Water and River Conservation
Federal Clean Water Act
In 1972, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was significantly strengthened with amendments and became known as the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA was enacted in response to growing awareness and concern for public health and safety problems caused by pollution in our nation’s waterways. The CWA enables the federal government to regulate pollutant discharges into the “waters of the United States.” The CWA gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority to: establish programs to control pollution and to set pollution standards for all contaminants in surface waters and industry wastewater; curtail unlawful pollutant discharges from a “point source” into “navigable waters”; address problems posed by “nonpoint source” pollution; and create a grant program that has since provided billions of dollars to fund sewage treatment plant construction.
What water bodies qualify as “waters of the U.S.” has been a source of confusion and legal disputes. To clarify these “muddy waters”, EPA issued a new rule in 2015: “The rule ensures that waters protected under the Clean Water Act are more precisely defined, more predictably determined, and easier for businesses and industry to understand. The rule does not protect any new types of waters, regulate most ditches, apply to groundwater, create any new permitting requirements for agriculture, or address land use or private property rights.” Yet, litigation continues to dog the CWA, as do current efforts to rollback and de-fund these vital protections.
Since enacted, the CWA has roughly doubled the number of waters meeting quality goals, and sewage discharges once commonplace in the 1960’s are now rare occurrences. What were once rivers fouled by all manner of toxic chemicals and bacteria are now safe to swim and fish in, dramatically improving their ecological health and increasing their recreational and economic value for communities. However, there is still room for improvement. Of the streams and rivers assessed by EPA (32% of the total), 44.7% were assessed as “good,” .04% as “threatened,” and 54.9% as “impaired.”
Community Water Coalition
Tucson Audubon is a founding member organization of the Community Water Coalition.
The Community Water Coalition’s mission is: “To provide leadership and guidance toward water policy that sustains healthy ecosystems and quality of life in the Tucson area and lower Santa Cruz River watershed.”
To accomplish its mission, the Community Water Coalition works to:
- Encourage local leadership to act in the best interest of sustainable water policy for our region
- Inform the public on important issues related to water security, quality and use
- Engage statewide networks to respond to threats that impact our local watershed
Coalition member organizations include: ACE Charter High School, Center for Biological Diversity, Cienega Watershed Partnership, Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Desert Watch, Native Seeds/SEARCH, Physicians for Social Responsibility – Arizona, Primavera Foundation, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, Sierra Club – Rincon Group, Sky Island Alliance, Tucson Audubon Society, Tucson Mountains Association, and Watershed Management Group. Tucson Audubon has a seat on the coalition’s Advisory Committee, and actively participates in the CWC Restoration Subcommittee.
- Update on CWC letter to Pima County BOS re: BOR effluent.
- The CWC is seeking new member organizations to support and grow the Coalition’s work. See more here, or contact ?? for more information.
- CWC’s report from Community Water Cafecito event with City Leaders, April 2016
- CWC–led Conservation Effluent Pool Task Force final report, July 2014
- CWC’s Shallow Groundwater Restoration Platform| Download pdf
- CWC’s Rosemont Copper Mine Platform | Download pdf
- CWC’s Hydro-Regional Platform
- CWC’s 10/17/2016 comments sent to Pima County Supervisors regarding retaining in-stream effluent flows in the Santa Cruz River from the Tres Rios Water Reclamation Facility.
- CWC’s comments sent to Bureau of Reclamation on their 2016 proposal to remove 7,000 af of effluent from the Santa Cruz River.
- CWC’s letters to Mayor and Council regarding proposed amendments to the Tucson Water Service Area policy: May 3, 2013, January 24, 2012 , and November 4, 2011
Lower Santa Cruz River Basin Study
The Bureau of Reclamation has initiated a 3-year study of the Lower Santa Cruz River Basin (LSCRB) to “identify where physical water resources are needed in order to mitigate supply-demand imbalances and to develop a strategy to improve water reliability for the municipal, industrial, agricultural, cultural and environmental sectors.” Tucson Audubon is serving on the Environmental Sub-team for the study to provide substantive input related to water-dependent habitats and practical climate change adaptation measures.
