In the late 1950s, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed Painted Rock Dam on the Gila River, upstream of Yuma, Ariz., to help minimize flooding and protect water rights according to a treaty with Mexico. However, most of the year, the dam’s basin is completely dry.
The dam is situated in a pocket of sun-drenched Arizona desert, about two hours from either Phoenix or Tucson, that doesn’t get many visitors, except for coyotes, javelina, scorpions, tarantulas, and the like. Nearby are scattered stones decorated with petroglyphs, reminding that ancient people dwelled near the river once upon a time.
The hearty souls who keep the place operating and stay in “stand by” mode in case there is heavy rain are self-professed “jack of all trades,” but their official title is dam tender. Donnie May is a seasoned veteran operator in his early 70s who has been working for the Corps for more than 30 years. He has been showing the ropes this past year to newcomer John “Jack” Dohallow, originally an Ohio farm boy who spent the past several years working on the land in many capacities from Mount St. Helens, Wash., to California’s Mojave Desert.
Since it is so isolated, the Corps built two houses on the dam’s property, where both men and their wives reside. They’ve become pretty close, and Dohallow said they even share May’s dog. They work an overlapping schedule, exercising the gates, addressing erosion issues, checking rain and temperature gages, and reporting to the District’s Reservoir Operations Center in Los Angeles.
“Donnie May prepared me ahead of time that this place doesn’t normally hold water,” Dohallow said. “On the inlet side, if it is anything like last winter, we’ll have water flowing through the gates but it will eventually dry out.”
According to Dohallow, in September, the area got .7 inches of rain in 15 minutes, which washed away roads, as well as relief well ditches, so he and May have been hard at work on repairs.
Historically, the dam’s basin has held water. In fact, in 1993, water was so high that it went over the spillway, but it has been mainly dry since.
“I didn’t realize that dams don’t stop water, they just slow it down and help keep it from moving dirt as it travels,” Dohallow said. “I try to keep in mind that we’re the last resort for people in Yuma, but normally we exist somewhere between a little boredom interrupted by occasional chaos.”
He jokingly added, “You know you’ve been in the desert too long, when instead of dusting every day you shovel once a week.”
A good sense of humor helps Dohallow keep everything in perspective, but he said he also spends time on hobbies like woodworking and writing. Some of the short stories he has written have been published. He volunteered a few lines from a story called “Coyote Howls:” — Patches of brilliant stars shine, as the chilly desert winds blow thru camp. When the skies clear, mountains tower into the night and countless evening stars emerge from hiding like little white fires on the roof of the sky. The bleak darkness on the desert floor is exaggerated by the soft glowing lights beyond the horizon, the distant cities of Tucson and Phoenix.
Dohallow said the desert inspires him to write.
“People have compared some of my stuff to Edward Abbey and told me I need to read Desert Solitaire,” he said. “And, once, when I was working for the Bureau of Land Management in Moab, Utah, I looked at buying Edward Abbey’s house.”
He didn’t end up putting down roots in Utah, but Dohallow said he and his wife are really enjoying their life and the desert weather in Painted Rock.
“Maybe I’ll stay here until I’m in my 70s, like May,” he said. “You have to do what you love to do, and we don’t feel the need to keep up with the Joneses or the noise anymore.”
So, he said, for the foreseeable future, the care of Painted Rock Dam is in his and May’s trusty hands, and they are happy to have the responsibility.
“We take pride in knowing that this work is playing an important role in helping to reduce the risk of flooding in Yuma and in various small farming communities downstream,” he said.