“I came to a River I called the Rio de Santa Maria. Its bed is very wide but at this time was only one-half full of water. Along its banks are pasturage and every sort of riverland tree. As far as the eye could see it came from the east at the foot of a great mountain range.”
Francisco Garces, A Record of Travels in Arizona and California 1775-1776, translation, John Galvin, 1967. John Howell Books. pg 82.
Frey Francisco Garcas was on his way to the missions of California from his own at San Xavier del Bac, near Tucson, when he made one of the first written accounts of the lands and waters of the Lower Colorado River region. It was August 5, 1775. There was no United States of America. George Washington would not cross the Delaware for more than a year but Santa Fe had been the capital of New Mexico for over 200 years.
The Santa Maria and the Big Sandy rivers flow together to form the Bill Williams about 40 miles east of where that stream now joins the Colorado. Since 1968 Alamo Dam has backed up their waters to form Alamo Lake just below the confluence of the two steams. The Bill Williams is a most unusual river in the desert Southwest for, 200 years after Frey Garcas walked its narrow canyons and alluvial valleys, it still remembers what a river should be and, even now, “…along its banks are pasturage and every sort of riverland tree.”
The Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge is located where that tributary joins the Colorado and extends about ten miles upstream. It has the unique honor, among the other 500 or so refuges in the system, of conserving one of the last reaches of southwestern river that still maintains a naturally regenerating, ecologically functional riparian forest and marsh with nearly all the original species communities remaining intact. From Mexican Amberwings to Lowland Leopard Frogs, Vermillion Flycatchers to Beavers, and Fatal Metalmarks to Bonytails; they are still with us here. All stages of river flows are present with some reaches running year-around while others are seasonal and are present on the surface only in the winter, or others only during floods. That is why is it has been designated one of only 11 Sustainable Rivers Projects in the United States by The Nature Conservancy and the Army Corps of Engineers, and the only river in the Southwest so distinguished.
The riparian ecosystem of the Bill Williams River remains self-renewing and complex because the river still does what rivers have always done…it floods. The floods scour some areas of the riverbed, removing deadfall, debris, alluvium, and vegetation. They expose the open sand, gravel, and mud bars to the sun where the flood-adapted, floating seeds of the native cottonwoods, willows, and other species that cannot tolerate shade, quickly germinate. The heavy, protein-rich seeds of mesquite, scoured by the gravel, sprout vigorously. Nourished by the rich sediments washing down from the surrounding desert and mountains, trees grow with astounding speed in a place that seldom gets cold enough for them to lose their leaves and go dormant. Within 3-5 short years, in this land of endless summer, they are well on the way to becoming a forest once more and the marshes are flushed, opened, and renewed; filled with beavers, tadpoles, rails, and marsh wrens.
In this ancient, continuous circle of destruction and re-generation, succession creates a complex patchwork quilt of habitats and communities allowing hundreds of diverse species to each meet their unique needs in a relatively small area, stitched together by one of the rarest and most delicate of threads, and the most greedily coveted - water in a desert land. Because of so much habitat diversity, the variety of wild species is extraordinary as well. The biodiversity of the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge is among the highest of anywhere between the Grand Canyon and the Sea of Cortez with well over 1,500 species documented and many more probable since neither the plants nor the insects are well cataloged. Six species found here have become so vanishingly rare elsewhere they are federally endangered. Thirteen kinds of butterflies, once common on the Lower Colorado River 50 years ago, can now be readily found only on the Bill Williams River. Three hours in a single night in October found a dozen species of bats detected - more species than found nearly anywhere else on the Colorado north of the Mexico borderlands. Over 350 species birds, many of them neo-tropical migrants, have one of their last breeding, wintering, or migration strongholds here in this patch of native trees and shrubs, cacti, wildflowers, and weeds. And, maybe, just maybe, once every decade or two, the last wild native fishes of the Colorado may sense the current of the rising floodwaters that has called to them since the ancient time of glaciers, and come here to spawn freely and leave their young protected in their ancestral nurseries of backwater pools and quiet beaver ponds.
The rivers of the deserts are fragile systems yet also strong as life itself. They curl through the broken, brown-knuckled mountains like a green velvet ribbon held gently in a work-worn hand. In addition, all along the banks, the old Mothers of the riverland trees still remember the ways of a River – when to loose their seeds on the water and the wind, and when to set their roots deep in the mud and gravel – into the past, the present and, with our continuing care, into the future.
Kathleen Blair, Ph.D.
Lake Havasu National Wildlife Refuge Complex
Bill Williams River NWR
60911 Highway 95
Parker, AZ 85344
The Bill Williams River NWR headquarters is located at center-right. The Peninsula Trail in the center of the photo features a wildlife viewing trail with ramadas along the way.
The Arizona Highway 95 bridge across the Bill Williams River can be seen in the background.