Explore the Santa Cruz River

As desert dwellers, we have a special place in our hearts for water. We know there is nothing quite like a glass of cold water on a hot Tucson day, the sound of children splashing in a stream, or the smell of creosote after a sudden monsoon storm. And we recognize that our communities and wildlife depend on water for life and livelihood.

In Pima County, the Santa Cruz River has been an important resource for thousands of years. It has been through many ups and downs as humans have used its waters and altered its course. After drying the river out and changing it dramatically, we are beginning to put water back and restore parts of it to a lusher, more natural state.

Explore the materials below to learn about the amazing story of your local river! Then, create a piece of art of poetry celebrating water in the desert and enter it in the Living River of Words: Youth Poetry and Art Contest.

Did you know that a major river runs right through Tucson? It does! In fact, the Santa Cruz River starts in the San Rafael Valley, flows south into Mexico, makes a U-turn, and then flows north past Green Valley, through the Tohono O’odham Nation, through the city of Tucson, and up past Marana.

Look at the map of the Santa Cruz River and trace its path with your finger. Why do you think that parts of the river are a dotted line, and parts are a thicker, solid blue line?

Santa Cruz River Watershed Map
Flowing Santa Cruz River Early 1900s

From Living River...

For many years, the Santa Cruz River has been the lifeblood of our region, attracting the first humans to the Tucson area more than 12,000 years ago. Just like us, early peoples needed water to drink, grow food and other crops, and build communities. They also benefited from the plants and animals that lived in and along the river. Scientists use the word riparian to describe the area near a river or stream and the wildlife that lives there. 

Dry Santa Cruz River Bed 1997To Ghost River...
Water used to flow in most of the Santa Cruz River all year. As more people came to live in Tucson, we began to take more water from the river and even pump the groundwater from beneath the surface, causing the river to go dry. Today, many parts of the river flow only when it rains, and many of the plants and animals that used to live in and around the river have disappeared.

What are some of the ways you and your family use water? Do you know where the water from your faucet starts out? Or where what happens to it once it goes down the drain?
Effluent Release into Santa Cruz River

Water Brings Life...

In recent years, some parts of the Santa Cruz have started coming back to life as we put water back into the riverbed. After we use water in our homes, schools and businesses, it goes down our drains and travels to a wastewater treatment plant to be cleaned. That treated water – called effluent – is not quite clean enough to drink but is clean enough to release into the river. 

Flowing Santa Cruz River MaranaEvery day, effluent is released from Pima County’s Agua Nueva and Tres Rio treatment plants into the stretch of the Santa Cruz River that flows through northwest Tucson and Marana. For more than 20 miles, the river flows year-round, and the area is alive with lush trees, fish, birds and other wildlife that needs water to survive. In 2017, the Gila Topminnow, a tiny native fish that had been missing from the river for years, was found in the area. (Further south, the fish had been found near the Nogales International Treatment Plant, which is also releasing effluent into the riverbed.) In 2019, we celebrated the first release of water into the riverbed near downtown Tucson as part of the Santa Cruz River Heritage Project.

You can visit some of these areas with water along the Santa Cruz River.
Roseate Skimmer DragonflyThrough the Living River Project, scientists with Pima County and the Sonoran Institute have been studying the parts of the river that are flowing again to understand things like:
  • How clean, clear, and healthy is the water?
  • How far does the water flow, and is it soaking into the ground?
  • How many and what kinds of fish are in the water?
  • How many and what kinds of aquatic insects are in the water?
Each year, they produce a new Living River Report about the health of the Santa Cruz River in Northwest Tucson and Marana. The most recent report, the more detailed data for the year, and all the previous years' reports are available on the Sonoran Institute’s website.

Do you think we are likely to find more or less wildlife in a healthy river?
2020 LROW Finalist Parker Serrato As the river comes back to life, people are also drawn to enjoy the beautiful scenery, wildlife, and peaceful environment. Sitting on the river bank, riding a bike along The Loop path next to the river, or even just seeing pictures of the living river can be inspiring – especially for people who live in the desert!

If water in the Sonoran Desert inspires you, please think about entering the Living River of Words: Youth Poetry and Art Contest.  


Download the 2022-23 Entry Form and Rules:
Brochure with Entry Form (English)Folleto con la Planilla de Entrada (español) 

Need more inspiration? Browse the finalists and grand prize winners from the 2021-2022 contest.

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Tucson, AZ 85741

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