But to slow down, to walk the Santa Cruz River through its ephemeral course through Marana, is to gain a glimpse of the past, present and future that extends millenniums beyond Marana's 25 years of official existence.
To walk along the miserly stream the Spanish named the River of the Holy Cross is to understand the reason Marana is here today. It was the water of the Santa Cruz, a ribbon of life in a hostile and arid land, which brought the prehistoric people known as the Hohokam to Marana more than 2,000 years ago, as well as the Native Americans, Spanish, Mexican and Americans of several ethnic origins who followed.
Its floods have generated the silt that made its cotton fields fertile, soil that laid the groundwork for Marana's current prosperity. Those same life giving floods have also scarred the memory of living
Maranans who still bear witness to the death and destruction lying dormant in the deceptively feeble stream of effluent that flow through the town.
Marana's very name, derived from a Spanish word for a jungle or thicket, was inspired by the dense groves of mesquite trees that grew along the river's edges.
"The Santa Cruz is what sustained the Hohokam and led to much of the later historic settlement we find in Marana," said Allen Dart, executive director of Old Pueblo Archaeology Center, a nonprofit research organization. "The river served as a lifeline for development of the cultures that have flourished there."
Along with fellow Old Pueblo researchers Eric Kaldahl and Jeffrey Jones, Dart compiled the first attempt at a comprehensive history of Marana. Released just in time for Marana's 25th anniversary celebration, "The Cultures and History of Marana, Arizona" reveals new information about the town's past and underscores the river's importance throughout the more than 5,000 years the area has been inhabited.
Today, the, backward, northwest-flowing river shapes Marana in fundamental ways not always apparent to the town's inhabitants. The fastest growing town in Arizona, often maligned as the stereotype of the sunbelt boom town, has its sprawl fed and shaped by the river's constraints. The paltry amount of bridges that carry the population from bank to bank, from home to job, contributes to Marana's notorious traffic woes.
The water table bloating beneath and beyond the river in Marana and Avra Valley, in contrast to Tucson's overtaxed aquifer, places the town in a power position at the negotiating table with the other significant players in Southern Arizona's water politics - and perpetuates the town's growth. It was the still simmering jurisdictional water wars that led to Marana's incorporation in March 1977, as Marana's founders fought the city of Tucson's plans to buy and convert their farm fields to well fields in order to augment burgeoning Tucson's precarious water supply.
The river, along with the interstate and Union Pacific Railroad line that follows its course, has shaped the demographics of the town, drawing an infrastructure barrier between east and west, and maintaining the agriculture heritage in the north. Man-made manipulation in the form of levees and soil cement bank protection have fueled the bustling suburbs in the south, and are driving the northward population push that planners envision for the future.
In the long-evolving process of giving life to Marana, Tucson and the other cities and towns that have risen on its banks, the Santa Cruz was sacrificed. Wells that have pumped furiously for a century have cracked the earth and denuded the cottonwoods that once shaded its banks. Trash mounds and gravel mines proliferated over time, and pollution from a myriad of sources has permeated regions of the river throughout its course.
But with an eye toward the future, the town has just recently begun taking steps to reclaim its segment of the river. Unlike Tucson's $757 million Rio Nuevo plan to revitalize its urban core with a carnival of hotels, heritage parks and an incongruous sea aquarium, Marana's vision is more modest and in keeping with the river's identity. In addition to cleaning up the river and stabilizing its eroding banks, the plan calls for restoring mesquite bosques, building trails and reclaiming the town's hidden history. The town's recently completed Santa Cruz River Corridor Plan, along with Marana's participation on the multi-jurisdictional Tres Rios del Norte river restoration project, gives hope that the river will be returned to its place as the lifeline of the community.
The river's life begins far to the southeast as a trickle in the San Raphael Valley of Santa Cruz County. The river abruptly turns south, ducking below the Mexican border for 20 miles, before resuming its northwesterly passage at Nogales. The river runs intermittently past Tubac, Tucson and Marana, before disappearing beneath ground at Picacho, where it links with the Gila River near Phoenix.
For much of its length, the river is a dry channel. Even at the height of its health and for most of its existence, hydrologist believe the Santa Cruz has been an intermittent stream, flowing in a wide, unchanneled swath for miles, then disappearing below the sand and reappearing repeatedly as it moves down stream.
The wide channeling we see today is a relatively modern phenomenon caused by the damming and diversion cuts placed in the river during the late 19th century.
