Can you really 'navigate' the Santa Cruz River?

Boating in 18 inches of water takes grit, humor and muscle
2008-08-24T00:00:00Z 2013-07-30T22:11:33Z Can you really 'navigate' the Santa Cruz River?By Tony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 24, 2008 12:00 am  • 

ON THE SANTA CRUZ — The afternoon sun was searing. The canoe was stuck amid rocks and filled with gray sewer water. The waterlogged boat was too heavy to turn over and dump out the muck.

I was soaking wet well above the knees, sunburnt, dehydrated in the 95-degree heat and high humidity, and growing more exhausted by the second.

In short, I was trapped, wondering what in the hell to do next.

Why, you should ask, was a normally sane environmental reporter with more than 30 years' experience at his craft mucking around in 18 inches of treated sewage effluent, stranded, isolated and praying for help?

The answer goes back to the not-so-silly little question of whether the Santa Cruz River is navigable.


To some, that is ludicrous, because the Santa Cruz has been a joke of a river to many people.

Dry and scruffily vegetated for most of its length since the early 20th century, most of the Santa Cruz — like 95 percent of all Arizona rivers today — runs only after storms. The only sections flush with year-round water are carrying treated sewage effluent, not exactly skinny-dipping material.

One of those sections was precisely where I stood trapped last Wednesday. I was seeing how far I could paddle an aluminum canoe starting about three miles north of the village of Tubac down the river of effluent. It pours out of the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant, about nine miles north of the border with Mexico.

This was to be my small contribution to the national debate now billowing over "what is a navigable river?" The Santa Cruz will be one of the first two rivers to get an answer.

To environmentalists, home builders and federal officials, the Santa Cruz's navigability is no laughing matter.

As I write this, the pooh-bahs of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., are poring through lawbooks, court rulings and legal briefs, sorting through a tangled web of legal-speak to reach a conclusion about the Santa Cruz's status. Around the country, attorneys for all the factions are poised to sue over the slightest misstep.

Because of a Supreme Court ruling, the question of whether this miserable cur of a stream is navigable will mean a lot as to how strictly the Santa Cruz and dozens of its tributaries are ultimately shielded from the effects of home-building, road-building, mining-waste runoff — and that same sewage effluent.

So, Wednesday morning, fellow Arizona Daily Star reporter Enric Volante and I carefully plopped a 15-foot, flat-bottomed canoe into the river at Chavez Siding Road, a dirt road lined by a few houses. We were poised for adventure, and our actions were fluid and spontaneous.

Originally, we were going to put in a few miles upstream, at Tubac itself. That was the point where the feds had first decided that the navigable portion of the Santa Cruz started — a decision they later suspended. But the river was a jungle there, with tangled vegetation cutting off any hope of dropping in a boat. So we switched to Plan B.

Our goal: reaching the river's Amado crossing, about 4 1/2 miles north of Chavez Siding Road.

Our plan: to paddle when we could, pull out and portage the boat when necessary, and travel as far as possible.

Our reality check: The river was at most 2 feet deep, and in many places shallower.

Occasionally, it wasn't much more than a muddy film oozing over sandbars. The odds of actually reaching Amado in less than say, three days, seemed nil. We were expecting to muddle our way for maybe a quarter-mile before calling it a day and grabbing a beer.

We stepped into the canoe. It sank into sand. We couldn't move. Hop out, push, pull, get back in. Still stuck. We stripped everything out — our packs full of water bottles, sunscreen, even the second paddle. Volante abandoned the craft, thinking maybe I could pilot it solo for a few hundred yards just to see what happened.

I suddenly got carried away on a flight of fancy, buoyed by a suddenly lighter boat that was now a pleasure to float. I glided effortlessly, paddling to keep in a straight line, occasionally poking a paddle into a grassy riverbank to avoid colliding into it.

I told our photographer, Dean Knuth, that I would try to float solo to the Elephant Head Road crossing, a cool 7.7 miles north of Chavez Siding Road. A few minutes later, rationality overtook me, and I decided to journey no farther than Amado.

For at least two miles, the trip was a relative breeze. A neophyte as a river runner, I hadn't pulled an oar of any kind since kayaking around the San Juan Islands in 1987 in Washington state, and hadn't done any serious canoeing since I glided down a series of streams in southern New Jersey's Pine Barrens back in 1976.

