Ecocide Arizona Style — The Cow That Ate The West   9 comments

Peloncillo MountainsCattle Corral in the San Simon Valley — Images by kenne

Note: This article came about as a result of a scheduled duck hunting trip that went a bust. For several years Tom and some of his hunting buddies have gone hunting in the San Simon Valley. The valley contains several small ponds, little known to most duck hunters. Again this year, they were planning to hunt the riparian area of the valley. Tom asked me if I would like to go duck hunting. I told him I hunt only with a camera — the hunt was on.

Two days before the scheduled hunt we got word that there were not ducks in the valley — there was not water. Tom and I discussed the situation and decided to make it a photo expedition.

This posting is about the disappearing water in the San Simon Valley, which serves a “poster child” of the west. Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued “a call to action”  a three-year study of the Colorado River and its ability to meet the future needs of city-dwellers, Native Americans, businesses, ranchers and farmers in the western states. 

“There is no one solution that is going to meet the needs of this challenge,” Salazar said. “We need to reduce our demand through conservation. We also need to augment supply with practical measures.” — Arizona Daily Star. December 13, 20112

Peloncillo Mountains

ECOCIDE ARIZONA STYLE

Tom Markey and Kenne G. Turner (November 2012)

PrintDuring its four years of operation (1857-1861), the Butterfield Overland Mail gave its passengers views of the some of the West’s most luxurious grasslands when its stage coaches emerged from the Peloncillo Mountains, now a 19,440 acre wilderness area designated by Congress in 1990 along the Arizona – New Mexico border, and those stage coaches descended through West Doubtful Canyon into the San Simon Valley in what became Cochise County, Arizona.

However, the graves of scalpees, such as that of John James Giddings (1821-1861), who was heading back east, attest to the pass’s prolonged perils at the hands of Apaches led by Cochise and Geronimo.

But a far worse peril than the Apaches could ever have imagined was soon to be visited upon the region.

In the fall of 1882, Will C. Barnes, former Medal of Honor awardee in the battle at Fort ApacheArizona Territory, wrote in “Herds In San Simon Valley – What Happen To The Promise Land of Arizona’s Oldtime Cattlemen?” of his personal experience in seeking a suitable location for raising a few cattle. He was advised by an old Army officer, having chased Apaches throughout the area, that the San Simon Valley might be a suitable location.

After spending ten days riding over the valley, Barnes decided he had found his “promised land.” The river, although an “intermittent affair,” provided for a riparian area as it quietly flowed through the lush grassland.

By 1885 or so those once lush grasslands (around Chaney Place … as one bearing point) in the San Simon Valley were already seriously overgrazed by an estimated 55,000 cattle and in danger of disastrous erosion and eventual desertification: an Arizona-style ecocide as the cow that ate the West and exhausted its fragile water sources was well on its way; see Lynn Jacobs’ classic, Waste of the West: Public Lands Ranching (1991).

Dry Riparian Area In The San Simon Valley

Dry Riparian Area In The San Simon Valley

The stunning classic account of this disaster is Marc Reisner‘s 1986 Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. A four-part television documentary based on a revised version of the book was produced by KTEH-TV, the PBS affiliate in San José, California, in 1996. The parts are entitled Mulholland’s Dream, An American Nile, The Mercy of Nature, and The Last Oasis.  

Ecocide is, by the way, a term used to refer to any large-scale destruction of a natural environment by over-consumption of critical non-renewable resources. The word’s fatal significance is repeatedly illustrated by Jared Diamond in his vastly successful Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005, with a revised edition from 2011) which chronicles a series of major ecological disasters such as Easter Island.

The San Simon Subbasin, some 1,930 square miles north and south of Interstate 10 in southeastern Arizona that extends into New Mexico is well on its way to becoming another ecocide success, and this is particularly true of the closed drainage basin of San Simon Valley that is north of Interstate 10 between Orange Butte (5,250 feet) on its eastern edge and Javelina Peak (5,592 feet) to the northwest. The surrounding area is an ancient volcanic eruptive hot spot primarily composed of basaltic to rhyolitic rocks from some 16 to 30 million years ago. Its tectonic underpinnings are still unstable; the San Simon Basin regularly experiences earthquakes of major magnitude about every 50 years or so. And surface water comes and goes with the rhythms of this geological instability. The earthquake of May 4th, 1887, had an estimated Richter magnitude of 7.2.

Peloncillo Mountains

Cattle Watering Pond

The water resources of the region have always been marginal. In 1934 Will C. Barnes wrote after revisiting the valley: “Many of the old valuable grasses and forage plants were gone. The green meadows were replaced by wide expanses of drifting sand. Of running water, except during the summer rains when floods occurred, there was almost none.”

