Agua Fria River: Hope Fades for Small Arizona Stream

Agua Fria River

The Agua Fria River passes through the small central Arizona town of Dewey-Humboldt about a half mile east of the Historical Society museum on Main Street.  It begins as a tiny wash on the north slope of Glassford Hill, widens as it sweeps around the east side of Prescott Valley, and finally becomes a perennial stream as it enters Dewey-Humboldt.  There, in small shady pools separated by sparkling riffles, the river becomes a peaceful refuge, totally out of character with its desert surroundings.  Filled in summer by the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds and in winter by the quacking laughter of migratory ducks, the river continues through the town on south through Agua Fria National Monument and Black Canyon to Lake Pleasant.

A Beautiful Desert Stream Runs Through the Heart of Dewey-Humboldt, Arizona.

A Beautiful Desert Stream Runs Through the Heart of Dewey-Humboldt, Arizona.

Agua Fria River Watershed

Agua Fria River Watershed

The Agua Fria River is a free-flowing above-ground stream through Dewey-Humboldt, but it is dry along much of the rest of its course.  Its water comes from rain and snow that soak into the ground and move down to the river channel.  Heavy rains produce occasional floods, but otherwise water is above ground only where subterranean layers of rock force it to the surface in springs and seeps. 

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The Agua Fria watershed is 1.79 million acres, 2797 square miles, covering 2.4% of the state of Arizona.  Heavy  rain in the watershed can cause the river to rage wildly.  Such floods deposit fertile sediment on the floodplain, and keep the river channel open so that it can carry future floods.  In 1927, the Waddell Dam blocked the river’s natural flows and created Lake Pleasant south of Black Canyon City.  From there, one the nation’s largest water treatment plants supplies water for 400,000 homes in northwest Phoenix.

Agua Fria River Basin From Mt. Union

Agua Fria River Basin From Mt. Union

The Agua Fria River is an important part of the reason that people settled Dewey-Humboldt.  In the mid 1800’s, farmers began using water from the river to irrigate crops, and miners pumped water to facilities east and west of Humboldt. 

Agua Fria River in Dewey-Humboldt, Arizona

Agua Fria River in Dewey-Humboldt, Arizona

During the century and a half since the first Euro-American settlers arrived, the human population and use of the land have increased.  Today, the Agua Fria River, like many of Arizona’s streams and lakes, is polluted with human wastes.  The river contains unsafe levels of nitrates, arsenic, lead, and more.  Some of the toxic materials come from natural deposits, but the majority come from farms, mines, yards, streets, and waste water.  The water flowing in the river must be treated before consumption, and some stretches below Humboldt are so toxic that wading is dangerous.

Portions of the town of Dewey-Humboldt have been listed as a Super-Fund Site by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The EPA is stabilizing the mine tailings and replacing soil in a few residential yards.  The EPA has no plans to do anything about the toxic materials already in the Agua Fria River and covering the soil over much of the area of the town.

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Many animals depend on the Agua Fria’s water and stream-side vegetation.  Cottonwood trees, patches of willow, and small groves of mesquite and salt cedar grow along the river.  Before the EuroAmericans came, the songs and calls of birds, frogs, and crickets fill the air along the river.

Tracks on the Agua Fria River Banks

Tracks on the  River Bank

Water pollution, dams, road construction, invading species, and human disturbances are eliminating the wildlife.  These days, automobiles, barking dogs, and lawn mowers make are the most common sounds heard along the river.

The human population of the Agua Fria River watershed is growing.  The depth to groundwater is increasing, but the number of wells is expected to keep pace with population.  Except where cities pump waste water into its channel, the above-ground flow of the Agua Fria River will decline, leaving only a dry river bed.  As the water levels continue to fall, the cottonwood, mesquite, willow, and salt cedar growing along the river will die just as they did in the last century over much of central Arizona as irrigation wells sucked the water down below the reach of the tree roots (Rogers 1974).

References.

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