The Cienega Watershed is considered a shallow groundwater dependent ecosystem, with water levels in the streambed ranging from depths of 4 to 51 feet below land surface, accessible to roots of riparian trees such as cottonwood, willow, ash and mesquite.
Ciénega Creek is noted for a high level of restored biodiversity and presence of high quality perennial streamflow, increasingly rare in the southwest. In the last 100 years, most of Arizona’s low elevation riparian habitats have been extinguished or compromised by human activity coupled by drought and climate change. The riparian environment of Ciénega is reminiscent of that which existed in the Tucson area before 1900.
The Cienega Watershed Partnership (CWP) and the landscape it represents face the potential for rapid change in both the natural and human systems that will affect the composition and effective functioning of the entire ecosystem. We face challenges that are often inter-related and require collaborative efforts. At the same time, opportunities for collaboration have never been better as many citizens and groups share this common vision and want to move forward in sustaining this critical area.
CWP is committed to providing the necessary resources, including technical expertise, financial support, staff and volunteers to accomplish the specific work of the Sonoita Valley Planning Partnership (SVPP) and Cienega Corridor Conservation Council (CCCC).
Growth in human population and extractive land uses are affecting both wildlife corridors along water courses and beneficial fire regimes for native habitats. The Ciénega Creek supports outstanding examples of cottonwood-willow gallery forest and mesquite bosque. These are home to bird species that have become rare through loss of riparian habitats, including the Southwestern willow flycatcher, Yellow-billed cuckoo, Bell’s vireo, and a great diversity of others. Important lowland populations of riparian and xeroriparian amphibians and reptiles are also known to inhabit the site. Included in this group are several toads, the checkered garter snake, the Madrean alligator lizard, and the giant spotted whiptail lizard. The Mexican garter snake, which has declined throughout its range in the United States, retains a strong population in Ciénega Creek. In the grassland uplands above the creek, wildlife corridors allow a diversity of species to safely move between protected areas and between the Sky Island mountain ranges. Healthy populations of large mammals such as pronghorn antelope, mountain lion, black bear, and Mexican jaguar cannot exist without these wildlife corridors.
What we do: CWP actively represents the corridor issue and wildlife needs through Board member participation in conservation organizations, by taking stands on proposed legislation, and by providing resources, grant support, and coordination of projects that positively impact these issues.
Water Quantity & Quality
Ciénega Creek contributes significantly to the aquifer under Tucson. The surface water flows north then west into the Pantano water course in Vail, which then joins the Rillito, and then merges with the Santa Cruz River in northern Tucson. Under Arizona’s surface water quality standards, Ciénega Creek and Davidson Canyon, as Outstanding Waters, are afforded the highest level of water quality protection. It is increasingly evident that there is not sufficient water to support current patterns of development and extractive land use without detrimental impact to the local ecology. That issue is exaggerated by water laws that do not recognize the relationship between surface and subsurface flows. The problem is made worse by zoning and land use laws that allow occupancies without clear evidence of adequate supplies of water outside of ADWR Active Management Areas.
What we do: CWP hosts the SVPP and CCCC forum meetings which ensures current information is available to participants and agencies on issues such as drought, erosion, water conservation, and monitoring. CWP supports projects by other organizations and provides links between partners such Pima County, land managers, the University of Arizona, and local residents. The annual “Wet/Dry” monitoring along the Upper and Lower Ciénega Creek is an example of such efforts.
Biodiversity & Invasive Species
The region is rich in biodiversity, but there is a proliferation of non-native and invasive species, resulting in a trend towards loss of diversity and thus loss of adaptability and resilience. We aim for continued successful preservation of the watersheds diversity. Ciénega Creek is one of the few remaining streams in southern Arizona that has not been invaded by non-native fish. It supports the largest natural population of the federally endangered Gila topminnow in the United States, as well as a longfin dace. The threatened leopard frog and the Sonoran mud turtle inhabit the stream throughout, rounding a full complement of aquatic, native vertebrate species originally inhabiting the ciénegas of southern Arizona.
What we do: The CWP has been and continues to be actively engaged in the management of invasive species such as buffelgrass, lovegrass, and bullfrogs. By ridding the valley of these threats and enhancing existing habitat, we hope to recover populations of threatened native fish and leopard frogs. For examples, see the FROG Conservation Partnership and Lehmann’s Lovegrass projects.
