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Sabino, Tanque Verde, and Rillito Streamsheds

Priority Restoration Actions

  1. Extend water conservation incentives to groundwater users either through A) Tucson Water or B) Arizona state programming to reduce groundwater demand and increase long-term groundwater sustainability.
  2. Enhance recharge of urban enhanced runoff through implementing on-site water harvesting earthworks, green stormwater infrastructure features along streets or in parks, and arroyo and floodplain restoration strategies.
  3. Utilize Metro HUB and Tucson Water emergency interconnection to reduce Metro HUB’s groudnwater pumping during periods of drought to reduce stress on groundwater dependent riparian habitat along lower Sabino and Tanque Verde Creeks. 
  4. Explore utilization of reclaimed water for groundwater level restoration and recharge where reclaimed infrastructure coincides with the creeks and rivers of concern.  
  5. Stabilize a failing grade control structure protecting a Pima County Wastewater sewer crossing along lower Sabino Creek near Prince Rd.
  6. Support acquisition and enhancement of flood-prone and critical riparian habitat lands for river restoration purposes.
  7. Support U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Pima County along with other state and federal entities in upper watershed restoration planning and activities to ensure downstream water supplies through mountain front and channel recharge.

Fauna of Interest: Fish species: longfin dace, Gila chub, and Gila topminnow; Bird Species: southwestern willow flycatcher, yellow billed cuckoo, gray hawk, zone-tailed hawk and blackhawk; Herpetofauna: lowland leopard frog, Mexican gartersnake

Learn more about each streamshed:

Upper Tanque Verde Streamshed

A spring along the Upper Tanque Verde feeds La Cebadilla lakeRestoration Goal: A mix of seasonal and year-round river flow along the Upper Tanque Verde supported by restored groundwater maintained at or within 10 feet below channel bed surface. A functional floodplain supports a mesquite bosque with pockets of cottonwood-willow-ash riparian trees interspersed with sacaton grass along channel banks.
Current Status: Groundwater levels currently range from 8-23 ft (upstream to downstream) showing a slight recovery of 1-3 feet (Tucson Water 2017a,b) in recent years as the 49er Country Club switched from groundwater pumping to reclaimed use for irrigation. Flow is currently defined as ephemeral most years and intermittent in wetter years. 
Historical Interest: This section of the Tanque Verde most likely retains characteristics most similar to pre1890s than any other river section in the Tucson area with a thin ribbon of cottonwood and ash trees along a marshy, broad stream banked by large mesquites and surrounding grasslands. 
Cultural Interests: Douglas Spring Trailhead, Saguaro East National Park; Tanque Verde Falls, U.S. National Forest Coronado District 


Middle Tanque Verde & Agua Caliente Streamshed   

Restored vision of Tanque Verde Creek at confluence with Agua Caliente Creek

Restoration Goal: Seasonal river flow in both the Tanque Verde and Agua Caliente Creeks supported by restored groundwater maintained within 10-30 feet below channel bed surface. A functional floodplain supports a mesquite bosque with pockets of cottonwood-willow-ash riparian trees (and scattered sycamore trees along the Agua Caliente) interspersed with sacaton grass along channel banks. 
Current Status: Groundwater levels currently range from 54-142 ft and continue to decline by 4-20 ft per year due to continued pumping along and near to the river corridor and continued drought. Flow is currently defined as ephemeral (flows only due to storm events). 
Historical Interest: The Agua Caliente largely remains intact in natural conditions with few river channel modifications and a few ash, walnut, and mesquites remaining along its corridor. Little is stated about the Agua Caliente for the pre1890 period but it is assumed to be similar to Tanque Verde Creek as much of it overlies the same shallow groundwater area. The Middle Tanque Verde Creek is defined separate from the Upper Tanque Verde Creek due to a geologic fault near Wentworth Rd. Downstream from Wentworth Rd the alluvial aquifer deepens. Groundwater levels used to be near surface or at the surface seasonally to support creek flows and riparian forests. 
Cultural Interests: Agua Caliente Park; Agua Caliente Trailhead; Isabella Lee Nature Preserve


Lower Tanque Verde Streamshed

Restored vision of Rillito at confluence with Tanque Verde and Pantano Creeks

Restoration Goal: Seasonal river flow supported by restored groundwater maintained within 10-30 feet below channel bed surface. A functional floodplain supports a mesquite bosque with pockets of cottonwood and ash trees interspersed with sacaton grass along channel banks.
Current Status: Groundwater levels continue to decline by 2-23 ft per year due to continued pumping along and near to the river corridor and continued drought. Groundwater depths range from 14-45 ft and remain able to support pockets of riparian trees like Cottonwoods. Flow is currently defined as ephemeral (flows only due to storm events). 
Historical Interest: The lower Tanque Verde was historically called the Rillito River up through the confluence with Agua Caliente Creek. Now the Rillito namesake ends at the confluence with Pantano Creek. The lower Tanque Verde area supported Fort Lowell and adjacent agriculture with its water abundance for many decades. Irrigation ditches and underflow conveyance structures can still be found along the creek. Historic family photos and stories up through the mid 1950s indicate significant stands of cottonwood trees along the floodplain which now can only be seen as rotting corpses lying on the ground due to groundwater level declines. 
Cultural Interests: Ft. Lowell Park and historical area; The Chuck Huckleberry Loop; Ventana Canyon Trailhead, U.S. National Forest


