Ten Years of Research to Improve the Health of the Santa Cruz River

Celebrating increased collaboration

Yes, the Santa Cruz River has changed since people first entered the region over 12,000 years ago, but the river is certainly not lost. The Santa Cruz is a Living River that needs to be monitored, studied, and valued. Our collective efforts to better understand and manage our river benefits wildlife, our regional economy, and all the communities that the Santa Cruz threads together.

Last October marked the 10th anniversary of the annual Santa Cruz River Research Days. Launched in 2009 as a venue for learning, this event aims to identify new research questions, promote networking and collaboration, and foster awareness of the many ways to protect the river.

As the lead organizer of this event, I am proud to have helped create a successful event that brings dedicated people together to share results—attendees represent diverse institutions and disciplines. This event has grown from humble beginnings as a small, single day looking at research conducted within a small stretch of the river near Tumacácori National Historical Park, to a two-day event focused on research and conservation efforts that unite the entire river.

“Having recently relocated to Tucson, this event was very helpful to learn about the research and conservation efforts that are underway to protect the rich natural and cultural resources of the Santa Cruz River.”—Luke Cole, Sonoran Institute’s Associate Director of Resilient Communities and Watersheds

As an ecologist who collects and examines information about the river’s health, data is an inherent love of mine. So of course, I had to compile the “data” for this annual event. Since 2009 we’ve amassed an impressive tally of different metrics: 170 oral presentations; 56 poster presentations; 8 special symposia, synthesis sessions or panel discussions; 4 field trips; and over 400 unique attendees from more than a hundred different affiliations. Everyone from the interested individual, community organization, and all levels of local, state, and federal government agencies are welcome. But, the number of new collaborations that have resulted from this annual event is perhaps the most important metric of success.

Here at Sonoran Institute, we believe that collaboration is the essential ingredient to long-term conservation success. As such, we use our event evaluation survey to track the number of collaborations that get their start at Research Days. In 2012, Laura Norman at U.S. Geological Survey, Ron Pulliam and others with Borderlands Restoration Network linked up. Ron gave a presentation at the 2012 event and Laura realized they were both studying the use of check-dams, or gabions, for different reasons. Laura was using gabions for flood-control in Nogales, Sonora, while Ron was using gabions to restore marsh vegetation along another desert river in the border region. They ended up publishing a paper together and have since embarked on several other projects with one another in the border region, including Sonoita Creek, a tributary of the Santa Cruz River. This is the kind of collaboration and coordination of efforts we seek to catalyze.

“This friendly event is a great way for students to network with local professionals. The connections I made as a student presenting at Research Days ultimately led to an internship that has evolved into my current position.”—Amanda Smith, Program Associate at Sonoran Institute

I have personally benefited from this event as well. Sonoran Institute’s Living River reports expanded to include the river near Tucson because of Research Days. At the 2011 event, I gave a presentation about our work to track Santa Cruz River health in Santa Cruz County with this annual report. I was talking to several Pima County staff when I was asked this very simple question, “Why isn’t Sonoran Institute working on the river in Pima County?” Knowing that two regional reclamation facilities were being upgraded to improve the quality of water released into the river, Pima County wanted to work with us to apply the Living River report model to the river from northwest Tucson to Marana. What started out as a casual conversation at our annual event has grown into 6-years of collaboration!

Since 2013, the Research Days Steering Committee has fostered discussions around many themes ranging from how to integrate science with river management to history and restoration efforts along the river. This year, we celebrated the last ten years of research by looking to the future. Through surveys, discussions, and panel discussions, attendees and participants identified priority research topics and questions for the next five years. Sonoran Institute will summarize these in a collaborative research agenda that will be released in early 2019.

Until then, cheers to the river and to another ten years of coordination and collaboration!

Blog Post By: Claire Zugmeyer, Ecologist