Grappling with the Drying Riverbeds of the Agua Fria

Petroglyphs are carved into some rocks. In the distance there is a river and mountains.

It is 105 degrees by my car’s thermometer on a late afternoon in the northwest corner of the city of Phoenix. The light is starting to foreshadow sundown: it has taken on that warm golden quality that, because of the heat, makes afternoons feel slow and sometimes dangerous. I lock my car and walk down a paved pathway between two homes to the Agua Fria River Trail, an asphalt path baking in the sun that runs along a mesquite and chaparral-lined expanse. In the distance, white water tanks appear as if they are a mirage. But I do not see any water. 

My research as an anthropologist had brought me to Phoenix to study retirement. Since the 1960s, when retirement communities began popping up across the Sunbelt, retirees from all over the US and from the entire spectrum of the middle class have moved to Arizona. Many have come to spend their later years in more temperate climates, and yet I am struck (especially in the summer) by the contradictions of the environment here: the heat and the dryness, and the way that some parts of the city, like lawns and golf courses, appear to be artificially green. There is something eerie about looking in the face of such heat, of such dryness due to water extraction, and of the effects of climate change. Behind me stands a recently built housing development, to the east a major highway, and no humans around for what seem like miles. The depth of aloneness can be haunting for a person driving around on her own. I am fearful, not just for myself, but also for my fellow travelers, two-legged, four-legged, winged, and rooted. 

I have driven out here to look for the Agua Fria, a river that on Google Maps runs from Prescott to Phoenix. But what I see in front of me is a dried-up riverbed. Water consultants and urban planners tell me that the Agua Fria’s groundwater provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people in Maricopa County and that, despite appearances, it is in fact a present and important water resource.  

A vast landscapes of shrubs and cacti slopes down from either side toward a small canyon.
The Agua Fria National Monument encompasses two mesas and the canyon of the Agua Fria River. Photo by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Arizona, 2010.

To get here, the GPS had directed me to drive along Grand Avenue, then down a busy road off the highway and, curiously, down a side street into the winding bowels of a new housing development. The homes are all brown stucco walls with tiled roofs, three bedroom three bathrooms hidden behind tall cacti that rise up into the air as if trying to escape their concrete jail. The neighborhood seems empty; no one is walking on the street, no kids are playing in the yard, and no cars are driving behind mine. I park in front of a yellow fire hydrant and step outside. It is uncannily quiet.  

It’s difficult to admit when rivers are dry or gone.

The Agua Fria is what people refer to as “intermittent” or “ephemeral.” I have heard people who work on water policy issues call it “formerly perennial.” There are crucial distinctions between these terms, but in conversation with people who live and work in this hot place, whichever word is used is the one that sounds better to the person to whom you speak. The scientific designation is more specific: the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines an intermittent stream as one which “flow[s] during certain times of the year, when upstream waters flow and when groundwater provides enough water for stream flow,” while an ephemeral stream relies on runoff from rainfall to create its course. Both categories acknowledge the transience of a river’s water in the ecosystem, especially after it’s been earmarked for irrigation, controlled by dams, and impacted by climate change.  

Depending on the time of year, an intermittent stream may not have flowing surface water. An ephemeral stream is something different: it flows only based on rainfall runoff, and depending on the year’s rainfall, may not be recognizable to a casual observer as a river at all. In other words: “ephemeral” and “intermittent” are ways of describing impermanence. And in the Western part of North America, so much of the water is impermanent. 

In Arizona, 95% of rivers are seasonal—a category which encompasses “intermittent” and “ephemeral.” What binds the different categories of seasonal rivers together is that they rely on rainfall from mountainous regions to sustain their flow and watersheds. The word “seasonal” also accounts for the years in which they do not flow. Just as volcanoes are either active or dormant, seasonal rivers might be there or might be on the cusp of being there.

Black and white aerial photograph of buildings and people surrounded by water
Photograph of flooding along the Agua Fria River near Luke Air Force Base (Arizona) in 1952. Image Courtesy of Arizona State Archives.

