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Santa Cruz River bounces back

Governments cooperate to make river flow again
Posted at 7:13 PM, Mar 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-10 21:15:02-05

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — We often see Tucson’s rivers as dry washes, but years of work has the Santa Cruz River flowing again.

On the upper part of the Santa Cruz, north of Tucson’s downtown, there’s something you rarely see outside of monsoon: Running water moving up all the way toward Marana.

It’s the result of a lot of cooperation among various agencies.

Luke Cole of the Sonoran Institute has been involved in a coordinated effort that includes Pima County Flood Control, the City of Tucson and Marana.

“The Santa Cruz River prior to its upgrades in, let's say 2012, was a smelly river. It was slimy. It did not support a whole lot of wildlife and people didn’t come to the river because it didn’t offer a whole lot,” says Cole.

Now clean water flowing in parts of the Santa Cruz is routine. Pima County is pouring treated wastewater into the riverbed, where it can support wildlife and filter underground to replenish the aquifers.

The City of Tucson has added treated wastewater to the Santa Cruz near downtown.

Cole says, “People should care about the Santa Cruz River because it is what makes Tucson, Tucson.”

He says reaching far back in history, what’s a small stream now, once had the power to make Tucson possible. Regular floods from the river led to fertile fields that supported communities in the desert thousands of years ago.

Now modern governments along the river—Pima County, Tucson, Marana—have been pulling together to restore water, clean the channel, and add recreation attractions, including stretches of the bike and pedestrian loop along its banks.

Pima County Flood Control has been the lead agency in improving the Santa Cruz, controlling trash, making the river more attractive for wildlife and people, and enhancing flood protection.

Joe Cuffari of Pima Flood Control says that includes “bringing the banks up higher in certain areas and a variety of issues including parks recreation, wildlife corridors, installation of safety features.”

Cole says Pima County voters helped power the recovery by approving a bond issue that helped cover the cost but there’s still more work to be done on a historic river that runs from Mexico into the heart of Arizona.

Craig Smith is a reporter for KGUN 9. With more than 40 years of reporting in cities like Tampa, Houston and Austin, Craig has covered more than 40 Space Shuttle launches and covered historic hurricanes like Katrina, Ivan, Andrew and Hugo. Share your story ideas and important issues with Craig by emailing or by connecting on Facebook and Twitter.