The man-made havoc inflicted on the river is seen easily by commuters on Interstate 10 where the river makes its entrance in Marana at the confluences of Rillito Creek and Canada del Oro Wash near Orange Grove Road.
Where today the Tucson Redi-Mix Sand and Gravel operation has carved a huge gorge between the Rillito and CDO wash, historians speculate the Sobaipuri Indian Village of San Augustin may have stood. It was first identified in the journals and letters of Spanish explorers and missionaries who passed through the area.
The Sobaipuri, a vanished native American people related to the Tohono O'odham nation that still flourish in Southern Arizona, built their homes as surface structures of brush and sticks that unlike the pit houses of the Hohokam cultures that preceded them, left little trace of their inhabitation.
To the ranchers and farmers who came centuries later, the confluences of three water courses became a navigational landmark and watering stop, said 90-year-old Yginio "Gene" Aguirre, whose family lineage dates back to the first Spanish settlers of the region and Southern Arizona's most prominent ranchers and freighters.
"Where the Canada del Oro and the Rillito get together at the river, there was a water hole there, and that's just what everyone called it 'the Water Hole. The Canada del Oro rarely reached the Santa Cruz, it was just a big sand wash. But the Rillito and the Santa Cruz had enough of a trickle to make the old water hole," Aguirre said.
Old Pueblo Archaeology's research notes the small settlement of Laguna was also established near the river confluences in 1870, but little information about it remains.
While hydrologists say much of the channeling of the Santa Cruz near Tucson occurred before the dawn of the 20th century, Aguirre said he witnessed the channeling of the northern reaches of the river much later on.
"In 1929, that was the biggest, damnedest flood we ever saw, it just eroded everything, you could watch it just carving in. Before that, it was just river silt, it was all flat," Aguirre said. "It flooded again the next year in October of 1930, and that eroded it even further."
The huge chasm left by Tucson Redi-Mix's mining activity is just one of six sand and gravel operations on the river, a situation Marana has just recently begun to address.
"It's something we have decided that we have to get a handle on, to be able to have some say and some control over how these sites are operated, and more importantly, how the sites are remediated when the companies pull out," said Jim DeGrood, Marana's development services director.
New regulations approved by the Marana Town Council earlier this month tightened inspection and operation requirements for the sand and gravel companies, and raised the cost of obtaining a mining permit from $25 to $10,000.
While the traditional source of the Santa Cruz is miles away in southeastern Arizona, most of the water Maranans see in the channel is treated effluent from Pima County's two wastewater treatment plants.
The Roger Road Wastewater Treatment Facility, which began operation in 1951 and is located about three miles from Marana's southern border, pumps about 27 to 29 million gallons of effluent into the river bed each day.
Further upstream, the Ina Road Wastewater Treatment Facility located near Ina and Interstate 10 that was constructed in 1977, adds another 20 to 22 million gallons a day to the flow, said Byron Gaines, a deputy director in the county's wastewater management department.
"Except in time of flood or heavy rain run-off, the effluent is basically all the water you see in that segment of the river channel," said Gaines.
The effluent flow stretches generally to as far north as Sanders Road, near the northern boundary of Marana, before disappearing into the sand.
While the county owns the wastewater plants, the city of Tucson owns almost all of the effluent that flows in the channel under a intergovernmental agreement struck in 1979.
The control of effluent and the channel it flows in embroiled Marana and several other jurisdictions in a nasty legal dispute. As recently as 1999, Tucson was threatening to condemn and appropriate the entire river bed from Roger Road north through Marana to the Pinal County line.
Tucson's plan was to operate a managed recharge project in the channel in order to gain valuable water credits. Marana, Pima County, the Cortaro-Marana Irrigation District and several other entities sued to stop the condemnation proceedings. A deal struck in February of 2000 ended the lawsuit and led to negotiations currently underway that would give Marana a cut of the effluent and may lead to the town taking over Tucson's residential water customers at Continental Ranch, Dove Mountain and in the Ina-Thornydale area.
As the river trickles beyond Ina Road, it passes the scene of another relatively recent dispute with Tucson: the 1994 annexation of the sales tax-rich corridor near Ina and Thornydale road that pulled the town out from a slide toward bankruptcy.
"It was the turning point for the town financially," remembers Marana Finance Director Roy Cuaron.
Since its inception in 1977, the town, which does not levy a property tax, had struggled to stay afloat by utilizing state shared revenue and the relatively paltry amount of revenue generated by the 2 percent sales tax collected through the town's small business community.
"The annexation of the Ina Road corridor basically saved the town," said Marana's mayor at the time, Ora Mae Harn. "We were just about broke."