It’s difficult to admit when rivers are dry or gone: to acknowledge that impermanence has led in fact to obsolescence. In other words, the act of acknowledging impermanence could erase the river as a recognizable landmark in the way that it once was. Is this what is happening with the Agua Fria today? In some places the riverbed has water in it, and in some places it doesn’t. Sometimes, like for the past few years, there has been a minuscule amount of surface water, only 25% of its normal capacity. Other times, the Agua Fria, whose watershed is almost 2800 miles wide, floods. In 1978, it flooded so much that it caused a bridge to collapse outside of Phoenix. But now locals talk about this event as they would a legend—always in the distant past, its details never really known.  

While I was on a drive around the neighborhood and its outskirts, a former resident pointed out the place where the bridge used to be and described the flooding, caused in part by the fact that the suburb has no gutters. “That must have happened before I lived here,” he said. He moved out here in 2011, but moved away in 2021, because the heat became too much for him to bear. Did he know the story of the flood? “Nah, I don’t really know what happened with that.”  

It is not clear that conservation will do enough.

Under the American financial system, the mere suggestion of disaster, the memory of it, is often cause enough for someone, somewhere, to make money. In Phoenix, insurance companies require people living along the banks of the Agua Fria to buy flood insurance—even though in 2020, only 5 inches of rain fell over only 15 days, a record low. If the Agua Fria relies on rainwater to flow and rainwater is minimal and lessening, then one might argue that it is neither “intermittent” nor “ephemeral.” The Agua Fria is dry.  

The history of the Agua Fria can be read not so much as a warning but rather a symbol of what happens to small bodies of water in Arizona. This is the state of the five Cs: cotton, copper, cattle, citrus, and climate. The Agua Fria has been impacted by each. It is a 120-mile riverway, which, at its basin, provides municipal water for the city of Prescott (a small city about two hours south of the Grand Canyon), and at its reservoir, provides municipal water for Phoenix suburbs.

A longhorn bull stares at the camera, he is laying down on sand and is surrounded by shrubs and cacti.
Cattle on the Agua Fria National Monument. Image by GPA Photo Archive, 2020.

During my archival research, I learned that the Agua Fria was a steady stream that used to irrigate small farms in the northwest corner of the state growing alfalfa for grazing cattle. When it flowed uninterrupted, it moved south almost 100 miles until it met the Gila River (which has become an intermittent stream, due to damming), just south of what is now Phoenix. But in the 1930s, the Agua Fria was dammed 30 miles north of its natural ending point, its flow stopped by a reservoir named Lake Pleasant. Today, Lake Pleasant, which has since been enlarged, stores water mostly from the Colorado River, and it is earmarked for drinking water and irrigation, banked against present and future drought conditions. But these are not the only water extraction practices that have impacted the Agua Fria.  

There are 16 copper mines in the Agua Fria Mining District, which is located east of the city of Prescott in the Bradshaw mountain range. Most of these mines became operational in the early twentieth century. Even with the most careful planning, environmental contamination from copper mines occurs, in part because mine drainage produces acidic runoff water that pollutes drinking water and aquatic environments with sulfuric acid. This in turn leads to the dissolution of heavy metals like copper, lead, and mercury into groundwater and surface water storage sites. In 2008 the EPA designated parts of the area around the Agua Fria basin a superfund site: it took less than a century for toxicity to claim it.

What must be done is approach the situation of the dried river with a measure of honesty and clarity.

Perhaps in an effort to recharge the remaining ecosystem, and also to protect the land and the ancient cultural resources that might be found on it, President Bill Clinton designated the Agua Fria National Monument. The monument encompasses a nearly 73,000-acre expanse of grassland and hiking trails, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. There, you can find petroglyphs and archeological sites built between 1200 and 1450 by the Pueblo people; 140 species of birds; countless species of reptiles and frogs; bears, deer, a kind of antelope called a pronghorn, and the javalina, a species of wild pig that roams throughout Arizona—including through people’s backyards in Phoenix, and, as people have told me, “stink to high heaven and are just mean.” Another benefit of the Bureau of Land Management’s protection of this site is to constrain where people can hike and drive ATVs, which rip up the fragile plant life that takes root there and stand in the way of the conservation measures that have been put into place.  

