Saturday, October 11, 2014

Skunk Creek: Heart of Northwest Phoenix, AZ

If you want to truly understand the Sonoran Desert, you need to walk the dry creeks and washes before and after a flash flood. In northwest Phoenix, Skunk Creek is the heart of the landscape, collecting water from sixty-five square miles of mesas, hills and bajadas.

A thin dotted-and-dashed blue line on the map, Skunk Creek is a seasonal stream that stretches about thirty miles from its headwaters on New River Mesa northeast of Anthem, to its confluence with New River just south of Bell Road and west of Highway 101. The creek bed runs roughly parallel with and between two other large washes, New River and Cave Creek, cutting a diagonal swath through dense suburbs. In the wilder sections, Skunk Creek is a quiet, sandy wash more than 360 days a year, where a person can walk up the middle following tracks of coyotes, black-tailed jackrabbits, lizards and roadrunners. And yes, there are skunks too, at least four kinds, that have historically roamed the corridor.

For thousands of years, Skunk Creek served as a travel corridor not only for wildlife, but also for ancient people migrating between the high country north of Phoenix and the Gila River in the south Central Valley. Today, we can still find signs of small settlements along the way, where people farmed maize, cotton and squash. Fragments of clay pots and stone tools are scattered around foundations of pit houses. Hundreds of people marked their passing by pecking petroglyphs in black basalt rocks at Hedgepeth Hills, just west of I-17 at Deer Valley Road.

Much of Skunk Creek is still as wild and free as it was just half a century ago when the north valley began to be developed. You can still walk the wash from its headwaters all the way to Carefree Highway. From there it begins to be tunneled under roads and channelized in order to control flooding that would normally spread for miles beyond the natural stream channel. In the heart of North Phoenix there is a paved recreation path, dubbed "Skunk Creek Linear Park," that winds above the wash for about four miles between 51st Avenue & Utopia down to 73rd Avenue & Greenway. The path connects with a network of city trails that follow other washes and canals. But when the big rains come and the creek starts flowing, you better find some high ground.

U.S. Geological Survey water gauge records show that on August 1st, 1964, Skunk Creek spiked to 11,500 cfs (cubic feet per second). This record high was trumped a couple of months ago on August 19th, when monsoon storms dumped nearly four inches of rain in the headwaters, causing Skunk Creek to surge over 13,000 cfs and jump its banks to flow down the I-17. That's about the same flow going through the Grand Canyon most days of the year. Imagine a small house (~1300 square feet) full of water flowing by every second. That's a LOT of water!

There was plenty of news coverage of that event and rescues that ensued when morning commuters encountered the deluge. But the real news is the life that thrives when the water recedes. Toads emerge and lay eggs. Seeds that may have been waiting for decades to be scoured and soaked, germinate. Shrubs and trees grow lush crops of new leaves. Flowers bloom. Insects hatch. Birds and rodents feast, and so do coyotes and bobcats. Life that has evolved here is well adapted to these torrential events, resilient to what may seem tragic to humans. A flash flood is lifeblood for the desert.

Know Your Watershed
Skunk Creek is a tributary within the Middle Gila Watershed, just east of New River. About three miles downstream from the confluence with New River in Glendale, water from Skunk Creek mingles with Agua Fria, which runs for a few more miles before it joins the Gila River. This area is known as Tres Rios (Three Rivers), because Agua Fria and Rio Salado combine to become the Gila River. About 200 miles southeast of Tres Rios, a little east of Yuma, all of the water from these drainages joins the mighty Colorado, which on a rare day, might reach the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean, another sixty miles south.

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