Letter From The Desert: The river no one sees

The desert's rivers are tortured things.

The Colorado lies pinioned, semiconscious, drawn by bridges and quartered by dams. Someday an atmospheric river storm will pinpoint the Glen Canyon Dam at a vulnerable moment, and failing, that dam will loose a torrent of flood and silt that will destroy each of the downstream dams in turn. Until then the Colorado is comatose. Likewise its tributaries the Gila and the Virgin and the Green, dammed hundreds of miles upstream from its confluence with the Colorado.

Even the poor Mojave River, dry on the surface for most of its length, bears dams in its upper reaches. Excepting perhaps common sense, there is no commodity in the desert as scarce as water, and the rivers that hold it have long been staked out, claimed, adjudicated, diverted, fought over, sued over, paved over, culverted, used as sewage drains and groundwater percolation basins, and otherwise generally abused.

Yet there is one river in California's Mojave Desert that so far has not been harmed.

It is a counterintuitive watercourse. Rising in its headwaters in the New York Mountains, flowing about 100 miles south to end in a dry lake basin, this river is unremarkable. By which I mean it is difficult to remark upon. You can be standing right on top of it and never know it's there, never have the faintest idea that a river ten miles wide or more is flowing silently past you.

This river is slow. If you were to rip out one page of the thousands that have been written about water in the desert, craft a paper boat and set it into the current at the river's headwaters, it might reach the other end after ten thousand years, or twelve thousand. It might, that is, if our river wasn't flowing through tens of cubic miles of rock, hundreds of feet underground.

It is hard to imagine a wilder wilderness than this broad, slow, underground river. Neither jetskis nor plastic trash mar its surface; no discarded tires clutter up its bottom. in fact, scientists are not quite sure where this river's bottom is. By the time it trickles out to evaporate in the arid Cadiz Valley, a molecule of water from this river might have spent an unfathomable time in the pitch-black and remote wilds of the aquifer. Here it spent a thousand years stuck by a frail hydrogen bond to a bit of buried clay. There it was cast loose to swirl in unknowable and microscopic eddies. Downstream it will be taken into the bodies of benthic subsoil organisms unknown to science, bacteria or archaea fueled by chemicals from the rock, or by improbable organic leachings from the world above.

After eons that water molecule will climb a capillary column beneath a dry and saline plain, jostle with ions of calcium, sodium, and chlorine, and then make its skyward leap. From lithosphere to atmosphere, that molecule joins the sunlit world and its faster, more intemperate cycles.

The untrammeled Colorado River must have been a thing to behold, back before we broke it and saddled it, with its catastrophic spring floods and its improbable warm-water fish and its canyons. This deep-buried river is stranger still, by orders of magnitude. It is hard to comprehend. I have stood stock still in the middle of the river in its broadest reach, closed my eyes, and strained to hear its music. All I heard was the wind and the cactus wrens, the rasp of creosote stems on stone.

In the middle of this river stands an obstruction solid enough, massive enough, to make all our vaunted Colorado River dams seem as straw cast in the way of the flood. The Clipper Mountains, a volcanic range ten miles long and six wide, stops up the mid-channel of this river, and the current piles up behind it in a standing wave. Constrained by its alluvial matrix, the river cannot easily flow away from this standing wave as it might in a bit of whitewater along the wild and free-flowing Yampa River. Instead, the pressure accumulates. Water thwarted in its desire to flow around the plug instead flows through it, seeking out porosities, widening cracks, pushing its way up into the heart of the mountain, an artesian spring in the making.

Some of that water finds daylight at Bonanza Spring, a half-mile oasis on the far side of the Clipper Mountains, the largest single source of surface water in a thousand square miles of desert.

Bonanza Spring. Chris Clarke photo



I call it Bonanza Spring but there are two, Upper and Lower, separated by a quarter mile and fed by the same source, water burbling out of a hole at the upper spring, flowing a ways, then sinking into the gravelly soil only to reappear a bit downhill, forced back to the surface by a shelf of resistant rock. The channel between is sometimes wet, sometimes not. Cattails and three-square bulrush fill the bottom of the arroyo. In winter, the cottonwoods and willows leafless, you can hear the little stream between Upper and Lower Bonanza Springs chuckle to itself, a quiet song occasionally drowned out by wind and the sound of footsteps.

Come spring, that trickling sound is replaced; cottonwoods and willows send some of the stream water into the air, and mask what's left with the soft whispering of their foliage. At sunset, when the wind picks up a little, you can smell the sun-warmed creosote from beyond the ridge, its scent commingled with that of water and reed.

As I write this, the eggs of red-spotted toads are hatching out into tadpoles. Beneath the algae covered surface of a few still pools, they eat the eggs and larvae of mosquitoes and the omnipresent dragonflies.

As summer progresses those tadpoles will emerge and sing evening adult songs, the true and distilled sound of the massive buried river that here just barely leaks to the surface of the earth.

We learned last week that our deepest fears about this unbelievable spring were true: that pumping by the Cadiz water mining project is likely to dry up Bonanza Spring for centuries, perhaps forever. We cannot allow this project to proceed.

We will not allow the project to proceed.

I have lost so many places that I loved: the juniper forest along Wild Horse Canyon Road, the west slope of the Ivanpah Valley, the hills and fields that once separated the Coast Ranges from the Sierra Nevada in Stanislaus County. The little creek canyons downstream from the West Valley nuclear waste dump in New York State. It is a family tradition: my mother's father grew up at the bottom of the Sacandaga Reservoir. And my losses and my family's are nothing compared to those of, say, the Chemehuevi who have revered this river and its attendant springs since there were lakes throughout the Mojave.

We cannot lose this place merely because some heartless people choose to chase their cynical profits.

Bonanza Spring will live. Reply if you want to help.

Thanks for reading;

- C

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