On his small farm near Safford, Ariz., Bill Brandau has spent the past three decades raising kids, grandkids, grass and cattle.
None of it, he says, would have been possible in this desert landscape without water from the Gila River, which winds through the property, which he affectionately refers to as ‘Rancho Neglecto.’
“The Gila River is an everyday part of our lives. I’ll go down, look around. I feel a lot of peace. I feel a sense of comfort,” says Bill. “And when I am walking with my granddaughter, I feel joy. Because we have a family associated with this river.”
Over the years, Bill and his family have shared and survived all of the “good fortune and bad fortune” that has struck the 650-mile-long Colorado River tributary, from persistent drought to floods that destroyed the most productive portion of his farm.
Now he’s battling another threat to the river and his farm – the spread of invasive plants like tamarisk, Malta star thistle and others on the way like Russian knapweed.
Tamarisk, a woody invasive also known as salt cedar, is a particularly ravenous species that overruns native species and disrupts the natural flow of the river both for water and sediment. It reduces diversity of plant and animal life. Salt cedar can become so dense it blocks all view and access to the river beyond the water’s edge for people and animals.
“I would love to look out my window and not see salt cedar,” Bill says. “The two things a river has to do is convey water and convey sediment. Salt cedar prevents both of those.”
To help restore the river’s native habitat and improve river flow, the Walton Family Foundation is working with the Gila River Watershed Partnership and RiversEdge West to remove invasive tamarisk.
The foundation is also supporting efforts to create areas of native habitat to help regenerate native species. It’s expected that, within a few years, the Gila River will become home to the tamarisk beetle, which feeds on tamarisk and may create an opportunity for native species to become re-established.
Bill says tamarisk was “the primary cause of loss for most of my riparian habitat” following Gila River flooding because “it is adapted to drought and fire, low water and high water.”
Native species such as cottonwoods and willows, destroyed by flood or by fire conveyed by salt cedar, have been replaced entirely by tamarisk.
“The story of many invasive species is, they win because we respond with too little, too late to make an impact,” says Bill, a board member with the Gila River Watershed Partnership.
He believes the riparian restoration work can help reset the natural balance on the river.
Its long-term ecological health will require ongoing investments from local communities that depend on it for their economic survival and also from states like Arizona that reap benefits from the river, he says.
“People need to understand the importance of the river, and how it impacts their families on a daily basis. Without the river, we wouldn’t have water. We wouldn’t have crops. We wouldn’t be able to grow the food. We wouldn’t have a place to play and just enjoy. This river affects everybody but a lot of people today don’t have a clue where their water comes from,” he says.
“To be sustainable, the Gila River needs to become more a part of the fabric of our community. Over my life and my career, the thing I have found that is most effective is allowing the system to function. These riparian systems, if given half a chance, will do amazing things.”