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Water Resources

  1. CAP recharge and groundwater mixing studies
  2. Well analyses in shallow groundwater areas
  3. Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD) Report and Map
  4. Regional Water Assessment
  5. Cienega Creek Projects
  6. Ciengea Creek Hydrologic Research and Findings
  7. Davidson Canyon

Groundwater recharge studies

Since 1997, PAG has evaluated stable isotope data for water withdrawn from the City of Tucson’s storage and recovery projects located in Avra Valley. The Pima Mine Road Recharge Project was added to the program in 2009.  These facilities are used to recharge Central Arizona Project (CAP) water, which is delivered to Tucson from the Colorado River. The purpose is to use the stable isotope composition of the pumped water to determine the proportion of CAP water vs. groundwater in the subsurface aquifer. As recharge continues over time, there is a higher percentage of CAP water mixed with the aquifer’s groundwater.

In 2008, PAG stopped working on the Central Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project (CAVSARP) to make room for collection of Southern Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project (SAVSARP) samples.  Isotope sampling at the CAVSARP site was restarted in 2010.

PAG is currently evaluating isotope data from CAVSARP, SAVSARP and Pima Mine Road.

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Wells in shallow groundwater areas

As our region’s population expands and groundwater aquifers become developed, it becomes increasingly important to understand pumping trends for sensitive areas, such as shallow groundwater areas, so that riparian habitats and private well owners are not compromised. Shallow groundwater areas have water tables that lie less than 50 feet below ground surface, and they are often demarcated by indicator vegetation, such as mesquite and cottonwood trees. PAG released the updated and expanded report, Shallow Groundwater Areas in Eastern Pima County, Water Well Inventory and Pumping Trend Analysis, in 2012. The study identifies 32 shallow groundwater areas, grouped into 10 regions and uses ADWR and PAG well data to describe water level changes, water use trends, well densities and drilling histories. The report includes a series of trend analyses on pumping data from non-exempt wells, but it also provides a general summary of data collected from the exempt wells*. The trend analysis helps identify those areas that have experienced increased or decreased groundwater withdrawals from non-exempt wells over the last two decades. *Exempt wells are permitted to withdraw up to 35 gallons per minute (gpm), but no pumping data is available for these wells. Non-exempt wells, may pump more than 35gpm and are required to report pumping volumes to the state.

Because riparian trees depend on groundwater, they become vulnerable if groundwater levels decline. While habitat supported in shallow groundwater areas is critical to the region's wildlife, the water resources in these basins also provide water to numerous private well owners and public water systems.  With continued warming and drought, there will undoubtedly be increased competition for water resources in these delicately balanced systems. Monitoring water levels and improving education to private well owners are two important future steps to ensure that riparian areas associated with shallow groundwater areas are not adversely impacted in the future.


PAG encourages coordinated outreach and information sharing among stakeholders in shallow groundwater areas. To aid private well owners that experience unique localized drought conditions, PAG is sharing monitoring techniques with regional partners and encouraging the use of water budgets and renewable resources. Conservation at key vulnerable seasons and use of stormwater and reclaimed water will sustain and replenish these valuable riparian areas. Learn what local non-profits and water providers are coordinating here:

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Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD) Report & Map

In September 2011, Pima Association of Governments released the "Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District Membership in the Tucson Active Management Area" report. The report contains data current to 2009. The purpose of the report is to provide updated information on Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD) membership in the context of its impact on Assured Water Supply (AWS).

Analysis includes calculations of obligated replenishment for members, membership growth trends and location of recharge facilities.

These concerns include the dependence of CAGRD on excess CAP supplies, which are decreasingly available, and that the recharge will not benefit areas where groundwater is actually pumped, which has impacts on subsidence and localized water availability. PAG's analysis is available in the report and maps linked below, in addition to accompanying datasets in raw format from PAG and on the Pima County Map Guide website for interactive viewing.


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Regional Water Assessment

In 2010, the Regional Water Assessment Task Force was convened to help the region shape its efforts to achieve a sustainable water future.

As an initial step, the Task Force held a series of ThinkTank sessions to gain input and guidance from stakeholders throughout the Tucson Active Management Area. Participants included elected officials, municipal managers, public and private utility managers, water attorneys, representatives from Central Arizona Project, state and federal agencies, Indian nations, University of Arizona, and people who represented economic, environmental, agricultural, and mining interests. Participants responded to the following questions, each of which they ranked as high, medium or low importance or priority.

  1. What regional water issues need to be addressed?
  2. What could our water use priorities be at a regional level?
  3. How can water resources be managed at a regional level? 
  4. How can water use be managed at a regional level? 
  5. How can water infrastructure for the region be funded?

Task Force members analyzed the ThinkTank responses and generated a report. The Task Force focused on those ideas that gained the highest level of consensus to identify several ThinkTank themes, which are described in the report. In addition, several regional priorities from the assessment and the Task Force went one step further to conceptualize how Regional Solution/Strategy Groups might be used to follow up on this regional effort.

