Santa Cruz River


The River of the Holy Cross was named by Fr. Kino in the 1690s, using it as the primary avenue for expansion to the north.  It has also been called Rio de Santa Maria del Pilar, Rio de Santa Maria de Suamca, Rio de Tubac, and San Lucas.

The headwaters are in the San Rafael Valley, south of the town of Patagonia, east of the Harshaw Mountains.  The San Rafael Valley is an important wintering area for grassland birds and overwintering raptors such as ferruginous and red-tailed hawk, merlin, golden eagle, the occasional bald eagle from Parker Canyon Lake, and northern harriers.  Its pristine native grasslands support pronghorn year round. The length of the Santa Cruz is an important bird flyway and staging rest stop for migration.

For roughly 32 miles, it flows south into Mexico to San Lazaro and then turns back north, re-entering the United States 5 miles east of Nogales.  It continues north/northwest, passing Tubac, Tucson, and Casa Grande, finally joining the Gila River southwest of Phoenix.

The major tributaries begin in the San Rafael Valley at Bog Hole cienega, seeping springs above Vaca Ranch, Canelo Hills, the Huachuca and Patagonia Mountains. As it continues north, it receives drainage from the various mountain ranges from the Santa Ritas north to the Catalinas.  Except in flood, it has historically been a dry riverbed, with occasional cienegas and marshes from seeps.  However, its subterranean reservoir has been used faster than replenished.  The river is now mainly underground except along those areas supplied by treated effluent near Nogales and Tucson or during storm flooding.

Current threats are overuse of groundwater for urban areas, agriculture, overgrazing, ongoing drought, and severe erosion.  The dry riverbed is used as a dumping ground for trash.  How sad to see stretches of my favorite river littered with tires, refrigerators, bottles, plastic, and the debris of our material world.

The drop in water tables has led to the loss of native cottonwood, alders, and willows along its banks.  Early explorers described the river as crystal-clear and full of fish, turtles, beaver, and muskrat.  Early settlers also encountered black and grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions and bobcats.  In the 1930s, there was still a bosque of large cottonwoods, mesquite, and riparian areas near San Xavier Mission.

The cities and towns along the course of the Santa Cruz River continue their efforts at preservation and restoration of this unique and valuable resource.  The ranchers in the San Rafael Valley practice conservative grazing management which has resulted in a healthy grassland system.

I encourage you to become informed and actively involved in nurturing and maintaining the health of our Arizona rivers.

Interesting fact: Movies filmed in the San Rafael Valley include “Tom Horn,” “Monte Walsh,” and “Oklahoma.”  The Cameron Ranch headquarters in San Rafael Valley was used as the ranch house in “Oklahoma.”  Near the old border crossing at the town of Lochiel, in the southwest corner of the Valley, corn was painstakingly grown to simulate the Oklahoma landscape.  Every morning, residents of Lochiel and film crews tied wax peaches on barren trees for filming lush spring and summer scenes, taking them down again at nightfall.  More filming was done in the grasslands near Elgin.  The biggest benefit from Hollywood was the underground electricity and phone lines that the locals insisted be done prior to filming, rather than unsightly utility poles.  A far-thinking move that has kept the Valley with pristine grassland vistas.

Sources, quotes, and map :  Where Water Flows – The Rivers of Arizona, by Lawrence Clark Powell, and Changing Rivers:  How People Have Affected The Rivers – Water Resources Research Center, College of Agriculture, The University of Arizona, March 1997 plus internet searches including Wikipedia and Google Books.

Monthly Tip: During our holiday celebrations, take another moment to consider holiday waste.  Continue to plan meal menus with an eye to reducing leftovers and food waste.  Make an informed decision about your holiday tree:  Live, cut or artificial?  If live, make sure to plant it in the ground in a timely fashion.  If cut, please compost or take to a proper disposal/recycle/chipper center.  NEVER put the dead tree in trash for the landfill.  If artificial, look for materials as environmentally friendly as is possible.



2 Responses to Santa Cruz River

  1. Gail says:

    What a tremendously well-informed tribute to a precious water way. Thank you!

  2. Felicia says:

    Interesting information and well written. I am also impresses the the town of Elgin had the foresight to demand underground electric and phone lines. I have just one suggestion, could you please post a map of the areas discussed in the newsletter? Thank you for the information.

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