It’s still a deep-cut, saguaro-studded slice of paradise on the edge of our daily lives — but flood-struck Sabino Canyon will never be the same.
“The canyon is forever changed,” said Heidi Schewel of the U.S. Forest Service as she trekked up Sabino nearly two weeks after rains washed through the northeast side canyon July 31, 2006.
“Whole sections of some slopes just collapsed and fell away. There are new channels entering the main channel that weren’t there before. The creek blew right through one section of the road and covered others with boulder fields. ... Sabino is a different place now.”
The damage to the canyon was part of a monsoon dubbed one of the wettest on record. Heavy mountain runoff from those storms caused massive rockslides in Sabino Canyon.
The torrent that scoured the treasured recreation site was the worst flood ever recorded there — topping out at about 17,000 cubic feet per second, said Robert Lefevre, watershed program manager for the Forest Service.
He said the previous record in the canyon was about 16,000 cubic feet per second in 1999.
Emmet McGuire, supervisory hydrologic technician with the U.S. Geological Survey, confirmed that the flood was a record flow — and he provided data on water depth to put the flow rate in perspective.
“This thing peaked at 6:30 a.m. on July 31 with a depth of about 7.5 feet,” McGuire said. “That’s in a creek that can have no flow at all” and typically runs at a depth measured in inches.
Damage — in addition to numerous rock slides, uprooting of cacti and erosion of slopes and trails — includes an impassable washout of the road at Rattlesnake Creek 1.5 miles up the canyon. Restrooms at shuttle stop 9 at the top of the 3.8-mile road were destroyed and washed downstream.
Remarkably, all nine bridges in the canyon — built in the 1930s by public-works program laborers — survived the flood.
“In my 1993 book, I wrote that changes in Sabino Canyon are seldom dramatic,” said David Lazaroff, author of “Sabino Canyon: The Life of a Southwestern Oasis.” “What I wrote is no longer true. We are now in a period of very apparent and dramatic change.”
Said Schewel of the Forest Service: “The 100-plus years we’ve been using this canyon is not even a speck on the geologic time scale.
“This flood damaged some of the things we attach value to. But it’s nature. It’s natural. The natural purpose of this canyon is to drain water from the Santa Catalina Mountains — and that’s exactly what it’s doing.”