Cronkite Header

Cronkite News has moved to a new home at Use this site to search archives from 2011 to May 2015. You can search the new site for current stories.

Officials responding to high E. coli levels in scenic Greenlee County river

Email this story
Print this story

CLIFTON – Since the end of the 19th century, when large-scale mining came to what is now Greenlee County, the San Francisco River has been this area’s lifeblood.

One of the 10 fastest-flowing rivers in the United States, the San Francisco slices through canyons and forests and has provided towns with everything from access to supplies from the East when the region was first settled to drinking water and recreation today.

“When you live on the river, it becomes such a big part of your life,” said Deborah Mendelsohn, one of the founders of Friends of the Frisco, a volunteer environmental group dedicated to protecting the San Francisco River.

Recently, however, the river has become a source of concern for the community. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, which monitors rivers across the state, determined that the stretch of the San Francisco River that runs through Greenlee County had levels of E. coli bacteria that exceeded the EPA’s standard.

A 2012 study by the Gila Watershed Partnership, with support from the EPA and ADEQ, pointed to human contamination as a big part of the problem and noted a lack of available restrooms along the San Francisco River and the Blue River, a tributary. It notes that nine sites along the San Francisco River and two on the Blue River see heavy recreational use but have no facilities.

“Before we did our research, there was an assumption that cattle were responsible,” said Mendelsohn, the study’s primary author. “But as it turned out, the more important portion of the contamination was human.”

There have been no confirmed human cases of E. coli, though Mendelsohn said she’s heard about people who have become ill after visiting the river. Ingesting contaminated water can lead to stomach aches, fever, vomiting and diarrhea.

Morteza Abbaszadegan, professor of environmental engineering at Arizona State University, said E. coli is treated as a marker for fecal contamination that can contribute to more serious diseases including giardia, hepatitis A and Salmonella poisoning.

Part of the challenge in adding restrooms along the river is money. The section of the river by Clifton and the nearby town of Duncan is managed by the county, and Phil Ronnerud, county engineer for Greenlee, said that funds are tight.

“When you compete with everything else in government, this isn’t one of the things that rises to the top,” Ronnerud said.

Nevertheless, the county, in conjunction with ADEQ and the Gila Watershed Partnership, is working on two pairs of public bathrooms along the river that Ronnerud hopes will improve the quality of the water.

“From the stuff left on the ground by the river, it was obvious what we needed,” he said.

Ronnerud said that sites where restrooms could be added along the river were limited due to land north of town being privately owned.

The San Francisco River represents an opportunity for a county that is often marginalized. Greenlee County is far from the population centers of Phoenix and Tucson, and the river primarily provides a small-scale recreation area for locals, rather than an attraction for visitors around the state.

“This is the miracle of Greenlee County,” Mendelsohn said. “The places are just drop-dead gorgeous, and very often there’s no one else there.”

However, there are signs that this is slowly changing. For a county – the least populous in Arizona – that has historically relied on copper mining as its chief economic driver, drawing tourists to the San Francisco River has become a priority.

“The watershed, particularly the San Francisco River, has potential to help stabilize the local economy through thoughtfully developed tourism and better managed recreation,” Mendelsohn’s report reads.

Steve Eady, executive director of the Gila Watershed Partnership, said the community has invested in birding trails in order to better appeal to birdwatchers across the Southwest.

“Residents around Greenlee County go out to the river on weekends and fish and camp,” Eady said. “We would like to see that sort of thing happen outside the community.”

The San Francisco River still faces challenges. In addition to the E. coli issue, Eady said that the area has a large population of non-native tamarisks, also known as salt cedar, which crowd out native plants.

The Gila Watershed Partnership is working on a five-year plan to remove the tamarisks.

Until then, the bathrooms, which Ronnerud estimates will be completed within the next two months, should make the river more user friendly for visitors and community members alike.

“I envision it as an asset to the community, where it meets multiple purposes in the community,” he said. “Not only for wildlife, but for people too, because people need those spaces.”