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In southern Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a race to save a tiny desert oasis

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Nestled in a thicket of mesquite and cottonwood trees, Quitobaquito Springs is an exception in a stretch of Sonoran Desert that’s infamously dry.  

It’s been flowing for more than 10,000 years. For millennia, it sustained communities of Hia C-eḍ Oʼodham, a tribe with ancestral land in Arizona and Sonora, and served as a homestead and thoroughfare for many others. 

Today, it’s part of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The human-made pond it drains into is about half the size of a football field; it’s been here since the 1800s. But Danny Martin, Organ Pipe’s wildlife program manager, says a clay lining installed in the pond in the 1960s is failing now. Water is slowly seeping out. 

“Our intent here is to try and preserve this little oasis ecosystem for as long as we can,” he says.

Making sure water stays here is vital. This pond is home to the Sonoyta mud turtle and the Quitobaquito pupfish, two desert creatures who live on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Their only wild U.S. habitat is here. Martin says relining the pond is their best chance of long-term survival. But they have to drain the water — temporarily — to do it.

That’s what brought more than two dozen people from government agencies and the Tohono O’odham Nation to the park this spring. They’re trying to get the turtles and pupfish out of the water so the relining project can get started. 

This is a big, delicate operation for two tiny animals. Pupfish grow to be roughly two inches long. Mud turtles are about the size of your palm. Volunteers are dragging a giant, weighted fishing net through the pond called a seine, trying to scoop the animals up from the sediment at the bottom of the murky water.

Monitors estimate only about 150 turtles and around 10,000 pupfish are here. Martin and his team are using traps, nets, and even hand-digging through the mud, trying to get them all out safely. 

Small refuge pools built on site house the turtles and fish temporarily. Workers carry bucketloads of the animals to the new pools and throw grass, logs and other natural materials in with them, so they can build new habitats while the relining work is completed. Meanwhile, a pump sucks water out of the pond and empties it into a natural wash nearby. Fresh spring water that normally feeds the pond through an old cement channel is also being diverted for now.

Martin says all of this is prepping the pond to have its old clay lining removed and replaced with a thick plastic one. Organ Pipe managers hope it will last longer. It’s a race to save the site from the effects of climate change.  

“With climate change, we’re getting hotter temperatures and more severe, frequent droughts,” Martin says.

They’re also making other adjustments, like deepening the pond to reduce evaporation and keeping the refuge pools in place, so the turtles and pupfish have more space.

This area has already gone through big changes. Around this time in 2020, construction workers were building the Trump administration’s 30-foot steel bollard border wall in Organ Pipe. Today, the finished wall, and the gleam of stadium lights installed with it, are visible from Quitobaquito.

During wall construction, Eleanor Ortega was coming to Organ Pipe to see the changes up close. She’s Hia C-eḍ Oʼodham and a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation nearby. Her family lived at Quitobaquito before it became part of Organ Pipe in the 1950s.

“And ... the bigger wildlife that got stuck on the other side of the wall, where are they getting their water now? Because this was their watering hole,” she says. “This wall did a lot of damage.”

Ortega came here with her grandpa as a kid. As an adult, she’s watched turtles pop out from the water’s surface at the sound of traditional O’odham singing during ceremonies. Seeing the new lining project today, she’s not sure what to make of it. 

“This is going to be the last time I see it (the pond) like this,” she says. “Next time it’s going to be different… They say it’s going to be a good thing…I hope it is.” 

Still, Ortega says she’s trying to trust the work. All told, the new lining project will cost around $475,000. Ortega’s cousin, Lorraine Marquez Eiler, helped raise about $100,000 for it through an organization she’s part of in nearby Ajo called the International Sonoran Desert Alliance. 

Eiler is a Hia C-eḍ Oʼodham elder and historian who, like Ortega, is a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation. As a teenager, she says she was told Hia C-ed O'odham didn't exist anymore. The tribe is related to the Tohono O'odham, but isn't recognized by the U.S. government. She’s spent most of her life challenging those fallacies, and protecting Hia C-eḍ Oʼodham sites like Quitobaquito. 

Now, at 86, she says she’s seen a lot of different changes here — some good, others, not so much.

“I’m here, here I am,” she says. “I don’t represent the tribe, I don’t represent anybody, except myself, my family and my descendants, and the area we used to live in.”

 She wants to make sure people like her are also part of the site’s future.

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Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.