15 Years: Protecting Sonoita Creek watershed through education, research, and restoration

Healthy Water Education Program, Santa Cruz County 4th Grade classes 2005 – 2009

FOSC developed curriculum in collaboration with the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area Ranger staff that included basic water testing techniques, how water quality and pollution impact plant and animal life in the watershed, the importance of riparian areas and the need for protection. Fourth grade students from every school in Santa Cruz County were bused to Patagonia Lake where they took a boat discovery tour, a guided ranger walk, learned water sampling, and the use of microscopes. In addition to collaborating in writing the curriculum, FOSC worked with county schools and provided 7-8 volunteers for each visiting class for ten days per year. The program ended with the economic recession of 2008 – 2009 when Arizona State Parks eliminated all SCSNA Rangers.

Watershed Education Booth

Our volunteers regularly staff an educational booth at county and town festivals and fairs to teach about watersheds, groundwater and surface water flow and the protection of the watershed.

Hikes, Bird Walks & Field Trips

• Members lead weekly bird walks at Patagonia Lake State Park
• Moonlight Hikes and nature walks at Patagonia State Natural Area
• Field trips to Deep Dirt Farm & Austin Ranch in Mexico demonstrate water retention restoration techniques

Support for other educational projects within the watershed

• Project WET (Water Education for Teachers), local science teachers in summer school
• Water Matters More; a documentary on local water issues and mining
• Benches for wildlife viewing at the State Park, The Nature Conservancy and Wildlife Corridors
• Hummingbird Network Research
• Booklet: Native Plants for Pollinators, Audubon Research Ranch
• Wildlife Motion Sensitive Camera: loaned to State Parks, Sky Island & Borderlands

Science-Based Research

Water Committee Report 2006

In 2006 FOSC’s president, Ron Hummel called a meeting of stakeholders. They outlined the potential reduction or disappearance of the above ground flow of Sonoita Creek which supports the extraordinary biodiversity of the area. This preliminary report addressed the watershed, stream flow, water uses and rights and water budget. It concluded that there is much uncertainty about the future of surface water flows in Sonoita Creek. It notes that there has been very little investigation of the hydrology below the dam. Previous studies focused on the Town of Patagonia and the Nature Conservancy sections of Sonoita Creek.

Well Monitoring, 2016 – 17

FOSC supported a program of Borderland’s Restoration Network to monitor the depth of private wells within the watershed and educate residents about groundwater flow and conservation.

Rapid Stream Riparian Assessment (RSRA), 2014 – 2019

The Friends of Sonoita Creek (FOSC) brought Dr. Pete Stacey of the University of New Mexico on three visits to train volunteers in th methodology of riparian stream assessment. Seven assessments have been done on six portions of Sonoita Creek extending from the Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Reserve through Patagonia Lake State Park and extending through State Trust Land into the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area.

Portions of the creek adding up to approximately six kilometers have been assessed, some on several occasions. Nineteen people have been trained, ten assessments completed at six locations.

The RSRA method looks at the health of the total riparian environment, not just the quality of the water. Management of the watershed as a whole greatly affects the results of these surveys. Our ideal would be to get enough committed people trained in the RSRA method that teams of five to seven could do assessments of the same portions of the creek over time at the same time of year to see how the riparian environment has been and is being affected by changes in the watershed. By learning about the creek in this more intensive and intimate way people with no scientific background come to care more deeply about the health of the creek and work toward protection and restoration of the natural environment.

Restoration Projects

Demonstration Garden & Signage—Patagonia Lake State Park Visitor Center 2010 – 15

FOSC volunteers cleaned and maintained this native plant garden when state parks staffing was reduced from 2009-2014. In collaboration with AZ State Parks, permanent signage was designed and installed, with gravel mulch and a new bench.

Trail Building and Maintenance 2013 – 19 Total volunteer hours: 2,420

From October 2013 thru December 2018 members of FOSC and other volunteers built over three miles of new trail and restored and maintained more than 30 miles of existing trail from the fall of 2013 thru the spring of 2015 working primarily in the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area (SCSNA) and Patagonia Lake State Park (PLSP). In 2015 the group adopted the name Dirt Bags while building a trail connecting the Paton Hummingbird Center to the Patagonia Sonoita Creek Nature Conservancy Preserve. Support from the Tucson Audubon Society increased volunteers. In 2016 and 2017, two connecting trails in Smith Canyon were built for Wildlife Corridors. In 2018 we returned to the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area for more repair and maintenance of the most used trails.

Cottonwood Planting—the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve TNC 2016

Cottonwood trees were the dominant upper canopy tree species along Sonoita Creek but are now dying off. Due primarily to mammal browsing and monsoon flooding, no seedlings or saplings are surviving. FOSC began a collaboration with TNC in 2016 to plant dormant cuttings. We hope to fence and protect saplings in the SCSNA area and to continue restoration in the watershed that would retain this important tree species.

Fence Survey—Sonoita Creek State Natural Area (SCSNA) & Arizona Game & Fish Department (AGFD) 2016 – 2017

A survey was undertaken to determine repairs needed in the combined Sonoita Creek State Natural Area & Coal Mine Springs area (approx. 10,000 acres). Cattle continue to enter the area and cause serious erosion of the creek bed. Stakeholders meetings included local ranchers, State Parks Rangers, Arizona Game & Fish Department staff and a Tucson Audubon representative. Volunteers from FOSC surveyed in rough terrain on four days for a total of 222 hours. The fence has yet to be repaired.

The spring pools at Coal Mine Spring that are home to endangered Gila topminnow were ultimately enclosed with pipe fencing by AGFD, since the larger fence repair project has not been funded.

Both the Tucson Audubon Society and Arizona State Parks would like to secure funding to build fencing in the Patagonia Lake State Park Important Birding Area, upstream from the lake. Many birders visit each year, but the area is often overrun with cattle. Surrounding land is owned by Arizona State Trust Lands and is leased to cattle ranchers for browsing. Trespassing cattle are causing significant erosion and damage to this unique riparian habitat.

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