Today, the San Simon and Whitlock Cienega are both dry, as is nearby Parks Lake. Only a few artesian wells in the area are still flowing, and artesian pressure has been steadily decreasing: windmills had long had to assist the water to reach the surface, and even these have failed recently, and dry tanks are increasingly abandoned.

Any significant ground water resources are limited to a network of aquifers, and in-depth investigations of the economic aspects of aquifer water quality are, remarkably, a relatively young field. Increases in salinity from irrigation re-charge and undesirable mineral content in irrigation water from ambient ground water and aquifers has, however, already been indicated in the San Simon Valley. According to an Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ 2002) Baseline Study from 2004, groundwater in the lower or artesian aquifer rarely met health-based standards because of frequently elevated fluoride or arsenic concentrations. Then, too, groundwater in the upper aquifer often also did not meet health-based standards because of elevated fluoride or nitrate concentrations.

Peloncillo Mountains

Dry Water Detention Area

The Bowie pistachio plantation contact is Jim Cook of the Pistachio Corporation of Arizona, Bowie (520-847-2554).

Sky Island Alliance (SIA) is currently conducting a statewide “Spring’s Inventory” and reports that fifty springs will have been inventoried by the end of 2013. SIA should be encouraged to conduct a follow-up of the ADEQ 2002 Baseline Study of the San Simon Basin and note the changes during the past decade.

The now dry detention dam lakes, no matter how shallow they were (1-2 feet), in the San Simon Basin north of Bowie and San Simon were convenient stop-overs for numerous species of migratory ducks, but no more: no ducks were sighted in the area again this season, and one by one the ponds in the area have been going dry at a rapid rate over the past four years.

Dry Detention Dam Lake

Dry Detention Dam Lake

To make the ecological situation of this threatened area even worse, in the Sierra Club’s Rincon Group Newsletter (July – September 2012), Russell Lowes reports that Southwestern Power Group (SWPG) wants to build a large natural gas plant (SunZia) north of the Chiricahua Mountains near Bowie, and this would certainly be a major source of pollution, even as far west as Tucson. The start-up is now planned for 2015 after the local Board of Supervisors granted the developers a construction permit extension in November of 2009.

The agency that is controlling the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process for the projected Bowie natural gas plant is, as you might suspect, the perennial rancher’s friend who continues to support a no longer economically viable way of cowboy life at tax payer expense across the West, namely the federal Bureau of Land Management.

According to some environmentalists (Cascabel Working Group, July 17th, 2011), SWPG has “intentionally hidden its intended use of SunZia (Southwest Transmission Project) for the Bowie plant and appears to have misrepresented the project as delivering primarily renewable energy to gain the support of governmental, environmental and public interests to expedite the project’s construction.” 

Hydrographic declines (subsidence) in the Bowie area have been recorded since the 1980’s as part of surveys of preconsolidation stress on aquifer systems, but there do not seem to be more recent post-plantation reports from the area; see Water Resources Research for June 1981 which cites a local decline of more than 278 feet since 1952 in a well five miles east of Bowie.

There seems to be a lack of up to date water demand estimate studies for the area, and, if this is the case, it is probably masking a serious case of Arizona-style ecocide.

The promised land that Will C. Barnes wrote about years ago was in the making for centuries and cannot be restored in just a few years: “The present emergency offers a vast field for true conservation. But remember this, it will not be accomplished in a year or a dozen years. And most of all, to succeed it will require conscientious cooperation by every stockman using these lands. In no other way will it be brought about,” wrote Barnes. He concluded that the valley was not an isolated or unusual area. “All over the West similar areas are now going through the same destructive process of erosion.”

Peloncillo MountainsImages by kenne

Click here to see a slideshow of Kenne Turner’s San Simon Valley images. 

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9 responses to “Ecocide Arizona Style — The Cow That Ate The West

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  1. Hi Kenne,
    Wonderful pictures and a very interesting story: thanks for sharing.
    Have a great weekend,
    Pit

  2. I am glad that Google brought your site up for
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  5. This irreversible damage is happening every day all over the 13 western public grazing states. If you want to fight back, become a member of Jon Marvel’s “Western Watersheds Project” in Idaho. WWP has won many court battles, many times to force the BLM or FS to follow their own rules. The Sierra Club has joined in some of the legal actions, so a membership there will help too. And pray for long life to Judge Winmill in the 9th. Circuit Court. signed, Old Crank

  6. We stumbled over here coming from a different website
    and thought I may as well check things out.
    I like what I see so now i am following you. Look forward to
    checking out your web page again.

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