The Bureau of Reclamation has initiated a 3-year study of the Lower Santa Cruz River Basin (LSCRB). Cost-share partners include the Southern Arizona Water Users Association, Pima Association of Governments, Cortaro-Marana Irrigation District, Arizona Department of Water Resources, Central Arizona Water Conservation District, and the University of Arizona.
The study’s overarching goal is to “identify where physical water resources are needed in order to mitigate supply-demand imbalances and to develop a strategy to improve water reliability for the municipal, industrial, agricultural, cultural and environmental sectors.” This study will be the first of its kind to incorporate water demands for environmental needs (i.e. riparian habitats) and climate change projections into scenario planning.
Tucson Audubon supports the framework for this 3-year study, as it is the first basin study of its kind to incorporate both dynamically downscaled climate change models, as well as considerations for water for the environment. Such holistic planning is required to protect and enhance our rivers, their riparian areas in a warming world. We hope this study will be successful, and provide a model for future basin studies.
What We Do
- Tucson Audubon is participating in the LSCRB study in a stakeholder advisory role via the project’s Environmental Sub-team. This sub-team will provide input on current and projected water demand for the environment; and 2) Provide input on environmental issues during the trade-off and adaptation measures phases of the study.
- Pollution and Climate Change
- Updates on Regional Aquifer Recharge and Riparian Restoration Efforts
- Lower Santa Cruz River Basin Study – Bureau of Reclamation
San Pedro River Watershed
The San Pedro River Watershed is a national treasure — one which harbors high levels of biodiversity, supports the annual migration of between 3 and 4 million birds, and fuels a lucrative tourism-based economy. Modern day pressures on the San Pedro River are mounting. Join Tucson Audubon to help us protect this Global Important Bird Area!
The San Pedro River is one of the single most important biological features in the arid Southwest. The San Pedro serves as a migratory corridor for an estimated 4 million migrating birds each year! This free flowing desert river sustains a remarkably intact riparian system, including extensive stands of Fremont cottonwood, Goodding’s willow and intact mesquite bosques. This vital ribbon of green provides habitat to nearly 45 percent of the 900 species of migratory birds in North America.
The conservation and restoration of the San Pedro River has been a long-standing priority for Tucson Audubon because of its paramount value to birds, wildlife, riparian habitat, ecosystem functions, and vibrant ecotourism industry in our focal region of southeast Arizona. Tucson Audubon is proud to have supported the designation of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Areas and is one of several Conservation Stewards of the Lower San Pedro Global Important Bird Area.
Sustaining the San Pedro River is a top-priority for numerous conservation organizations, government agencies and private land owners. The San Pedro River system has benefitted from significant investments in land and water conservation, including its use as a mitigation site for long-term preservation and restoration of lands set aside to offset development impacts elsewhere in the state.
Unfortunately, the San Pedro is at risk due to development proposals and unsustainable groundwater pumping. At stake is the future of what is arguably one of the single most important remaining waterways in the arid Southwest. Unlike the highly degraded Santa Cruz River, which stands as a cautionary tale for the San Pedro, there is currently enough base flow to keep the San Pedro’s vital riparian forests alive. However, human demands for water continue to lower the water table, and as a result, some reaches of the San Pedro River no longer flow year round. Over time, unsustainable groundwater pumping could further reduce or eliminated these critical flows that support riparian habitats.
These riverside forests are critical to the more than 400 species of birds that utilize this precious, fragile river as a place to live, raise young and recharge as they pass through during migration; some traveling as many as 5,000 miles.
Herbert Brandt, in the classic Arizona and its Bird Life, quotes Coronado as he first experienced the San Pedo River Valley:
…At that time the climax grasses were so luxuriant as to hide a man on horseback; the now deep, shifting river channel and its affluents were an almost continuous, broad marsh; thousands of beavers saw to that….the Sonora otter enjoyed its slide; antelope, black-tailed and white-tailed deer, elk, wild turkey, quails, and other game were abundant in this land of the Apache….During migration time great swarms of waterfowl, shorebirds and other transients winnowed the air along this flyway…. in the long valley where flowed the placid San Pedro.
As rich with life as it still is, today’s San Pedro River Valley is a mere shadow of what Coronado witnessed in the 1540s. Centuries of agriculture, groundwater mining and development have taken their toll. Modern day pressures on the San Pedro River are mounting. Human demands for water continue to lower the water table, resulting in declining well levels and reaches of the San Pedro River that no longer flow year round.