Citizen Engagement & Education
As we become more urban and our social fabric is connected through technologies, it is a challenge to engage people in the outdoors and encourage understanding, appreciation, and a commitment to live in ways that contribute to a sustainable environment. Encouraging youth to recognize the need for the Cienega Watershed’s ecosystem services and it’s recreational and health benefits is part of this ongoing challenge.
What we do: CWP meets this challenge through workshops, outreach, and education programs such as “YES! – Youth Engaged Stewardship”. For other examples see the Watershed Restoration Workshops and the educational materials developed for the FROG Conservation Project.
Recent studies have indicated that the Sky Island border region is particularly susceptible to global climate change and will likely show dramatic effects.
What we do: Through its Board members, partners, and Advisory Council, the CWP represents this complex issue in regional contexts, such as workshops and forums. Working with experts on climate change, CWP hosts workshops scenario planning. With the possible impacts of climate change in mind, CWP also provides input on critical proposed legislation, federal and local regulations, and thoroughly comments on land use plans (e.g., Coronado National Forest plan, AZ Dept of Transportation plan). On the ground, CWP identifies data gaps and local expertise to fill monitoring needs.
Growth in human population is increasing both recreational and consumptive uses and exaggerating their impacts. While many recreational uses of the Cienega Watershed are encouraged, other uses are incompatible with ecosystem sustainability. For example, off-road vehicles are restricted in many areas yet are one of the primary impacts on the riparian ecosystem.
What we do: CWP (through the SVPP forum) works closely with the BLM on the management of the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area as well as with other land management agencies. CWP actively comments, participates and advocates best practices so that recreational impacts and opportunities are identified in proposed projects and considered through the adaptive management processes such as the LCNCA biological reviews.
Cultural & Historical Resources
This landscape holds thousands of prehistoric and historic sites that mark 11,000 years of human history, including the ranching legacy seen today. Preserving this rich cultural heritage helps us understand the interrelationship of humans, society and the environment.
What we do: CWP (through the CCCC forum) facilitates workshops for those entities involved in managing, preserving, and interpreting these resources. CWP has organized Rancher Potlucks to ensure ongoing connection of this community and obtained grants to support cultural preservation through the Oral History project.
Changes in the economy and changes in local, regional, state, and federal government directly affects the ability to protect and steward the region.
What we do: CWP actively advocates for long-term sustainability through participating in land use planning in appropriate jurisdictions. Accurate information is often critical for effective advocacy. CWP contributes through projects which aim to establish baseline resource profiles and gather information about policy gaps that hinder effective land management.
Urbanization & Development
Urbanization, including transportation and infrastructure, is displacing and fragmenting habitat and wildlife corridors. Continued land acquisition by Pima County further protects riparian habitat as well as protects significant upland habitat adjacent to the creek. Nonetheless, the development pressures on open land require careful assement of all ramifications, including impacts on long-term sustanability of human communities.
What we do: CWP members engage to ensure planning activities consider sensitive resources. Members participate in meetings, inform other citizens at SVPP and CCCC forum meetings, identify issues for analysis to proponents, provide in-depth comments on proposed projects and land use plans (e.g., AZ Dept of Transportation plan), and aid in identifying mitigation strategies such as avoidance, setting aside habitats, or restoration.
Extractive Land Use
Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon are downstream from various mining interests, including the potential Rosemont Copper Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains and other limestone and gravel mineral leases along the creek.
What we do: CWP provides input on critical proposed legislation, federal and local regulations, and thoroughly comments on land use plans (e.g., Coronado National Forest plan, The Aquifer Protection Permit of ADEQ, The Army Core of Engineers 404 Process, AZ Dept of Transportation plan).
Ranching, using sustainable practices, is an important and traditional livelihood that can also help conserve the region by maintaining open land.
What we do: CWP supports the CCCC forum as the sponsors of Rancher Potlucks to encourage a sense of community among the ranching families, the scientists, and the land managers who work in the area. Also, SVPP forum members participate in the Las Cienegas NCA biological planning sessions which seek to balance current ranching needs with ecological sustainability.
This multi-cultural, bi-national environment is affected by security, economic, and social issues that may stress the underlying natural systems and the quality of ecological services.
What we do: CWP Board members participate in border forums and organizations to ensure that the watershed’s issues are identified are part of the larger transborder context. Current participation focuses on mitigation for border security projects and support for migratory bird habitats and wildlife corridors.