October 28, 2006

Aravaipa Canyon Scoured By Summer Floods


Most of the towering cottonwoods and creekside willows that make Aravaipa Canyon one of Arizona's most gorgeous wilderness hikes are gone.

Downstream along Aravaipa Creek, residents are still cleaning up from a double dose of possibly record creek flows that scoured vegetation from the streambed of Aravaipa Creek and flooded homes and ranches at the mouth of its 11-mile wilderness canyon in July and August.

Aravaipa Canyon, about 50 miles northeast of Tucson, is a coveted hiking spot with a limited number of permits issued each year. It is closed and no timetable has been established for its reopening. It's one of several natural areas in Southern Arizona that have been dramatically altered by our rainy summer.

Park ranger Patrick O'Neill lives at the mouth of the canyon and walked the 11-mile stretch of riparian wilderness after floods tore through it July 28 and Aug. 1.

"It doesn't look at all like it did. Most of the riparian vegetation is gone, especially in the western half. Where the cottonwoods and willow are the dominant trees, that's pretty much gone everywhere," O'Neill said.

"In the western end, from Horse Camp canyon west, it pretty much pulled everything out."

O'Neill, said it was fortunate the floods came at the end of several rainy days. The creek had risen too high to cross and there were no hikers in the canyon.

"It was really lucky, because it came up in the middle of the night, higher than any flood in anyone's memory. It roared through some campsites that I would consider pretty safe in flood conditions.

"People could have been hit in the dark in their tents, somebody certainly would have been killed - that's speculation but it's good speculation."

You'll get no argument on that point from David Rychener and his son, Jimmy, 13. They had to flee the second flood, clambering up the hillside in the middle of the night.

They were rescued by helicopter the next day after O'Neill went to check on them, waving across the creek and relaying news of their safety via satellite phone to Rychener's wife, Joyce. O'Neill said at least seven residents were airlifted from the canyon.

Rychener and family have spent the past two months cleaning up and rebuilding the main house and grounds of their retreat center on Aravaipa Creek just downstream from the wilderness area.

Scientists are still measuring the flood. The streamflow gauge recorded 6,000 cubic feet per second before it was washed away. The preliminary estimates of the U.S. Geological Survey were between 18,000 and 25,000 cubic feet of water per second, but O'Neill and the residents are certain it's far more than that.

"It might have been 20,000, might have been 80,000," O'Neill said. "You're talking about flows the size of the Colorado River and this is just a little creek.

Chris Smith of the U.S. Geological Survey, said his agency will attempt a more accurate reading of the peak flows in response to reports from residents who say the creek was 1- to 3-feet higher than it had been in the record flood of 1983, which the USGS estimated at 70,000 cubic feet per second.

The numbers may be in doubt, but the devastation is obvious. The streambed has widened tremendously in spots and cut deep in others. It is littered with the carcasses of cottonwoods and other trees, in addition to vehicles and portions of homes and outbuildings.

Rychener, whose family and partners have spent the past five years developing their acreage along the creek into a spiritual retreat center, lost a shed.

He said only one home in the canyon, a converted barn owned by two architects from Phoenix, was completely washed away. About eight canyon residents had water flow through their homes and just about all of them lost lawn, pasture or orchards.

Rychener is still looking for the '62 Ford pickup that his mechanic had parked at his compound. It was wedged against a tree by the first flood but disappeared in the second one.

Rychener and Jimmy had returned to the compound after the first flood hit on Friday. A foot bridge over the creek had lost its boards so he and Jimmy, roped in for safety and, holding onto a rope that a friend had attached above the cables, walked on the cable over the roaring creek.

"It was a little creepy the first time," said Jimmy, an eighth- grader at Coronado Middle School in Catalina.

Father and son spent the day mucking out the main building. That night, a Monday, they bedded down in a trailer higher up the hill, but slept little as rain began to fall again, heavily.

At about 5 a.m., floodwaters surged to the steps of the trailer. "It rose 5 or 6 feet in about five minutes time," said Rychener.

The two retreated to a small plateau behind and above the trailer, and identified an additional escape route up the cliff behind it. The water never came any higher.

The road into the canyon has been temporarily repaired for part of its length, but access into the area is limited to residents by the Pinal County Sheriff's Department.

The road to the trailhead and the parking lot for the wilderness area are washed out. When access is restored, hikers will find a different canyon, O'Neill said.

"Right now, there is a lot of silt and muck and quicksand, also not a lot of shade. It's pretty exposed, a very different kind of hike.

"I liked it better before, but I'm amazed by it. You see the power of nature. It's really going to be fascinating to see it come back.

And it will come back quickly, he said. "Aravaipa is a healthy ecosystem," he said, partially because it regularly floods. "The native species, they can handle these things."

An undammed watercourse favors the trees, plants, fish and wildlife that have adapted to it over the centuries.

"This canyon is in as natural a form as you're likely to find any stream in the Southwest," he said.

The creek supports seven native fish species. It is home to more than 200 bird species and a variety of mammals, including mountain lion, black bear and desert bighorn sheep.

The canyon's canopy, a mix of Arizona ash, sycamore, walnut, Fremont cottonwood, willow, hackberry, oak, and box elder, is mostly fast-growing.

Rychener, who says he lost 80 percent to 90 percent of the streambed vegetation on his property, pointed to a remaining stand of towering cottonwoods just north of the main building. Those trees had grown up since the last major flood in 1993. A two-year-old Fremont cottonwood can be 15-feet tall.

Floods are a recurring phenomenon in Aravaipa Creek, which drains 537 square miles of the Galiuro, Santa Teresa, Pinaleno and Turnbull mountains. The creek is fed perennially by springs, but, like most Southern Arizona watercourses, half its annual flow comes in the summer monsoon.

The most recent floods resulted from the same series of storms that sent floods and debris through Sabino Canyon and overflowed the banks of the Rillito River in Tucson.

The Aravaipa watershed is "between radars" and the National Weather Service has no official readings for Aravaipa's watershed on that rainy week at the end of July, said meteorologist Erik Pytlak. "Over the period of those six days, 10 inches or more would not surprise me," he said.

Rychener, 56, who directs alcohol and drug prevention programs for the Navy, is the former associate director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.

He called his development of the retreat center his "over-50 thing" and said the process of remodeling the center and installing its infrastructure has been rewarding and continues to be so even after the floods.

"I enjoyed the experience the first time and I'm enjoying it now."

The property isn't insured for flood damage.

Rychener said he's saddened more by the loss of his trees than by the loss of his possessions or the damage to his center. "It has helped me realize my own smallness in all this and taught me the impermanence of things. I'm learning to let go," he said.

* Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or [email protected]

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