. Once we reached Highway 83 the sky had changed – a few puff balls along with wispy clouds, haze against the mountains, a hint of humidity. The June lead-up to the summer rains had begun.


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

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