Think Tank Report

ThinkTank Session Transcripts

Regional Water Assessment Task Force Members

  • Madeline Kiser
  • Sharon Megdal, Water Resources Research Center
  • Mark Stratton, Southern Arizona Water Users Association
  • Vince Vasquez, Tucson Regional Water Coalition
  • Claire Zucker, Pima Association of Governments

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Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon Projects

PAG’s long term consistent dataset allows Cienega analysis to be used proxy for regional  riparian conditions. From this foundation, PAG develops policy recommendations and serves an advisory role for projects with regional partners.

Cienega Creek, located 20 miles southeast of Tucson, contains remnants of a historically extensive cienega (wetland) system, defined by springs and marsh areas. This unique perennial stream with its pristine native riparian habitat is a critical resource in southern Arizona. Designated as an “Outstanding Water” by the State of Arizona, Cienega Creek contains critical habitat for many wildlife and plant species, including threatened and endangered species. Riparian habitat and well owners, alike, rely on these shallow groundwater resources. . As one of few remaining perennial lowland streams, monitoring the watershed serves as a measure of drought and watershed health in the region.

The extent of streamflow in Upper Davidson Canyon has declined substantially since 2003. This reach of the creek is currently under stress from off-road vehicle and cattle use, but the county has made efforts to exclude these activities from the riparian area. The Davidson stream channel and pools dried out during the summer of 2005. PAG has not seen native fish since then, however Lowland leopard frogs are still present along the reach. For more results, please see our most recent Annual Reports.

PAG’s hydrologic monitoring includes:

  •     Calculating the quantity of streamflow
  •     Sampling the water quality to serve baseline data, should the creek become impacted by mining or development
  •     Conducting repeat photography
  •     Assessing the depths to groundwater at wells located throughout the preserve
  •     Measuring and mapping the lengths of the intermittent, ephemeral and flowing segments of the creek
  •     Monitoring erosion
  •     Evaluating the impact of drought

PAG field studies have been reduced to wet-dry mapping  conducted as for regional outreach opportunities about methodology to encourage its expanded use across the state.  See methods below:


PAG encourages partners to incorporate riparian management goals within water budgets. PAG will continue to advise such tracking metrics and other sustainability indicator efforts to reflect the value of supporting these areas and the impact on our economic vitality and long-term water reliability. PAG recognizes the ongoing importance of integrating watershed and land use planning, vital for water efficiency, green space, riparian, shallow groundwater, and aquatic sustainability. PAG will explore win-win scenarios in river management plans with diverse stakeholders, and continue to encourage hydrologic studies that inform sound policy. PAG will work with partners to determine feasibility of sample strategies and projects to support riparian areas, such as well owner engagement. PAG supports regional partners to explore conservation incentive options, case studies for financing programs, and prioritization assessments to further implement green stormwater infrastructure.

Take a 3D look at Marsh Station, to get a feeling for Cienega Creek’s lush perennial flow:


Annual Report

The most recent technical reports for the Cienega Creek Monitoring Project are shown below. This report summarizes PAG's groundwater and surface water monitoring between July and June each fiscal/monitoring year. The report contains monitoring methodology, comprehensive maps, and graphs of trends for surface flow volume, wet-dry flow lengths, groundwater levels and water chemistry. It also contains information on drought, erosion and repeat photography. The data in these reports are used to show long term and seasonal conditions that are used to inform regional policy recommendations.

  • PAG Cienega Creek 15-16 Results Summary: A brief two-page summary of our annual findings, in lieu of a lengthier annual report. Water levels rebounded marginally for the second year in a row, causes unknown. However creek flow extent remains well below the historic levels.  PAG recommends increased use of stormwater and reclaimed water to benefit our regionally cherished water resources. Best management practices are encouraged, including low impact development techniques that help stormwater to infiltrate into the shallow groundwater, to supply water to vegetation and  to reduce groundwater pumping for irrigation.
  • PAG Cienega Creek Annual Report 14-15: A full report on the 2014-15 monitoring data and analysis. Results show a very marginal improvement in stream flow characteristics after several years of worsening drought conditions. New this year is a lengthier section on recommendations for research collaboration that can help inform policy, specific public and regional engagement strategies for drought responses, and restoration strategies for management. (upload new doc)
  • The Path of the Watershed: Using Watershed Health Indicators in an Uncertain Future: This University of Arizona report was written in Fall 2016 by a PAG intern using PAG data for the Sustainable Development and New Urbanism course at UA. Watershed Health Indicators, like vital signs taken at the doctor’s office, are key characteristics that can inform the bigger picture of watershed health
  • Cumulative Results in 2014 - Poster
  • PAG Cienega Creek Annual Report 13-14: Special features include a birds-eye-view map of Cienega watershed and a well monitoring atlas. With continued drop in water levels, PAG recommends increased coordination of water and land use planners with well owners to ensure protection strategies near vulnerable ecosystems.
  • PAG Cienega Creek Annual Report 12-13: Notable findings this  monitoring year include record  low groundwater, streamflow volume and streamflow distance, with heightened impacts especially during the driest times of the year. Special features include a comparison to the BLM’s Las Cienegas NCA upper watershed wet-dry mapping and  Davidson repeat photography monitoring sites.
  • PAG Cienega Creek Annual Report 11-12: Notable findings this  monitoring year include that surface flows returned year-round to Upper Davidson Canyon. New analysis  depicts a strong relationship between groundwater levels and surface water extent in Davidson Canyon.
  • PAG Cienega Creek Annual Report 10-11: New additions include a perennial flow map using a linear bar representation of flow. Special features included repeat photography examples. This is the last year we included detailed methodology which is still available by request.
  • PAG Cienega Creek Annual Report 09-10: This monitoring year was remarkable for having the lowest September water levels on record as of Sept. 2009. Special features include documentation on flow presence near each well, repeat photography sites, measurements of flow past the dam, detailed wildlife sightings, drought  reporting methods, agency coordination information, and a summary of the head-cut study.