Lower Sabino Streamshed

Restoration Goal: Restore a mix of seasonal and year-round creek flow along the lower groundwater supported length of Sabino creek from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) boundary and downstream.  Flows supported by groundwater restored and maintained within 10 feet of channel bed with a functional floodplain mix of riparian trees including cottonwood-sycamore-ash along channel banks and mesquite bosque on the flood terrace.
Current Status: Groundwater levels are fairly stable in the middle and upper reaches. The lower reach groundwater levels were increasing each year except for the last year due to the warm, dry winter which caused the 16-year trend to see a drop of 2-3 feet and current depth to groundwater around 11 feet. Flow is currently defined as intermittent to perennial for most of lower Sabino Creek.  Failing grade control structure along Sabino Creek preventing a headcut from downcutting up the channel.  
Historical Interest: Historically, surface flows partially diverted from Lower Sabino Creek via a network of ditches helped to sustain the historic Ft. Lowell established just downstream from the confluence with Tanque Verde Creek. The Lower Sabino streamshed area has been almost fully developed. Peak water use demands from the 1980s have declined steadily helping to increase the lower groundwater levels. However, continued erosion and degradation of tributaries to Sabino Creek and lower Sabino Creek floodplain itself continues. By decade the number of days with flow at the Sabino Dam (near USFS boundary) has increased since the 1930s. However, total annual streamflow volume has increased. This may be an indicator of a shifting forest structure and fires that results in more rainfall and snowmelt quickly leaving the upper watershed area. A restoration of the forest health may help to diminish downstream floods while metering streamflow over a longer period of time to help sustain riparian vegetation and recharge groundwater. Forest fires in 1996 and 2006 and major floods afterwards contributed significantly to ash-laden sediment loads moving through Sabino Creek and now through the Rillito channel. 
Specific Fauna of Interest: Sabino dancer  
Cultural interests: Sabino Canyon Visitor Area is the most visited natural area in southern Arizona and supports trail access and connection to the greater Santa Catalina mountain range. The lower section of the creek passes through predominately private land but includes a private natural park with perennial flow.


Upper Rillito Streamshed

Restored vision of the Rillito as seen from the Loop bridge near Mountain Ave Restoration Goal: Seasonal river flow supported by stable groundwater levels maintained within 10 to 30 feet below channel bed surface. A functional floodplain supports mesquite bosque with cottonwood stands.
Current Status: Groundwater levels continue to decline by 15-20 feet (Tucson Water 2017) per year due to continued pumping along and near to the river corridor and continued drought. Loss of cottonwood trees is evident along the river corridor in the last 10 years as a result of dropping groundwater levels. Flow is currently defined as ephemeral (flows only during and immediately after storm events). (updated February 2018)
Historical Interest: The Rillito river pre 1890s supported marshy wetlands along the river corridor with a broad, shallow channel lined with cottonwood, ash, and walnut trees and riparian mesquites extending beyond the floodplain with native grasses between (Pima County 2000). The historic Binghampton community and other farmers constructed a network of irrigation ditches that carried surface water from upstream Tanque Verde and Rillito creeks to neighboring fields. Groundwater levels based on 1908 seasonal depth to water level contour maps indicated a variation of 5-10ft below channel bed during warm, dry months (Little River 2004). In more recent history, the 1983 flood of record caused loss of property along bank sections of the Rillito resulting in the hardening of the banks as seen today. 
Specific Fauna of Interest: Mexican free-tail seasonal bat colony under Campbell Ave bridge; 
Cultural Interests:

  • Rillito River Loop as part of The Chuck Huckelberry Loop
  • UofA Campbell Ave Village Farm and Cooperative Extension resources and services
  • “Urban Assault” trails through foothills drainages
  • Campbell Ave Bridge hosts seasonal Mexican-free tail bats
  • Rio Vista Natural Park, Brandi Fenton Memorial Park, and George Mehl Foothills Park 
  • Trailhead at Finger Rock to Santa Catalina Mtns 
  • Significant portion of Mid-town Tucson including the Christmas Wash drainage outlets to the Rillito
  • Historic Rillito Race Track and Sunday Farmer's Market

Lower Rillito Streamshed

Restoration Goal: Seasonal river flow supported by restored groundwater maintained within 20 to 30 feet below channel bed surface. A functional floodplain supports a mesquite bosque.
Current Status: Groundwater levels continue to decline by 14-30 ft per year due to continued pumping along and near to the river corridor and continued drought. Currently, groundwater elevations range from 150-177 ft below the ground (Tucson Water 2017a,b). Flow is currently defined as ephemeral (flows only due to storm events). 
Historical Interest: The Rillito river pre 1890s supported marshy wetlands along the river corridor with a broad, shallow channel larger than the Santa Cruz River itself where the two rivers joined. Farmers constructed a network of irrigation ditches that carried surface water from upstream to neighboring fields. Groundwater levels based on 1908 seasonal depth to water level contour maps indicated a variation of 5-15 feet below channel bed during warm, dry months. In more recent history, the 1983 flood of record caused loss of property along bank sections of the Rillito resulting in the hardening of the banks as seen today. 
Cultural Interests: Rillito River Loop as part of The Chuck Huckelberry Loop; Multiple prehistoric villages in area

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