Recognizing the river’s hemispheric importance to avian life, two Global Important Bird Areas (IBAs) have been designated along the San Pedro River corridor. Together, these two Global IBAs support some of the highest nesting densities of riparian-obligate birds in the western United States, including avian species of conservation concern such as the threatened Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Cassin’s and Botteri’s Sparrow, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Lucy’s Warbler, Abert’s Towhee, and Brewer’s Sparrow. Both of these Global IBAs are also strongholds for migrating raptors such as Gray Hawk and Mississippi Kite.
The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, managed in trust by the Bureau of Land Management, protects a 36-mile stretch of the river north of the US-Mexico border—one of only two RNCAs designated in the nation. This special congressional designation is given to protect and enhance the desert riparian ecosystem, a rare remnant of what was once an extensive network of similar riparian systems throughout the American Southwest.
As noted above, numerous conservation easements have been established along the river to offset impacts to imperiled species caused by past major developments across Arizona. This includes lands conserved and managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, Pima County, the Nature Conservancy and others. This nationally recognized conservation corridor has been pieced together through decades of collaborative effort and millions of dollars in public and private investment.
In 2011, the total economic effect from watchable wildlife activities in Arizona was $1.4 billion. That same year, the total multiplier effect of economic contributions of watchable wildlife recreation in Cochise County alone was $ $24,130,389.1
Hundreds, if not thousands of birders and visitors come to the San Pedro River every year from around the world to view birds and experience nature close-up. Many local businesses depend upon healthy habitats and tourism revenues to support a sustainable, thriving local economy.
However, the future of this national treasure and irreplaceable migratory corridor is now at risk due to a growing list of serious threats. Proposed new housing, commercial and industrial infrastructure threatens to greatly accelerate habitat loss and fragmentation. Sound planning and decision-making is needed to sustain and protect the San Pedro River and its watershed.
What We Do
- Tucson Audubon seeks to utilize the best available science to find balance between human and wildlife needs in the San Pedro River Watershed.
- Tucson Audubon is one of several stewards of the Lower San Pedro Global Important Bird Area.
- Tucson Audubon works in partnerships with local, regional and national organizations to protect and promote the health of the San Pedro River Watershed.
- Tucson works to engage officials regarding policy issues and important decisions that will determine the San Pedro’s future condition.
- Tucson Audubon works to raise public awareness and encourage community engagement in planning and decision making processes affecting the San Pedro River Watershed.
- Learn more about the proposed Villages at Vigneto and SunZia Southwest Transmission line. We are very concerned about these development proposals due to a range of direct and indirect impacts we anticipate they would have upon the integrity of the San Pedro River Watershed.
- Tucson Audubon takes the position that it is essential to complete Phase 3 of the USGS study of subsurface water flows in the Middle San Pedro River in order to provide the best information with which to make informed decisions (See Phase I and Phase II reports below). Let your state and federal representatives know this should be made a top priority!
- Comment on the Bureau of Land Management’s new Resource Management Plan for the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.
- Sign up for our San Pedro Conservation Action list to get periodic updates, event announcements and action alerts.
- Join Tucson Audubon as a member or volunteer to stay informed on the issues, and to support our efforts to ensure the San Pedro River’s values for birds, biodiversity, and human communities are protected for future generations.
- Send a postcard to key decision makers to let them know why you love the San Pedro River, and that you want them to take extra care in their decision making processes affecting the river.
Position Letters and Comments
- Proposed Villages at Vigneto Mega-development
- Proposed SunZia Southwest Transmission Line
- Tucson Audubon comments on proposed Lower San Pedro National Wildlife Refuge (Aug 1, 2012)
- Pinal County response to Notice of Violation from ACOE regarding Dudleyville Crossing (Jan 2010)
- Pinal County response to Notice of Violation from ACOE regarding Dudleyville Crossing (Dec 2009)
- San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area Resource Management Planning
- Proposed Villages at Vigneto Mega-development
- Proposed SunZia Transmission Project
- Lower San Pedro River Valley Collaborative Conservation Initiative
- Resolution Copper and the Mine at Superior
- Link to Words on Water events?
