Water in the American West: Santa Cruz River

The Santa Cruz River is a unique body of water in the social landscape of the American West. From its headwaters in the San Rafael Valley of southern Arizona it flows south into Sonora, Mexico near the community of Santa Cruz before returning north, passing the Arizona communities of Nogales, Tubac, and Tucson. The river’s ultimate destination is the Green Valley Reservoir south of Casa Grande, Arizona.

The Santa Cruz River, for the most part, is a dry riverbed. Rapid population growth in the late 1800's coupled with poor resource management wiped out the source at the river's headwater. Anyone who would happen-upon the river downstream from Tucson would have no idea this water way should be dry. Downstream from Tucson the river is flowing, and surrounded by a thriving riparian habitat. The water and it’s accompanying foliage provides an oasis for all manner of wildlife. Upstream from Tucson the river is dry; a channel carved by a now extinct force, reshaped and maintained by the modicum of rain seen in the American Southwest.

The Tucson water treatment facility recharges the Santa Cruz River with treated wastewater. After flowing through the natural filter that is the Sweet Water Wetlands, the water that cannot be used in the Reclaimed water system is released to the riverbed.

This river is an example of the future of water management in American West. With an ever-growing population and draught that has lasted more than 20 years, water sources in the American west are depleting. Through its use of wastewater, the Santa Cruz River is the first step toward more responsible water management in the American West.

These photographs are an exploration of that river, and the source from which it flows.