I placed my fictional world of the ‘End of the Line’ saloon in a fictional desert town called Del Sueño, somewhere in inland California. Rather than set it on one of the numerous lakes, I placed it alongside a fictional river. Southern Californikators know that most of the rivers there are ‘ephemeral’, to use Wikipedia’s word: sometimes there’s water in them, sometimes it’s just a dry arroyo. And woe betide the occasional tourist who thinks a dry arroyo is a great place to park their RV. Sudden flash floods can toss and float the biggest Winnebago down the line toward the Pacific.
But one reviewer of a book in the series commented that if the town was in the “desert” then there couldn’t be any river. Funny how people not from the southwest assume all desert is like Death Valley or even the Sahara. In fact, Death Valley does get an average annual rainfall of 1.5 inches (38 mm). The wettest period on record was mid-2004 to mid-2005, in which nearly 6 inches (150 mm) of rain fell in total, leading to ‘ephemeral’ lakes. (Again, thank you, Wikipedia!) Due to the aridity, they disappeared quickly, but the “desert” does have water and lakes and even rivers. At slightly higher elevations, a couple thousand feet or so, the rivers stay at least moist most of the year. Unlike the Rio Grande, say.
In 2014 my son was stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso. One of the first things he did was drive down to get a look at the legendary Rio Grande, about which he had been hearing all his life, not to mention seeing it in countless movies. Instead of the mighty surge of water expected of a river that divides two major nations of the western hemisphere, he beheld a wide dry wash full of sand and sagebrush. Apparently it was one of the major disappointments of his life. “Mom!” he said with childlike shock. “There’s no water! It’s the ‘Grand River’ for crying out loud!” I.e., how can there be ‘wetbacks’ if there’s no ‘wet’?
Like many people, he hadn’t realized that even the ‘Grand River’ has trouble staying wet in the middle of summer. In my mystery novels, I describe my river as being low and choked with weeds and reeds much of the time. Since its source is a high mountain lake, it’s never completely dry, and similar to the San Joaquin river, supports almost forty species of freshwater fish. Good thing, since many of the people living Del Sueño spend a lot of time on its banks, escaping the heat and catching what might end up as lunch.
So, yes, Virginia, there are rivers in the desert!