- Vermillion Flycatcher July-Sept, 2016: Engage and Explore the San Pedro River
- USGS Phase I study: Hydrogeologic Framework of the Middle San Pedro Watershed, Southeastern Arizona (2010)
- USGS Phase II study: Hydrology of the Middle San Pedro Watershed, Southeastern Arizona (2015)
- USGS: Crossing Borders for a Secure Water Future: US-Mexico San Pedro River Aquifer Report (December 20, 2016)
- Boykin et al 2012. A national approach for mapping and quantifying habitat-based biodiversity metrics across multiple spatial scales. Ecological Indicators.
- Top 10 Threats to the San Pedro River (from Flycatcher July Sept 2016)
- Desert Landscape Conservation Cooperative Landscape Conservation Planning Design Proposal for the San Pedro Watershed.
- Lower San Pedro River – Key Ecological Attributes (revised July 2012)
- Walton Family Foundation Freshwater Initiative Strategy (July 2009)
- BLM Files Trespass Charges Against Pinal County for violation of Conservation Easement on lower San Pedro (July 25, 2008)
- Grijalva letter to Depts. of Interior and Agriculture (May 16, 2008)
- Grijalva letter to Salisbury of Resolution Copper (April 15, 2008)
- Giffords and Mitchell letter to Mr. John Rickus, president of Resolution Copper (March 4, 2008)
Arizona State Water Policy
Tucson Audubon advocates for a secure, sustainable water future for our state, communities and water-dependent habitats. While Arizona enjoys progressive water laws, these laws need to be defended and further strengthened to meet increasing pressures on our water supplies. Join Tucson Audubon in our efforts to advocate for sustainable water policies and solutions in the face of a growing population, long-term drought and hotter and drier conditions in the desert Southwest that are projected to occur as a result of climate change.
Tucson Audubon is working in coalition with numerous organizations, agencies and communities across the state and region to promote a sustainable water future for our communities and natural areas. The future health of our aquifers, waterways and wildlife depend upon the decisions and plans we make today.
Key bird migration corridors in the arid Southwest rely upon adequate water to maintain their vitality. Yet, there are no laws on the books in Arizona that recognize and protect water rights for the environment, and the current legal framework in Arizona fails to reflect the scientific relationship between surface and groundwater. This disconnect, in addition to the overallocation of the Colorado River basin and long-term drought presents a convergence of realities that threaten the future of our water-dependent habitats and the ecosystem services they provide.
Over the past century, Arizona has lost a majority of its historic riparian woodlands and a third of its wetlands. Further loss of these fragile, water-dependent habitats and the implications these threats pose to our shared environment are staggering.
Join Tucson Audubon and partner organizations to learn and engage to ensure a secure, sustainable water future for future generations. Sign on yourself, your business, organization or religious group in support of “A Conservation Vision for Arizona’s Water Future”
What We Do
- Tucson Audubon is working in coalition with numerous organizations, agencies and communities across the state and region to promote a sustainable water future for our communities and natural areas. We have participated in public meetings in southeast Arizona associated with Governor Doug Ducey’s Arizona Water Planning Initiative
- Tucson Audubon advocates for comprehensive policies, projects and collaborations that result in water conservation and the dedication of water to maintain and restore our streams, rivers and shallow groundwater areas.
- Tucson Audubon advocates for the modernization of state water law to reflect the best available science, to include and address the complex relationship between surface and groundwater.
- Tucson Audubon engages on proposed legislation, policies and planning related to water security and quality, which directly and indirectly affects the health of our birds, natural areas and human communities.
Drought & Climate Change
Arizona is now in year 18 of a state-declared drought emergency and could face the same types of water shortages that California is currently grappling with if we don’t conserve and responsibly manage our limited water supplies. Now is the time we must act to conserve and protect our most valuable natural resource.
We must act to improve our water policies and programs to incentivize conservation and ensure our laws and policies reflect the best available science.
Climate change is putting additional stress on our watersheds, water budgets and allocations.
The Colorado River is over-allocated. Because of long-term drought, Lake Mead reservoir on the Colorado River is now at a historic low, and CAP allocations to southern Arizona could be dramatically cut if drought continues as projected. If and when this happens, southern Arizona will be forced to rely more heavily on limited groundwater supplies.