The desire to annex the area, which included lucrative big box stores such as Kmart, Target, and Price Club, degenerated to an annexation race and eventual lawsuit between Marana and Tucson. Marana got its annexation petitions signed first, and prevailed in a court challenge mounted by Tucson which claimed not all the residents and business owners received legally mandated notice of the annexation proceedings from Marana.
The amount of businesses located in the area's two square miles has risen from about 250 to around 500, according to town records.
Just before the Cortaro Road crossing of the river is Marana's most recent and ambitious attempt to salvage a bit of its history the prehistoric Hohokam pit houses of the Yuma Wash site and the remains of the 19th century Aguirre-Bojorquez ranch.
Improbably located near a Walgreen's drug store and within earshot of the chronic traffic of Cortaro Road, both sites, which have already been excavated, will soon be preserved as part of a 48.8-acre recreational and archaeological park Marana is developing.
"The park will be a real jewel for Marana," said Marana's Assistant Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat, who has been the town's point man on the project. "I think it really embodies our town motto of 'committed to the future, inspired by our past."
The Yuma Wash Hohokam settlement was originally about 15 acres in size and is believed to have contained about 150 structures, according Old Pueblo's research.
"The Yuma Wash site is really interesting," Dart said. "It was one of the longest occupied sites in the entire Santa Cruz Valley. It dates pretty continuously up to the 1300s."
The archeologists are still trying to discover whether a Hohokam irrigated their crops of maize, squash and other staples with canals, or if they relied simply on the seasonal flooding that still effects the river in order to water their crops.
"We did find what appears to be some canal segments south of the Yuma Wash site, and some are also known at another site near Ina Road. I suspect there are irrigation features out there, but if they're there, we haven't found them," Dart said.
The Hohokam, who practiced sedentary farming and would develop a relatively sophisticated culture throughout Southern Arizona, are believed to have entered the region from Mexico as early as 200 and mysteriously vanished from the archaeological record around 1450. Some theories hold that they were absorbed by the Pima tribes that survive today.
The foundations of the old Aguirre-Bojorquez ranch house and a bunkhouse, along with a huge stone cistern and well site, will also be incorporated into the park.
Dart said the remains of the ranch also hold special significance for the town.
"It was the first Mexican ranch established in the area when the Apache's were still raiding, back in the 1880s," Dart said "It was also some of the first documented farming in the area, which is important in the light of the town's agricultural heritage."
Juan Bojorquez, a Tucson store keeper is believed to have established the ranch in 1878, presumably to provision American troops who were stationed in the region, according to Old Pueblo's research.
The archaeologists speculate that the Bojorquez family lived a dangerous existence after founding the ranch, since the areas outside of Tucson were less well protected from the Apache bands that roamed the area.
A drought and financial panic in 1893 is probably what led Bojorquez to sell the ranch to the Aguirre family. The ranch, which included farm fields stretching down to the Santa Cruz, was operated by Gene Aguirre's great uncle, Fileberto Aguirre was operated by Gene Aguirre's great uncle, Fileberto Aguirre, at the turn of the century.
"I went down to look at it a few weeks ago," said Gene Aguirre, who lives in Casa Grande, but remembers visiting the ranch as a child. "I did a sketch of what it used to look like because I figured those people in Marana who are digging it up might want to know what it looked like."
In addition to tools and ranching implements found during the ranch's excavation, two Chinese liquor bottles and a fragment of a Chinese porcelain tea pot were unearthed, remnants of the well-represented Asian-American population still present in Marana today.
As part of their research, Old Pueblo also found an old Arizona Daily Star newspaper account of a shooting at the Bojorquez ranch Nov. 4, 1880 that vividly illuminates the wild and often violent frontier life in the area that a century later would become Marana:
"Last evening at about eight o'clock Jose Sortillon, a Mexican, was brought into the city suffering from an exceedingly dangerous wound, inflicted with a pistol in the hands of another Mexican whose name we were unable to learn. The ball entered the right breast grazing the collar bone and passing through the top of the lung.
"The following, as near as we can learn, are the facts of the case: Jose Sortillon met the wife of the man who shot him at the Magdalena feast, told her that her husband has another wife living, and thus induced her to cast her fortunes with him. The indignant husband followed the parties to this place, and learning that they had left yesterday afternoon for the mountains, followed them, overtaking the pair at the ranch of Juan Bojorquez, 15 miles from here, when, without saying a word, he walked up to Sortillon and shot him as stated."