But as long as the Santa Cruz ran even 18 inches high, the boat would cruise, and I got a view of Southern Arizona's finest effluent stream that I'd never had.

Cottonwoods and their bright-green, broad leaves towered 10 to 45 feet above me on either side. Willows' thin leaves dangled tantalizingly along the riverbanks. Even the invasive tamarisk, scourge of river-lovers across the Southwest for its ability to outcompete native cottonwoods, appeared more benign than menacing.

Birds? A gray hawk, with a black- and white-striped tail, cried its piercing "keer" before darting out of a mass of vegetation to cross the river from west to east. A green-backed heron flew toward me, then flew away. A vermilion flycatcher, a signature bird of Southwestern streams with its fiercely crimson breast, swooped in and out of my line of sight along the west bank.

It was a smooth, almost luxurious feeling, negotiating the undulating curves and congratulating myself about my newly found paddling skills.

When the river was shallow, I often hit sandbars or rocks. I would get out, shove the boat five or 10 feet and hop back in. Occasionally, the boat would spin 180 degrees, forcing me to get out again to turn it around because the river wasn't wide enough to do that by paddle. A bit of a nuisance, but no biggie.

But as I went farther and farther downstream from the sewage plant from where the effluent came, the river got shallower still. I grew weary at ever more frequent stops to haul the boat off sand or rocks. Even narrow sections became sand traps. Each time I stopped, I had to haul the boat a bit farther.

After three hours, I feared that I had bypassed the Amado crossing without seeing it, and started to wonder if I would have to slog to Elephant Head.

Suddenly, the trip ran aground.

The boat was easing through a narrow slot between two strips of rocks when it got stuck, and tipped. Water started flowing in. Within seconds, it was nearly full. For 20 minutes I pulled and tugged, but could move the boat only a few feet. Discouraged, I hopped in and out of the water, groping for inspiration and wondering not if I would die, but if I would wilt.

By then, I and the boat lay barely a mile south of Amado. I had traversed 3.5 muddy, sandy, rocky river miles. Volante and Knuth were in Amado, wondering if I was hurt or dehydrated.

At noon, Knuth slathered on sunscreen, buckled a hydration back to his pack, slipped a bottle of Gatorade in a pocket and plunged into the dense brush of the river to look for me.

After 45 minutes of hiking, Knuth phoned Volante and said he hadn't found me. There was grim silence over the cell phones. Then Knuth, peering upriver, suddenly exclaimed, "I see him!"

It took us 30 minutes to pull the boat out of the river and haul it a few hundred yards to a crude dirt road. Volante had to squeeze his pickup down that road to haul me back to civilization, a tuna sandwich and two bottles of mineral water.

It was a pathetic ending, but at least we now knew definitively that you cannot canoe this section of the river after a summer week without rain.

A week earlier, environmentalists say, they piloted two, much lighter two-person kayaks from near Rio Rico north to Tubac over two days. In early 1993, just after a flood swelled the river to its second-largest flow on record, two other environmentalists took a canoe three miles through the Tubac area.

Still, after this trip, I concluded that the question of whether the Santa Cruz meets the United States' highly technical standard for navigability is a question best left to lawyers, judges and migrating ducks.

All I know is, I would never take my wife down it. It's no place for a good time.

Navigability timeline

• June 2006: The U.S. Supreme Court limits the scope of Clean Water Act protection for isolated rivers, streams and wetlands. Justice Anthony Kennedy writes that they must have a significant connection to "a navigable waterway, in the traditional sense," to be legally entitled to federal protection.

• May 2008: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decides that 54 miles of the Santa Cruz River north and south of Tucson deserve classification as a traditional navigable waterway, and, thus, regulation under the Clean Water Act.

• July 2008: The Corps suspends the river's navigable determination for at least 60 days as part of a broader, national review of navigability.

• July 2008: The Pima County Board of Supervisors votes to conduct an audit of its own staff because memos show some staffers opposed the navigability status without telling the board.

• August 2008: Two U.S. House committee chairmen vote to investigate the Corps' handling of the Santa Cruz decision, at the request of Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Tucson.

• August 2008: The Board of Supervisors supports navigability for a much longer stretch of the Santa Cruz, from the Mexican border to the Pinal County line. The Environmental Protection Agency moves to take over handling of the navigability issue from the Corps.

● Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or

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