- The Southwest is warming. Average daily temperatures for the 2001–2010 decade were the highest recorded in the Southwest of any period from 1901 through 2010.
- Recent drought has been unusually severe relative to droughts of the last century.
- Recent flows in the four major drainage basins of the Southwest have been lower than their twentieth century averages.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration both 2014 and 2015 were the hottest years in recorded history, and this alarming trend shows no signs of abating. Current climate change models predict a high probability for multi-decadal droughts to occur in our region in the coming decades. In addition, precipitation events are predicted to be less frequent, yet more intense when they do occur. Overall decreased precipitation coupled with increased evaporation associated with rising temperatures will likely result in less surface water and thus declining infiltration to recharge regional aquifers.
With climate change and a burgeoning population, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. What can we do to adapt? We can modernize our laws and policies, invest in innovative water conservation strategies and technologies, properly manage our watersheds, and plan ahead based on the best available information. Tucson Audubon supports facilitated, exploratory scenario planning as a way for communities to understand and adapt to an uncertain water future.
Arizona’s Groundwater Management Act
“As a result of the Groundwater Management Act, new development in this fast-growing state’s actively managed areas would have to prove an assured water supply capable of sustaining its residents for at least 100 years. No other state’s water-supply requirements at the time came close to creating such a long-term sense of water-certainty for its residents. At the same time, the law required that its active-management areas, or AMAs, wean themselves from groundwater pumping. Four of Arizona’s five, largely urban, AMAs are required to reach “safe yield” – that is, they must diminish reliance on groundwater to the point that recharge and extraction are in rough balance – by 2025.”
Tucson Audubon opposes legislative efforts to weaken or undermine the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act. While we recognize this law should be modernized to reflect current realities and the best available science, we must move forward to strengthen, not weaken, this landmark legislation.
In the 2016 Arizona legislative session, Tucson Audubon joined with numerous organizations and individuals to oppose both S.B. 1268 and S.B. 1400. Criticized by water managers, water experts, conservationists, newspaper editorial boards and others, these two recent special interest bills from the Arizona state legislature were a direct attack Arizona’s 1980 Groundwater Management Act and posed a threat to our aquifers and rivers. These legislative proposals would have created loopholes for special interests to avoid complying with important requirements for providing water adequacy for citizens and nature—a major step backwards.
Despite strong public opposition from various sectors, both of these ill-conceived bills passed both houses of the state legislature. Governor Ducey understood and agreed with the public’s legitimate concerns, and responded with a historic veto of both these proposals. In his veto letter, Governor Ducey said:
“…I’m concerned S.B. 1268 and S.B. 1400 would encourage a patchwork of water ordinances throughout our cities and leave our water supply securities in peril. Ensuring the certainty and sustainability of Arizona water is a top priority. I will not sign legislation that threatens Arizona’s water future.”
Arizona Sustainable Water Group
Tucson Audubon is a founding organization of the Arizona Sustainable Water Group (ASWG).
The ASWG is comprised of concerned citizens, organizations and businesses across Arizona. The ASWG has convened to discuss ways to expand the state-level water policy dialogue that is currently being conducted by the Ducey-appointed Arizona Water Augmentation Council.
The ASWG is a coalition of Arizona organizations and individuals intent on articulating the value of conservation and the importance of maintaining and protecting water for the environment. Both are presently missing from the Governor’s water initiatives.
The ASWG will advocate for water policies built on an ethic of responsibility. We recognize that unless we manage this precious resource properly, we will inevitably suffer shortages, unnecessarily high costs, environmental degradation, and diminished economic development statewide. The narrow focus of the Governor’s council will not avoid those outcomes. The ASWG agrees on unifying principles articulated in A Conservation Vision for Arizona’s Water Future.
Western Rivers Action Network
Western Rivers Action Network (WRAN) is National Audubon’s multi-state grassroots effort to protect rivers. Tucson Audubon is a participating organization in this growing network.
“In the arid West we are all connected by rivers; they are the lifeblood of our land, our economy, our way of life. Western rivers, like the Colorado River and its tributaries, provide water for tens of millions of people, including twenty-two Native American tribes and the major cities of Denver, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Tucson.
