The life and Death of an American River

Gila: The life and Death of an American River

Dudley, Shelly

Gila: The Life and Death of an American River. By Gregory McNamee. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press,1998. 215 pp. Illustrations, bibliographic essay, index. Paper $14-95.

The University of New Mexico Press chose to reprint Gregory McNamee’s environmental history, Gila: The Life and Death ofan American River, originally published in 1994. A history of this once important river is necessary to understand the current environmental climate in Central Arizona. McNamee brings together both Indian legend and scientific knowledge in describing the Gila River and its surrounding lands. Starting with the prehistoric cultures, including the Cochise culture and the Hohokam, McNamee then introduces the influence of the Gila River on the present residents along its banks, including the Akimel O’odham (Pima Indians) and the Tohono O’odham (Papago).

McNamee introduces the entrada of the Spanish into the Gila River Basin, and several centuries later, the Americans involved in the fur trade. The Spaniards brought new plants and animals to the Southwest, including the horse and sheep, but it was the cow that would assist in the eventual destruction of the Gila River’s valuable watershed. To supply the eastern fashion markets, Americans trapped the beaver along the Gila almost to extinction, thus contributing to the erosion of the watershed. In the nineteenth century, Mormon settlers came to the Upper Gila Valley and established agricultural communities. Intensive irrigated farming depleted the flow of the Gila River, causing hardships on the Gila River Pimas and others trying to make a living farming the lands along the middle Gila. The United States government attempted to solve the problem by constructing Coolidge Dam on the Gila in the mid-r9zos. This effort to provide water to the Pimas was only partially successful; it did not return the natural flow back to the river. McNamee continues to describe the destruction of the Gila River in the twentieth century with one telling anecdote: in the winter of 1944, German prisoners of war attempted an escape from their prison camp in Papago Park by boating down the Gila River. Any Arizonan would know the Gila did not flow there.

As McNamee continues his narrative of the river to more recent times, several inaccuracies are apparent. From the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Arizona v. California, McNamee asserts that the flow of the Gila River is part of Arizona’s total allotment, but the Gila’s water supply is not considered part of Arizona’s portion of Colorado River water. While discussing the Winters Doctrine, McNamee declares that the Gila River Adjudication was settled; various parties have resolved their water rights with several Indian tribes, including the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, and most recently the San Carlos Apache Tribe. Negotiations with the major parties and the Gila River Indian Community appear to be reaching a fruitful conclusion, but a full adjudication of the water rights along the Gila River is not finished.

The Gila is no longer the river that it used to be over a century ago. McNamee describes its demise at the hands of mankind and suggests ways to restore the rivers of the Southwest, including the removal of dams one by one. This thought has since been echoed by others who also suggest the elimination of other such structures, including Glen Canyon Dam. While these dams have altered the environmental life of the rivers, other issues need to be considered. This past spring, under a threat of court action, the federal government authorized the sale of additional Central Arizona Project water to the farmers and Pimas below Coolidge Dam to keep the water levels high in San Carlos Reservoir for recreational fishing. The Gila was not allowed to flow.

Until mankind is willing to change what it wants from a river, the Gila will not be able to return to its natural flow. Reading Gregory McNamee’s Gila, however, will allow people to understand what is missing.

Reviewed by Shelly Dudley. Ms. Dudley is a Senior Historical Analyst at the Salt River Project. Her master’s thesis examined the Gila River Pimas and their quest for water.

Copyright Environmental History Jan 2000

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