Integrated Watershed Planning for the Santa Cruz River

The Community Water Coalition (CWC), a coalition of local non-profit organizations, businesses, faith groups, and citizens, has initiated a collaborative process to generate an Integrated Watershed Plan for the lower Santa Cruz watershed. A generous donation of time and staff resources from Southwest Decision Resources, a local provider of facilitation and mediation services, has enabled the process to begin.

The goal of the process, as defined so far, is to collaborate with regional water management agencies and other stakeholders to develop a plan for the lower Santa Cruz that will ensure its long-term health and sustainability, while continuing to meet regional economic needs. The CWC believes that regional water security is critical to economic development, and envisions a flowing Santa Cruz as a major driver of growth and well being in the Tucson community. An Integrated Watershed Plan for the lower Santa Cruz would be an important step toward enhancing Tucson’s water security, economic development, and community health.

The Santa Cruz River once flowed perennially through Tucson. But today, the majority of surface flow in the Santa Cruz depends on treated effluent discharged from water treatment plants along the river. Until groundwater aquifer levels that support the river’s surface flow are restored to higher levels, the lower Santa Cruz will continue to be effluent-dominated. The CWC advocates for keeping as much effluent in the Santa Cruz as possible, because this water supports rare riparian habitat that is critical to the health of Sonoran Desert ecosystems. However, the organization also recognizes that groundwater aquifer restoration is essential to long-term, sustainable river restoration, and thus supports maximal recharge of groundwater aquifers.

The Community Water Coalition has published a policy platform statement regarding the sustainable use of effluent in the Tucson basin. The group’s recommendations for effluent recharge policy include:

  • Continued and increased cooperation among stakeholders to maintain flows in effluent-dominated portions of the Santa Cruz.
  • The implementation of water management solutions that serve multiple functions, meeting both economic and environmental needs.
  • The creation of a long-term storage credit system (currently governed by state law that incentivizes the removal of effluent from the channel) that recognizes the Santa Cruz’s value as both a riparian corridor and a cost-effective groundwater recharge facility.
  • The development of an integrated river restoration and management plan for the Santa Cruz River and its sub-watersheds.
  • The implementation of constructed in-channel recharge projects in the Santa Cruz River as a possible solution to the problem of economic and legal systems that incentivize removal of effluent from the river channel.
  • Linking conserved water to the restoration of natural ecosystems.
  • Broader and stronger local and state legal protections for riparian environmental water uses.


The CWC envisions southern Arizona as a model community for the sustainable use of water resources, understanding that the long-term health and prosperity of human populations depends on healthy watersheds and ecosystems. As Tucson residents who value our region’s natural resources, we strive to act as responsible stewards of those resources in order to ensure a high quality of life for current and future Tucsonans. With the needs of our community and future generations always in mind, CWC members are committed to enhancing, sustaining, and protecting riparian and other water-dependent ecosystems throughout the lower Santa Cruz watershed.

Organizational members of the Community Water Coalition include Sky Island Alliance, Watershed Management Group, Sonoran Institute, Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, Habitat for Humanity, Tucson Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Community Food Bank, Sierra Club, and Tucson Mountains Association. CWC also partners with local businesses, faith groups, individuals, and neighborhood associations to raise funds and awareness.