Two javalinas step our from a thicket and into a rocky field.
Javalina in Arizona. Photo by BLM Arizona, 2010.

The organization Friends of the Agua Fria National Monument conducts yearly wet-dry surveys of the Agua Fria, walking down the riverbed at 5:30 in the morning. The Friends are citizen-scientists, trained to track the surface flow of seasonal streams. These surveys usually happen in June, the hottest and driest month, when streamflow has historically been at its lowest level, in order to determine the river’s peak dryness. Since 2018, they have found that the Agua Fria is more than 60% dry, and stops flowing altogether 45 miles north of Phoenix, 15 miles north of its reservoir. When I stood in front of the dry riverbed, in the rapidly developing northwest suburb of Phoenix, I saw a roadrunner, a funny little bird with a fluffy crown and long tail, scuttle underneath the chaparral, perhaps to wait out the afternoon heat.  

What does it mean for a body of water when it has no flow? We might read the history of the Agua Fria as an indictment against industry and human activity: as the future of all secondary and tertiary Western waterways, against the backdrop of an extractive and expansionary economy. But to turn the story of the Agua Fria into something behind which to rally slightly misses the point: the conditions that have dried the surface of the Agua Fria are ongoing and frankly, unstoppable.

How might those concerned with environmental futures live with these conditions, channel their fear about the drying up of water sources into a new kind of social-political-ecological framework? This question is not one to which I have an answer, nor can it be found in the current political formations in the United States. Like many other conservation issues in the modern era in the U.S., protecting water sources has not been a policy priority for most administrations—and it is not clear that conservation will do enough, when the common response to scarcity is to hoard for an uncertain future. Indeed, perhaps what must be done—all that can be done—is approach the dried river with a measure of honesty and clarity about the situation that is right in front of us.   

An old steel railroad bridge sits above a dry desert and shrubs.
Union Pacific Railroad Agua Fria River Bridge. Photo by cmh2315fl, 2018.

“We are driving off the cliff,” Sharon, a woman in her late 60s, said to me. It was June 2021, and Sharon had agreed to meet with me in her capacity as organizer of a local political interest group. We were sitting on her patio, sipping tumblers of iced coffee, nearly melting the plastic slats of the patio chairs. She had purchased this home in 1998 and paid for flood insurance every year because she technically lived in the Agua Fria floodplain—even though the Agua Fria no longer flowed this far south. It was supposed to be “monsoon” season, when wild thunderstorms hit the Phoenix Valley, but the storms hadn’t hit yet; the monsoons had barely come at all in 2020, causing experts to refer to it as the “non-soon” year. “We know we’re running out of water… the Colorado and all that. But you know, we really like the green grass,” said Sharon. 

At the bank of what was the Agua Fria, I hustled to my car, which was baking in the heat, and drove back the way I came. I passed by a ghost bridge built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1895 but no longer used, a hulking rusted metal thing, parallel to the modern concrete one that I had driven over on my way there. As I drove through a busy intersection, I saw the remains of a car accident: a crumpled white sedan, whose front bumper dripped off its metal body like thread unwinding from a scarf. I followed the rest of the cars in giving the accident a wide berth. No one stopped or slowed down—it was already too late. 

Featured Image: Petroglyphs at the Agua Fria National Monument. Image by BLM Arizona, 2010.

Rachel Howard is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation examines the “good life” and its material and ideological manifestations in the US, with an emphasis on environmental imperialism, urban infrastructure, and the production of race from 1950 to the present. Rachel’s research, teaching, and writing interests include linguistic and historical anthropology, critical race studies, and the history of the American West. Her writing can be found on Anthrodendum, Ethnographic Marginalia, and Narratively. Contact.