This story was supported by The Water Desk, an independent, nonprofit journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.
The sandy bed of Sopori Creek stretches east across Southern Arizona toward Amado, ambling through windblown ranchland until it eventually crosses Interstate 19 and empties into the Santa Cruz River on the other side.
On a mostly-cool morning in April, the mesquite bosque flanking the creek has not yet leafed out. These trees will wake soon, following cottonwood giants downstream whose leafy boughs already shade the wash.
Standing on a ridge overlooking the dry creek and nearby farmland, Diana Freshwater, the board president for the Arizona Land and Water Trust, explains that almost 20 years ago this land was destined for development. Plans envisioned homes, a golf course and a resort until Santa Cruz voters halted that idea in 2008.
Today, the nonprofit trust is in the middle of a five-phase campaign to purchase and protect the 1,310 acres that make up Sopori Creek and Farm.
Located in Santa Cruz County about 15 minutes south of Green Valley, the farm and creek are part of the expansive Sopori Ranch, much of which has already been protected in Pima County.
In fact, most of the Sopori Creek watershed is in Pima County, but the trust’s purchase of this additional acreage protects a portion of the creek that traipses through a corner of Santa Cruz County, further preserving its drainage into the Santa Cruz River and protecting the larger watershed and habitat from the impact of potential development. Although Sopori Creek is usually dry, it’s a significant tributary of the Santa Cruz River and part of a shallow groundwater system that seeps into the aquifer.
By purchasing this land from the company First United Realty, the trust is attempting to piece together protection for the local watershed, along with preserving thousands of acres of working landscape, including about 300 acres of irrigated farmland with grandfathered water rights.
This current campaign seeks to purchase additional land from First United Realty to continue that conservation effort.
“The land trust was very involved in identifying priorities for the (Pima County) bond, and saw on the map there were problems, because (the county) couldn’t buy outside of Pima County,” Freshwater says. “We started a campaign to try and protect that area. … The creek goes right through and drains all of that land that the county invested in.”
The creek joins with the river near the border of the two counties. During flood events, water courses through the area and into the river — the natural function of the watershed, according to Linda Mayro, the director of Pima County’s Office of Sustainability and Conservation.
So far, the trust has purchased half of Sopori Creek and Farm and is currently fundraising $1,285,000 needed to buy the remaining acres by the end of October 2024, according to the trust’s website.
“Santa Cruz County butts into the Sopori Creek watershed for six miles, east to west,” Freshwater says. “From a flood control perspective, from a watershed integrity perspective, and from a wildlife movement corridor perspective, the creek was truncated.”
Protecting a wash’s water
Laurinda Oswald owns a ranch along the Santa Cruz at the mouth of Sopori Creek, on the east side of I-19.
Her parents bought the ranch in the ’50s, and every year, the family would spend the summer there. Forty years ago, Oswald moved back permanently, grazing cattle across approximately 2,960 acres. She remembers a major flood in 1983 that sent water coursing through Sopori Creek to burst into the Santa Cruz River. Five or six years ago, a microburst upstream sent another wall of water racing down the wash and into the river.
This is part of the reason Arizona Land and Water Trust wants to protect this land — further development in the path of floodwaters would only create a greater potential for damage downstream.
Oswald wants to slow the flow of water through washes so that it stays in the local watershed and assists groundwater levels.
“By letting washes meander, the wash can capture the water so it sinks into the aquifer,” Oswald says. “My whole thing is to keep the water in the watershed, and there are ways to keep water in Sopori that also raises the water table.”
Oswald is on the trust’s Sopori Creek and Farm campaign advisory committee and also serves on the board of the Sonoran Institute, a Tucson-based conservation nonprofit that has long studied the health of the Santa Cruz River.
When Sopori Creek does flood, it becomes a “significant stream,” Mayro says.
“It adds a lot of velocity and volume to the Santa Cruz River, which the (Regional) Flood Control District manages. We have a definite interest in conserving that area and not seeing it hardscaped,” Mayro says, adding that county also wants to work with the trust to slow the flow of the creek.
Allowing surface water to seep underground is important because groundwater is already a limited resource.
Usually, this stretch of the Santa Cruz is dry unless it rains, with treated wastewater from Rio Rico tapering off just near Amado, says Luke Cole, the director of the Sonoran Institute’s Santa Cruz River Program.
“What had historically been Sopori Ranch or Farm, this area has just gotten battered by drawdown,” Cole says.
He adds that groundwater use in the area exceeds the amount of water recharged in a year — a common occurrence throughout Arizona and the Colorado River Basin.
He points to the Santa Cruz River as an example, describing drawdown there as a decrease in water levels due to “all the straws in the fountain drink slurping for the last drop for a century.”
“Even when we had lots of water, we thought there was more,” he says. “And (Sopori) is a fascinating microcosm of that.”
Underground, groundwater from the Sopori Wash sub-basin flows into the Santa Cruz, says Laurel Lacher, owner of Laurel Hydrological Consulting, who worked with the trust to better understand the area’s groundwater.
Lacher says that near Amado groundwater levels have declined significantly. But around Sopori Creek west of I-19, the groundwater is much closer to the surface, supporting those giant cottonwoods and riparian habitat.
Because the area currently has no access to the Colorado River water piped into some Arizona communities through the Central Arizona Project, groundwater pumping would be required to support any development around Sopori Creek, Mayro says.
Richard Schust, the president of First United Realty, says the company is accustomed to making adjustments for conservation concerns, and over the years has sold swaths of Sopori ranch land to both Pima County and the Arizona Land and Water Trust.