We aren’t alone in our reliance on western rivers. Many birds in our flyway depend on these river habitats.
Unfortunately the health of these rivers and the livelihood of the people and the wildlife that depend on them are in jeopardy. A combination of drought, invasive species, over-allocation and unsustainable management are running our rivers dry. In 2013, American Rivers named the Colorado River America’s most endangered river and in 2014 both the Gila and Upper Colorado made the top five (read more). Many of the birds that depend on these rivers, like the Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Bell’s Vireo, are in decline, and the future of the communities and economies surrounding our rivers is uncertain.
However, we can help. Together we can advocate for conservation actions that will increase river flow, enhance the health of our environment and restore valuable wetlands and forests.
- Join Tucson Audubon and partner organizations to learn and engage to ensure a secure, sustainable water future for future generations. Sign on yourself, your business, organization or religious group in support of “A Conservation Vision for Arizona’s Water Future”
- Contact your state legislative representatives to advocate for sustainable, science-based water policies that include allocating water dedicated for the environment and wildlife.
- We continue to track water-related legislation. Check back for updates and action alerts.
- A Conservation Vision for Arizona’s Water Future
- Audubon Arizona: Statewide Water Planning
- Arizona Town Hall #107: Keeping Arizona’s Glass Half Full
- Arizona Water Augmentation Council
- ADWR Drought Program
- ADWR: What everyone needs to know about the water challenges in the Southwest
- ADWR: Arizona’s Next Century, A Strategic Vision for Water Supply Sustainability
- Community Water Coalition
- Desert Landscape Conservation Cooperative
- Governor Doug Ducey’s Arizona Water Planning Initiative
- Pima Association of Governments
- Water Resources Research Center
- Western Resources Advocates
- Western Rivers Action Network
- Watershed Management Group
Water dependent habitats – our riparian areas, wetlands and shallow groundwater areas – are critical for our region’s birds, wildlife and economy. As much as 90% of riparian habitats and a third of our wetlands have been lost to past diversions and development. Join Tucson Audubon to advocate for their protection and restoration!
There is a circle of life and water is at its center. Water management has emerged as one of the central environmental issues of our time, especially here in the arid Southwest. Water is the key element that supports life in all of its wonder, including the spectacular diversity of birds found in Southeast Arizona. Over 80% of our region’s vertebrate wildlife species require riparian habitat at some point in their life cycle. Increasing water scarcity threatens to negatively impact wildlife habitat, human economies and the quality of life that attracts people to live, work and recreate in Arizona and the Southwest.
Tucson Audubon advocates for water policies, management and projects that benefit birds and have “stacked” societal, economic and ecological benefits. Join us in building broad public support for a conservation vision for Arizona’s water future!
What We Do
- Tucson Audubon supports water conservation and restoration efforts that benefit birds and other wildlife.
- Tucson Audubon conducts ecological restoration as an “in lieu fee” provider through a program administered by the Army Corps of Engineers designed to mitigate development impacts to waters of the U.S.
- Tucson Audubon works in in close partnership with partner organizations, coalitions and agencies through the lens of maintaining and restoring habitat for birds and other wildlife. We are a founding organization of the Community Water Coalition, and engage through the Western Rivers Action Network and other entities on important issues facing our rivers, streams, wetlands and springs.
- Tucson Audubon partners with conservation organizations, coalitions and government agencies to promote water sustainability and to plan ahead for a hotter and drier future.
We contribute to research and planning initiatives related to water management affecting water-dependent habitats, conservation and climate change adaptation.
- Tucson Audubon advocates for utilizing the best available science to inform water management and policy decisions. We support conservation-minded policies and oppose regressive, unsustainable policies. Tucson Audubon works to educate ourselves, the public and decision makers regarding complicated water issues, and how they interface with wildlife habitat.
- Tucson Audubon works diligently to protect water-dependent bird habitats in southeast Arizona, such as the two designated Global Important Bird Areas on the San Pedro River, the Gila River, the Santa Cruz River, Sonotia Creek and shallow groundwater areas in the Tucson basin.