Cienega Creek Watershed Map
The map below shows a birds-eye view from above Cienega Creek looking across the greater Santa Cruz Watershed. The map includes locations of Arizona Outstanding Waters, perennial flows, the Tucson Active Management Area, wildlife corridors and more.

Water Level and Water Consumption Studies in the Cienega Watershed

PAG’s efforts to inventory wells and monitor riparian health in the region have revealed that increasing numbers of active wells on the region’s urban periphery impact remaining perennial creek flows that are dependent on shallow groundwater areas, and have resulted in a growing number of model groundwater management strategies, projects, outreach and partnerships.

In 2012, PAG completed a report on groundwater use near shallow groundwater areas in eastern Pima County. The report includes totals of the number of exempt and non-exempt wells, drilling histories and water production estimates.  We found that a one mile buffer around the Cienega-Davidson shallow groundwater system contains 29 non-exempt wells and 355 exempt (private low-water use) wells.  Overall, the total number of exempt wells drilled in the buffered areas has steadily increased since 1990. 

Collaborative presentation from the Science in the Sonoita Plains Symposium in June 2013 regarding both of the above topics:

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ADWR Water Protection Fund Award for Headcut Study
Interest in preserving Cienega Creek continues to drive monitoring, discussion and community engagement. In recent years, a large erosion feature (a headcut) developed, radically changing the stream habitat as it migrates upstream. Since 2002, the headcut has migrated over 1,200 feet and has grown to 12 feet deep and 20 feet wide. In 2007, PAG received a grant from the Arizona Department of Water Resources, under its Arizona Water Protection Fund program. This two-year project consists of habitat surveys, and groundwater and streamflow monitoring near a large erosional headcut feature that appeared on the creek in 2001. The resulting report discusses the findings on the changes of the water table slope, the increase in fish habitat diversity, loss of vegetation cover and change in vegetation composition. Many new discussions have resulted from recent field trips, presentations and meetings regarding needs for restoration, potential causes, and possible impacts on other aspects of habitat. PAG is participating in a Sky Island/Sonoran Desert Restoration Network which formed to share information and to engage scientists, land managers, citizen volunteers and landowners throughout the region.

Drought Findings
In 2016, drought impacts decreased for the second year in a row, however creek flow extent remains well below the historic levels.

PAG’s hydrologic monitoring at Cienega Creek reveals that drought impacts have been noticeable since 2002.  Cienega Creek experienced record breaking drought conditions in for three consecutive years until we saw marginal improvements in 2015.  PAG conducts flow mapping in June in Davidson Canyon and Cienega Creek Outstanding Arizona Waters to determine the minimal length of flow in the during the driest part of the year, coordinated with other river mapping efforts across the region. June 2015 showed only 0.88 miles of flow, an increase of 0.02 miles from last year, but still just nine percent of the full 9.5 miles of flow extent observed in June of the mid-1980s. Current groundwater levels also remain significantly below pre-drought levels. 2015 records showed increases in average annual stream flow, volume not recorded since the wet 2008-2009 period, and a slight rise in average groundwater well levels.  Because surface water base flows and groundwater are strongly correlated, these trends parallel each other.

Drought Planning
PAG’s 2012 investigation of shallow groundwater areas revealed private wells tapping into this riparian area and other similar areas.  Drought conditions can be highly localized in the desert southwest so rural private well owners and the riparian habitat that they live in may experience unique conditions and risks as temperatures rise and precipitation becomes more variable in coming years.

Since  drought information is primarily disseminated by large municipal water providers in urban areas, PAG works with the Local Drought Impact Group to recommend that special consideration for drought stage triggers and outreach be given to vulnerable areas including riparian, shallow groundwater and areas with rural households dependent on private wells. We support a focused alert message to homeowners in these areas leading up to the monsoon season.

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Highlights of PAG Studies on Cienega Creek

The PAG Watershed Planning library has additional publications on Cienega Creek from outside sources.

Additional Links

Mining Issues
Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon are downstream from various mining interests, including the potential Rosemont Copper Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains and other limestone and gravel mineral leases along the creek.

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Drought impacts can be seen in the variation of flow extent measured during PAG’s wet/dry monitoring.


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