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Water workshop explores local history

WILLCOX — The first workshop of a four-part series from the Willcox Water Project explored the history of the Sulphur Springs Valley Willcox Basin.

Peggy Judd, Cochise County supervisor, told an audience of nearly 40 at the Willcox Community Center last Wednesday of her ambition to open a space that welcomes productive water usage discussion.

The Sulphur Springs Valley Community Water Seminars encourage sharing information and solutions among community members to encourage awareness of sustainable practices.

“This is purely education and mostly to get people on the same page and to share ideas,” Judd said.

While she is a key facilitator in the series, Judd said she does not assume leadership.

“It’s a grassroots movement. It needs to be whatever the people want to make of it,” Judd said.

Christine O’Hare introduced the Willcox Water Project with the mission to gather citizens, provide education and then develop water solutions through a transparent stakeholder process. According to the project’s website, the community will be re-engaged to advocate for a positive change in local water policy prior to the 2021 legislative session.

Dr. Eric J Kaldahl, CEO and president of the Amerind Foundation, presented the history of humans in the Sulphur Springs Valley as evidenced by preserved artifacts. Stone tools identified around ancient mammoth skeletons suggests that people inhabited the once thriving marshlands more than 12,000 years ago.

Other artifacts from the Amerind Museum included elaborate pottery aged up to 1,000 years as well as tools aged as early as their crafter’s first arrival into the Valley.

Once rich with water, the playa hosted abundant vegetation and wildlife, making food highly accessible. Goosefoot, sunflower seeds, and local mammals were common food sources for migrating people.

Kaldahl explained that humans started using the environment to their advantage. Unique irrigation systems such as waffle beds made water usage efficient as rainfall retained within the small, gridlike squares and nourished crops. Canals directed water to crop sources and small water dams minimized runoff by dispersing water in the surrounding area.

Utilizing water-rich resources enabled agriculture and resulted in greater food production. As long as the playa flowed, life was abundant.

Howard Bethel, a founding member of the Sulphur Springs Valley Historical Society, detailed the geology of the Willcox Playa. Bethel explained that the playa formed during the Pleistocene Era as a pluvial lake from atmospheric moisture.

While the playa experienced several recessions and restorations, the ancient lakebed finally dried 5,000 years ago. Today it only retains rainwater temporarily.

The National Parks Service designated the massive basin as a National Natural Landmark in 1966. It currently acts as a feeding ground for migratory bird species such as sandhill cranes. According to the Park Service website, it contains the greatest diversity of tiger beetles in the United States.

The next workshop will be held at the Willcox Community Center on Feb. 12 at 5 p.m. and will discuss aquifers, private well ownership, and the differences between private and commercial wells.

The series will continue on a monthly basis through April, with an afternoon session in Sunsites and an evening session in Willcox. Further information can be found at willcoxwaterproject.org.

Cranes counted early Saturday

WILLCOX — Cranes in flight are an encouraging sight for the annual sandhill crane count.

On Saturday, Arizona Game and Fish staff as well as local volunteers from throughout the Sulphur Springs Valley worked together to conduct the annual sandhill crane count. Several volunteers drove out before sunrise to arrive at the viewing station adjacent to Crane Lake in Kansas Settlement.

According to a personal account written by Homer Hansen, who was a volunteer in the count, the cranes could be heard prior to sunrise.

“As the sky brightened and changed colors, a handful of cranes appeared, first low on the horizon, then higher as they began to fall in line, one behind another. Another group, then another, and slowly they began to depart their roosting site for the ag fields. One by one, then by groups of fives and 10s — we counted them as they flew by,” Hansen said.

“Later in the morning, after having breakfast with many of the volunteers, the station counts are totaled: 27,108 sandhill cranes for the entire valley. As is usually the case, Whitewater Draw, another AZGFD management area, holds the greatest number of cranes for the count with 13,648, though AEPCO viewing area on the way to Sunsites is close behind with 10,065.”

According to Hansen, 1,090 sandhill cranes were counted at Crane Lake, which is lower than average.