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Arizona

Q&A: Behind the Science

Holly Richter not only works to protect Arizona’s San Pedro River—she lives there, too. So when she hears this desert river roaring past her house during its rare seasonal floods, she knows conservation efforts are making a difference for the last free-flowing river in the Southwest.

Nature.org spoke with Holly about her love for this river, making science matter, and why it’s a good thing that her trusty donkey “Mickey” has a nose for quicksand.


Nature.org: It sounds like you know the San Pedro better than just about anyone.

Holly Richter: Rivers are such dynamic places, it’s true that you never get to see the same river twice. Even after living and working here for thirteen years, the diversity and complexity of this river system continues to fascinate me on a daily basis. 

Nature.org: How do you explore the San Pedro’s most remote parts?

Holly Richter: Although I’ve ridden horses along the river for years, donkeys are really the most helpful for traveling long distances through thick brush, over large piles of logs deposited by floods, clambering up steep canyon walls, and somehow having an innate sense of where quicksand occurs.

My most reliable donkey can literally smell quicksand before placing even a foot in it. He’s also gracefully side-stepped around more than one rattlesnake in the miles we’ve ridden together. A seven-hour ride in 100 degree heat doesn’t seem to faze these desert-adapted equines.

Donkeys are the quintessential field assistants for arid landscapes, including desert rivers like the San Pedro!

Nature.org: What’s been your most interesting wildlife encounter on the river?

Holly Richter: I once had a rare tropical hawk drop a large part of its prey on my head in the early dawn light. What a way to wake up! That’s an alarm clock I won’t soon forget!

Nature.org: How are you using science to get other people as excited about the San Pedro as you are?

Holly Richter: Each year,  we organize a joint effort with partners in Mexico to map where the river remains wet during the  driest time of the year. The project is a great example of citizen science. Over the course of three days, 125 people mapped 224 miles of the river and its tributaries this year using GPS units. The mapping results allow water managers to adapt strategies that restore year-round flows and prevent further deterioration of the river’s ecosystem.

The less adventuresome but equally important part of my job is water policy. I work to bring science into our discussions in a way that’s meaningful for people. Doing technical science is actually way easier than getting people to love, use and understand the science!

Nature.org: It goes without saying that you love your job.

Holly Richter: Everyday is different. I get to work in two countries on a river that flows past both cities and wild pristine areas, collaborate with congressmen and birders, kids and realtors.

Plus, I always have an excuse to go outside and get really wet and muddy!

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