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It is monsoon season in the Desert Southwest. Monsoons, in the American Southwest? Yes, indeed. While the desert, by definition, gets little rainfall, rain tends to arrive in bucketfuls, rather than sustained showers over longer periods. The way rain falls brings blessings and, in this fallen world, curses.
Visitors, and new residents, will be surprised to hear “monsoon” applied to the summer rains in the American Southwest. We all carry images of the far shore of the Pacific Ocean attached to “monsoon season.” If you lived for a time in the western reaches of the Pacific, monsoons are absolute bucketfuls, indeed water towers worth of water delivered from the sky. Add wind and you set sideways sheets of water, utterly drenching everything. You could say it was raining Great Danes and tigers.
Look at rice paddy designs, bermed to capture large volumes of water, terraced around hills. These were designed to capture such massive rainfall, harnessing it into food production. Rainfall in the desert hits and runs off, or evaporates if it stands in a shallow catchment. This is why massive engineering projects were needed to sustain larger populations and large scale agriculture in the Desert Southwest, capturing the seasonal surges behind dams, larger and smaller.
Yes, but why are the weather reporters talking about monsoons in Arizona? The monsoon is a seasonal weather pattern in the whole Pacific. When the monsoon arrives in Arizona, it has already pushed up through Mexico. We get the leftovers, badly needed cupfuls from the bucketfuls dropping along the way. You could say we get teacup poodles and kittens.
In the Valley of the Sun, we see clouds start forming over the mountains to our east and south. Rain falls on the Superstition Mountains between Arizona and New Mexico, while another set of clouds reaches around in a pincer move from the hills bounding the southwest of the valley. The clouds arc up like a breaking wave, the underside blasted away by the high heat of the valley floor, until finally they come crashing down.
Long before I moved to Arizona, I reported to Fort Bliss, next to El Paso, Texas, in the late 1980s. I was immediately impressed by the massive drainage ditches, really concrete river channels, and sluices. These were designed to effectively protect the city from fast-moving flash floods, accompanying each rainstorm.
El Paso, and its Mexican sister city Juarez, were built on the banks of the Rio Grande River. The ground slopes generally down towards the river. If you are between the river and the storm, you are going to find water surging across every surface, running with increasing velocity and destructive force towards the river. Add the knife-edge hill mass on the eastern boundary of the original city, and you get serious flash flooding. El Paso, with federal support, responded with serious engineering solutions to mitigate the risk.
Arizona has not done nearly as well in its flood control, although the terrain in most communities mitigates the risk. Yes, streets will fill, but usually the flooding does not turn dangerous, because the ground is generally at the same level across the valleys…usually.
You will not go long in Arizona without hearing about the “stupid motorist” law. Rain hits the hard-baked soil and starts seeking its lowest level. This means that gullies, arroyos, quickly fill. A hard rain is a “gully washer,” as water surges with great speed and force through the arroyos.
Every year, people are shocked, shocked to find that their car will not go through the water on the road they always take. Never mind the road signs and public service announcements, surely they can get through. The smart desert dweller gets out of anything like a gully when they see rainclouds in the distance, upstream from the low spot where they stand. Motorists must be rescued, but are subject to civil judgment recouping costs of emergency services response, under the “stupid motorist” law:
A driver of a vehicle who drives the vehicle on a public street or highway that is temporarily covered by a rise in water level, including groundwater or overflow of water, and that is barricaded because of flooding is liable for the expenses of any emergency response that is required to remove from the public street or highway the driver or any passenger in the vehicle that becomes inoperable on the public street or highway or the vehicle that becomes inoperable on the public street or highway, or both.
The same laws of physics apply to rivers and creeks with running water. In 2017, a family was wiped out, washed away, as they floated together in the Cold Springs swimming hole, in the mountains north of the Valley of the Sun, near Payson. It was a hot July Sunday, and the extended family had fled the heat for the cool of the hill country. Nine family members were in the water when a black wall of water appeared, sweeping them away in a churning mass of water, mud, and logs.
It was not even raining where the people were swept away. The thunderstorm hit about eight miles upstream along Ellison Creek, which quickly flooded the narrow canyon where the swimmers were enjoying a cool dip on a hot summer day.
“They had no warning. They heard a roar and it was on top of them,” [Water Wheel Fire and Medical District Fire Chief Ron] Sattelmaier said.
I write this after returning from a now annual late-summer escape from the blowtorch/hot sauna desert floor to the mountains from which that tragedy struck. We camp at the base of a hill mass, near, but carefully above, a dry creek bed, full of large, water-rounded rocks. We share the space mostly with cattle, run by whichever rancher won the annual bid from the US Forest Service to graze the area. This gives us food and fire control, as the cattle contentedly munch away at the tender green stuff that would otherwise turn into wildfire kindling.
The very contented cows were Black Angus this year, if my bovine visual recognition is accurate. The herd had plenty of shade, lots of tasty green stuff, and cool mountain breezes. I’m sure this will all translate to very tasty beef.
The weather forecast was off by about 24 hours, calling for a break in the rain Friday. Instead, we got three good rain showers, enough to make us thankful for good tentage, but not enough to cause the creek to run. We savored the fresh pine-scented air and cool break from a sunny afternoon. Oh, the humidity went back up when the sun came out, but we got a bit of mist in the treetops in the evening cool.
Without “cool, clear water” in the desert, there can be no life, so the summer rains are a great blessing. Because the desert is hard-baked and not designed to capture and retain water, the summer rains can be a curse to the unwary or unknowledgeable. Between the blessing and the curse, I choose to hold to the true meaning of the rainbow:
“I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” – Genesis 9:13-15 NKJV
Afterwords: As I finished drafting this, I stepped outside, into the early evening, and was met by a warm breeze, like a hairdryer set on low. Scanning the horizon, I found the clouds had advanced. Cumulus clouds were piling up on the eastern, southern, and northern rims of the valley. The wave in the west had not crashed down into the desert floor. Instead, it was flowing north, stretching out darkly across the west end of the valley, marking the altitude at which clouds could remain intact, above the heat energy force field of the Valley of the Sun.Published in