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Arizona's Santa Cruz River named 4th-most endangered river in America

The daily life of an American involves a heavy amount of water. In fact, the average American uses over 82 gallons of water a day. Yet, what is often forgotten is where the water comes from and how easily that water source can be depleted.

America is filled with rivers, over 250,000 in fact. Those 250,000 rivers provide 60% of all clean water used by Americans yearly. Safe to say, the continuous flow of rivers in the U.S. is an essential function for everyday life.

As a result, many groups and organizations commit themselves to the health of the rivers, one of those being American Rivers, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.

Last week, American Rivers released their annual 10 most endangered rivers list, with one river in Arizona making the top five.

The Santa Cruz River starts in southern Arizona in the San Rafael Valley, makes a U-turn through Mexico and past Nogales and right through Tucson, eventually flowing up to the town of Marana, where the river then connects to the Gila River. The river provides essential clean drinking water for southern Arizona.

The river was almost completely dry by the 1970s, with poor quality wastewater effluent being the only source of water flowing through the river. Since then, with the help of technological advancements, the river has recovered, with plant and animal life making a comeback.

So with the river recovering within the last two decades, and a resurgence of life and clean water in the river, why is it placed fourth on the endangered rivers list?

Dr. Luke Cole, who works as the Director of the Santa Cruz River Program, spoke about the dangers the Santa Cruz River is facing.

“By the nature of time, 15 years of a recovering river system is practically no time at all. So what we have here is a newborn river system and it needs to be cared for,” said Cole. “Threats to the river through the rollbacks of the Clean Water Act, of climate change and overall water scarcity, given that the Santa Cruz River flows through affluent – through water that people use, goes down the drain, gets treated, and then becomes the flowing Santa Cruz River – all of those combined threats threaten the very nature of the Santa Cruz River.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act allows the agency to properly regulate waterways in the U.S.

“(The act) establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters.”

In a decision last year, the Supreme Court narrowed the reach of the Clean Water Act, which gives the Environmental Protection Agency less regulation over wetlands and waterways. The repeal could have detrimental effects on America's wetlands and waterways, though it may take years before the full effects are shown.

Cole believes the best way to protect the river is still through Federal Government protection, by using the power of the US. .Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The main call to action that is coming out of the most endangered rivers report, and through work that the Sonoran Institute and our many partners are doing, is to encourage the Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service to establish an Urban national wildlife refuge for the entirety of the Santa Cruz River Valley,” said Cole. “What that would do is, at a minimum, recognize the ecological and urban importance of the Santa Cruz River, and once established it would become a point of pride for this community given all the improvements that have happened here over the last 15 years. So protections through the Federal Government recognizing the Santa Cruz River will bring additional resources, attention, and research into the river, which is a lot of what the Sonoran Institute and our partners do.”

Arizonans will have to sit and wait as advocacy groups and research teams fight for protections for the Santa Cruz River. For now, the hope is that the river is treated with care from the government and community, as it continues to flow through its early stages of rebirth and growth.

Spencer West was an intern for KJZZ in 2024.