Santa Cruz River Named One of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2024

April 16, 2024

Tucson, AZ – The Santa Cruz River, a symbol of resilience and restoration, faces renewed threats as it struggles to maintain its recent progress. Today, American Rivers announces the inclusion of the Santa Cruz River in its annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers®.  

“When you contemplate all the rivers across the Colorado River Basin, the Santa Cruz is unique in its character and importance to both people and nature, while also being typical of the challenges to rivers across the Southwest,” said Sinjin Eberle, Southwest communications director for American Rivers. “It’s impossible to overstate this river’s value to Southern Arizona. The threats from overallocation and pollution create an urgency to protect this iconic river.” 

The Santa Cruz River was once a desert oasis that was dried up and polluted for decades — and only recently is it coming back to life. Climate change and water scarcity threaten progress to ensure clean, flowing water in the river. Further, rollbacks to clean water protections at the federal level could add new challenges to the health of the watershed longer term. American Rivers and its partners called on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish an Urban National Wildlife Refuge to ensure this river remains a community treasure. 

“The Santa Cruz River Urban National Wildlife Refuge project is a great idea. It will certainly benefit all of us and nature. It would be so wonderful for our grandchildren and those yet to come behind us,” said Austin Nunez, Chairman, San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation. 

“In the last few years, we’ve seen rollbacks of the Clean Water Act. So recognition from other federal agencies–like U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service–is sorely needed here on the Santa Cruz River,” said Kimberly Baeza, Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department.  

“It is basically a love of nature that we find every time we come down to the Santa Cruz River,” said Ben Lomeli, president, Friends of the Santa Cruz River. 

“Given the threats of climate change and legislation, the story of the Santa Cruz River is a bellwether for the entire nation. With local and nationwide support, we intend to bring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service here to southern Arizona to establish a Santa Cruz River Urban National Wildlife Refuge. Protecting this river is of nationwide importance,” said Dr. Luke Cole, director, Sonoran Institute. 

Wastewater facilities provide approximately 35 miles of perennial flows — improved water quality, and native fish, birds, reptiles, vegetation, and people are all returning to the river. These gains are seen in beautiful flowing sections in Santa Cruz County that support a rare cottonwood–willow forest within the unique and extraordinary Sonoran Desert, as well as a vibrant urban corridor through the City of Tucson. The river has historically provided for strong communities of ranchers and farmers, and now contributes to the success of the Tumacácori National Historical Park, the de Anza Trail, and Sweetwater Wetlands as important recreation and birding sites. The growing tourism and service industries complement those still working the land and add to prosperity for the region. 

While binational, state, local, private, and academic institutions have put time and money into reconnecting people to the Santa Cruz, the river’s recovery remains tenuous. The greatest challenge to the Santa Cruz River today is maintaining the water that remains and avoiding backsliding on the progress made over the past decade. 

Sonoran Institute, in partnership with The Wilderness Society, has been working to establish a Santa Cruz River Urban National Wildlife Refuge. The purpose is to celebrate the river’s diverse and rich cultural heritage, honor the revitalized river, increase access to nature, and protect this crucial greenspace. 

The Santa Cruz River has provided life-sustaining water to humans for more than 12,000 years — including some of the oldest communities in North America. The Tohono O’odham Nation has stewarded these lands and waters since time immemorial, and both the Tohono O’odham Nation and Pascua Yaqui Tribe continue to live in the area today. 

The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers® report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates. Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations, and the prevention of harmful development and pollution. 

Other rivers in the region have been listed as endangered for threats like outdated management plans, unchecked development, mining interests, and unregulated groundwater pumping. In recent years, they include the San Pedro River (2022) and the Colorado River which has made the list six times in the past 20 years alone. 

American Rivers reviews nominations for America’s Most Endangered Rivers® from local groups and individuals across the country, and selects rivers based on three criteria:  

  1. The river’s significance to people and wildlife 
  2. The magnitude of the threat to the river and communities, especially in light of climate change and environmental injustice 
  3. A decision in the next 12 months that the public can influence 

America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2024 

#1: Rivers of New Mexico   
Threat: Loss of federal clean water protections  

#2: Big Sunflower and Yazoo Rivers (MS) 
Threat: Yazoo Pumps project threatens wetlands  

#3: Duck River (TN)  
Threat: Excessive water use   

#4: Santa Cruz River (AZ, Mexico)  
Threat: Water scarcity, climate change  

#5 Little Pee Dee River (NC, SC) 
Threat: Harmful development, highway construction  

#6 Farmington River (CT, MA) 
Threat: Hydro dam  

#7: Trinity River (CA)  
Threat: Outdated water management  

#8: Kobuk River (AK) 
Threat: Road construction, mining  

#9 Tijuana River (CA, Mexico) 
Threat: Pollution  

#10: Blackwater River (WV) 
Threat: Highway development  

About American Rivers 
American Rivers is championing a national effort to protect and restore all rivers, from remote mountain streams to urban waterways. Healthy rivers provide people and nature with clean, abundant water and natural habitat. For 50 years, American Rivers staff, supporters, and partners have shared a common belief: Life Depends on RiversSM.