JUST ADD WATER: Life returning to Santa Cruz River

Tucson Water project recreates wildlife habitat in Old Pueblo

JUST ADD WATER: Bringing new life back to the Old Pueblo

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - When the Santa Cruz River used to flow year round, it was truly an oasis in the desert.

It was a vital life line, providing water for people and animals living along its banks for thousands of years.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, as the population increased over time, the water table dropped causing the Santa Cruz River to dry up and basically die.

But now, a small section is coming back to life.

This small frog was spotted along the Santa Cruz River.
This small frog was spotted along the Santa Cruz River. (Source: Paul Durrant)

Michael Bogan is an aquatics biologist and assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. He’s studying a 2 1/2-mile section of the Santa Cruz River in downtown Tucson.

“First of all, it makes me really happy to see this," he said. "Our desert is so water limited that essentially just add water and it will grow.”

On July 24, Tucson Water began pumping effluent water into the normally dry river bed as part of the Santa Cruz River Heritage Project.

Bogan was there when the water started flowing.

A project by Tucson Water is bringing life back to the Old Pueblo and the Santa Cruz River.
A project by Tucson Water is bringing life back to the Old Pueblo and the Santa Cruz River. (Source: KOLD News 13)

“This is basically illustrating a way that we can recreate habitats that we destroyed through human activity," Bogan said. “We lost the original Santa Cruz River because of ground water pumping and development. Here’s an opportunity to, in a novel way, put water back in the river, give an ecosystem back to the river and allow species to come back.”

When the Santa Cruz River dried up more than a century ago, it was a huge blow to the biodiversity and changed the face of the landscape.

“If you were here 110 years ago, you would have seen a flowing river," Bogan said. “You would have seen cottonwood trees, willow trees. And you would have seen a lot of cool native species, chub, a native desert fish species, leopard frogs. We even had floater mussels, so fresh water mussels living here in the Santa Cruz River. All these species disappeared when the river dried up after about 1915 or 1920, so this is giving them a chance to come back.”

This coyote was checking out the other wildlife popping up around the one dry Santa Cruz River.
This coyote was checking out the other wildlife popping up around the one dry Santa Cruz River. (Source: Paul Durrant)

As fragile as nature can be, it's also incredibly resilient.

One can already see the lush vegetation soaking up the water, fostering native plants, wildlife and providing new recreational and economic opportunities -- especially to the billion-dollar industry of bird watching in Arizona.

That’s exciting news for Jonathan Lutz, the executive director of the Tucson Audobon Society.

“What we heard at this year’s birding festival, which occurred last month, was that people loved that we’re birding in Tucson,” Lutz said. "Of course, we take people to sites all over south eastern Arizona. But the opportunity to quote ‘bird downtown,’ people are recognizing that and this project is just going to further enhance it and make it a lot more fun to bird in Tucson.”

An abundance of wildlife has already returned in the short 2 1/2 months since the water has been flowing again.

Bogan said he’s surprised and excited about the number of species he’s already recorded.

This dragonfly was at home on the banks of the Santa Cruz River.
This dragonfly was at home on the banks of the Santa Cruz River. (Source: Paul Durrant)

“That black one is a 12 spotted skimmer because it has three black spots on each wing so a total of 12 on the four wings," he said while pointing out a dragonfly. "That bright orange one there is a flame skimmer.”

He’s personally documented 27 different species of native dragonflies and three different species of native toads.

There’s even more when you go below the surface of the water like dragonfly larvae.

“You can’t see it, but there’s microscopic teeth in there that are really sharp and they just grab on to it (prey) and hold on to it," he said. "That’s essentially his lips so it brings the prey close and his crunchy part are hidden underneath that.”

Despite all the excitement this new life is bringing, there is concern some will use it as a place to release unwanted pets.

The Santa Cruz River is having a rebirth.
The Santa Cruz River is having a rebirth. (Source: Paul Durrant)

Bogan said that’s the worst thing you could do.

“It looks like a wonderful place for a turtle or fish, but when they bring them here they accidentally bring in, not only a new predator that maybe the native species aren’t used to, but they can bring in diseases that can harm a lot of other species,” Bogan said.

It’s a reminder to let Mother Nature bring life back to the Old Pueblo, on her terms.

The Tucson Audobon Society has a number of ways for you to get involved when it comes to the bird population along the Santa Cruz River as a so-called citizen scientist. You can find that information by going HERE.

Michael Bogan is also sharing the pictures of the different species he’s documenting and is always sharing those on his Instagram and Twitter accounts.

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