- Tucson Audubon points to the need for carefully crafted water policies to sustain vibrant local economies. Among these economies is Arizona’s world-renowned wildlife watching industry, which brings in the ballpark of $1.4 billion in revenue to Arizona yearly. Southeast Arizona is one of the nation’s preeminent birding hotspots, drawing people from around the world to explore and spend money in our region. Without sufficient dedicated water, bird and wildlife habitats will wither, and sustainable, nature-based tourism revenues will dry up too.
Industrialization and the rapid growth of human populations has fueled extensive groundwater pumping, river over-allocations, dams, diversions and other modifications that have dramatically diminished the health of our waterways, habitats and communities. Human interventions in the water cycle have dried up many waterways, wetlands and springs, resulting in the loss and degradation of key bird habitats. If already scarce water, including treated wastewater, continues to be extracted and diverted from our rivers for recharge projects or for other purposes, our remaining water-dependent habitats may be put at risk.
Restored and protected riparian areas, wetlands and shallow groundwater areas are crucial to maintain and will become increasingly important as drought deepens. Migratory birds and other wildlife need safe havens and surface water, which is becoming scarcer with development and a hotter and drier climate.
Streamside forests, often referred to as “riparian” habitats, and wetlands provide critical water food, refugia and nesting habitat for a great variety of birds. The decline of riparian-associated Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Southwest Willow Flycatcher, and their subsequent listing under the Endangered Species Act, are symptoms of the loss and degradation these vital water-dependent habitats.
Riparian areas are often referred to as “ribbons of life,” as they are our most dynamic and productive ecosystems. In Arizona, it is estimated that 80% of vertebrate species utilize riparian areas during some portion of their life cycle. Yet, riparian habitats are estimated to comprise only 0.4% of Arizona’s total land area. Like the circulatory system in our own bodies, our waterways play a critical, outsized role in maintaining ecosystem processes and health.
Unfortunately, the majority of our historic riparian areas and a third of our wetlands have been lost to development, diversions and related impacts, making intact water-dependent ecosystems all the more important to protect and restore wherever possible.
Many remaining “shallow groundwater-dependent habitats” are threatened by groundwater extraction. The Tanque Verde Valley in northeast Tucson and the area along Cienega Creek are among these. In these shallow groundwater areas there are drainages that still support riparian trees, such as cottonwoods and willows, whose roots can reach the high groundwater table. Wells in aggregate can lower the water table below the root zone, leaving these groundwater-dependent riparian trees high and dry.
Arizona is grappling with a state-declared drought emergency that has been in effect since June of 1999. The Drought Declaration for the State of Arizona has been in effect since May of 2007. Now and into the future, long-term drought and climate change will further compound past habitat losses and ongoing stressors. Because water is closely coupled with climate, these two issues are inextricably linked. Tucson Audubon advocates for the best available climate science to be integrated into water management decisions, planning processes, and in developing realistic, effective climate adaptation measures. We also advocate for a rapid shift to renewable energy sources that are responsibly sited and utilize minimal water.
Allocating water to the environment will require strong public support and the political will to do the right thing amidst competing interests for diminishing supplies. In Arizona, there are currently no laws that afford water rights to rivers in order to maintain their environmental functions and societal values, and importantly, today’s state-level laws in Arizona fail to recognize and integrate the physical relationship between surface and groundwater.
Increasing water conservation measures is an important part of achieving sustainability, but if conserved water is only reserved for future human uses, it will not benefit birds, wildlife and important ecosystem functions. Tucson Audubon advocates for water management and projects that benefit birds and have “stacked” societal, economic and ecological benefits.
We must call on government representatives to renegotiate water laws, regulations and allocations so that sufficient water is maintained or returned to riparian and wetland areas, and so that our precious groundwater is sustainably managed. We believe there are creative innovations and win-win solutions that can make achieving these goals possible. We must act now so that we can pass on living rivers and vibrant economies to future generations.
Contact your city, state and federal representatives, and call on them to enact water policies that protect our precious groundwater and water-dependent habitats. Remind them of the major economic value wildlife watching has for Arizonans. Let them know how important your local stream, river, wetland or spring is to you, your family, your business and community.
- Regional Update Article
Letters / Positions
CWC Santa Cruz / BOR / effluent letter
WYBC Critical Habitat Letter
SWWF delisting letter
State Water Policies (link)
Cascabel Conservation Association