Before Santa Cruz voters blocked the plans for residential development in 2008, First United says they went through the process of evaluating the area’s water supply with the Arizona Department of Water Resources to ensure water availability for a housing development with as many as 8,000 units. The company also set up a water improvement district to provide water to those future residents, says Ross Wilson, the vice president of First United Realty.
“The Sopori Domestic Water Improvement District has not served one drop of water since it was formed,” Wilson says. “As the conservation purchases with the Land and Water Trust have come to fruition, we just keep rolling back or shrinking the size of the (district).”
After voters stopped the residential development plans, First United pivoted to dividing the land into smaller 40-acre ranch parcels, Schust says. Rather than providing water to thousands of homes, landowners would use individual wells.
The trust’s purchase of the property will prevent even that use of the area’s groundwater.
“Until you put the conservation easement on it, all kinds of things can happen,” Freshwater says. “And it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a golf course or resort hotel.”
Any kind of development “would be adding that many more straws into the drink, the tiki bowl, and that would potentially limit any further downstream flows of Santa Cruz River water,” Cole says.
“A place of persistence”
Freshwater’s SUV rumbles past a small white farmhouse situated not far from the property’s own well. A herd of cows regards the car with interest.
The farmhouse attests to a long history of settlement on Sopori Ranch — Sopori Creek and Farm is just a piece of this historic ranch.
Toward the end of the 17th century, a Pima Indian group called the “Sobaipuri” farmed in the area, according to the trust. The name of the larger ranch perhaps comes from this name or from the Spanish word sopor, which means drowsiness, according to the 2008 Sopori Ranch Cultural Resources Summary, Pre-acquisition Report by Pima County’s Office of Sustainability and Conservation.
That report observes that the presence of springs provided a reliable water source that has attracted people throughout the centuries. The area was also part of a land grant from the king of Spain to Tubac Presidio commander Captain Juan Bautista de Anza. The Pima County report points out that “it was called ‘El Ojo del Agua de Sopori’ (Eye of the Water of Sopori) after the Sopori Spring.”
Other individuals who staked claim to the larger Sopori ranch include Charles Poston and Frederick Ronstadt; members of Tucson’s pioneering Pennington and Elias families; and a grandnephew of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, according to the Pima County report.
In the 1950s, Ann Boyer Warner — the wife of Warner Bros. founder Jack Warner — purchased Sopori Ranch. Most of the ranch would change hands one more time after Warner’s death before coming into the ownership of First United Realty.
“Water was available and plentiful (at Sopori), so it attracted people through time,” Mayro says. “These are called places of persistence.”
And it’s not just humans. The land around Sopori Creek is positioned between mountain ranges including the Santa Rita, Tumacacori and Cerro Colorado mountains, making it a significant wildlife corridor.
The trust notes on its website that Sopori Creek and Farm, along with the thousands of acres of already-protected ranchland, provides potential habitat for 33 animal species, including the endangered ocelot, lesser long-nosed bat and jaguar and the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo. Freshwater also says you’ll find coatis, badgers, coyotes, mule deer and more.
The land also hosts 67 plant species, including the endangered Pima pineapple cactus.
“We have the sky islands that make up the frame of the Santa Cruz River Valley, and they have unique endemic species and migratory animals,” Cole says. “Getting from one part (of the valley) to the next is already perilous given developments and roads, but if there are water resources and washes that animals can use that even occasionally have reliable water, that creates opportunities for ecological richness.”
Collaboration is the future for conservation
Both Schust and Freshwater say the trust’s relationship with First United Realty has been a positive one.
“If somebody tells us something is really significant (about a piece of land), then we feel like if we can do something to make it happen, then it just makes sense in the long run,” says Schust. “We’re only around for so long.” The opportunity to do a deal and sell the property for conservation purposes is a “win-win,” Wilson says.
Michael McDonald, the executive director of the Arizona Land and Water Trust, says collaboration among environmentalists, developers and agriculturalists that results in this kind of win-win is rare in Arizona.
“Increasingly, this will need to become a norm if we in Arizona are going to address, for instance, economic health with climate resilience and water conservation,” he says in an email.
Since the trust entered into an agreement to purchase Sopori Creek and Farm from First United Realty in phases, the organization has raised more than $4.2 million in cash and pledges, according to McDonald. The fundraising the trust is doing now will let it purchase a 372-acre area by the end of October 2023 and the final, 275 acres by the end of October 2024.
The plan is not to hold onto the land, but rather to turn around and sell it with a conservation easement that would protect the property permanently.
McDonald points out that the use of conservation easements continues to increase both in Arizona and across the United States.
Ideally, they would partner with an agency to grow bermuda grass for neighboring ranchers or manage an agricultural training center for interested young people to practice sustainable farming.
“The main benefit of preserving this land is that when we finish buying it and put a conservation easement on it, it will no longer ever be at risk of being developed,” Freshwater says. “Any of the programs that we can put on top of that, that are educational — that’s gravy.”
The successful purchase of Sopori Creek and Farm will add another 1,300 acres of protected land to the more than 6,500 acres of Sopori Ranch already protected by the trust and Pima County.
“I think we can learn (from Sopori) that these public-private partnerships for the purpose of conservation are absolutely doable,” Cole says.
For Mayro, the preservation of ranches such as Sopori not only maintains the watershed, but also prevents urban sprawl that can be costly for a county to service.
“Ranches hold the natural and cultural landscape together,” Mayro says. “Urban sprawl happens when a ranch fails or a developer buys a ranch for development.”
Walking through Sopori Creek toward towering cottonwoods, you can tell there’s water somewhere — even if it’s underground. When the trees are fully leafed out, “you could be in another country,” Freshwater says.
“And then when you pop out of the cottonwood-willow gallery forest, and you’re up on a ridge, it’s cat’s claw and fairy dusters and barrel cacti,” she adds. “It’s like nothing else.”