SIERRA VISTA — A new information portal is up and running after six years of intense work by the agencies in the Upper San Pedro Partnership to gather all the data from decades of work on the Upper San Pedro Basin and make it available to scientists and the public.
The basin includes the communities of Sierra Vista, Benson, Bisbee, Huachuca City, Tombstone, Hereford, Palominas and Naco. It includes Fort Huachuca, a critical communications and intelligence testing and training facility for the nation and an economic driver for Cochise County and the state.
The protected San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is within the basin. It preserves “a vibrant riparian area that serves as a migratory corridor for birds of hemispheric importance,” according to the website.
When the Upper San Pedro Partnership was formed in 1998, data from monitoring sites and numerous studies in the Sierra Vista Subwatershed, San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, the San Pedro River and associated springs were stored over the years on different agency member databases. Researchers and the public had to bounce from agency to agency to learn how the basin and San Pedro River were faring. By providing this single online portal, hydrologists, geologists and the public can make use of a wide range of water resources data across the area.
Called the Web-based Hydrologic Information Portal, WHIP, the website was designed to serve as a “comprehensive resource for accessing hydrologic data and information about the Upper San Pedro Basin for use by water managers, decision-makers, researchers and the public,” according to the new website.
WHIP provides near real–time information about water resources found above and below the surface and data related to many aspects of the Upper San Pedro Basin’s complex hydrology. The water data provided is limited to that from the U.S. portion of the San Pedro basin. It does not cover the headwaters of the San Pedro River near Cananea, Mexico, and the northern Sonora portion of the river and basin.
Because decreases in groundwater levels of just a few feet could be the difference between health and degradation of the San Pedro River aquatic system, near–stream herbaceous plant groups and the cottonwood–willow riparian forest, “sustainability indicators” were established to provide evidence about the condition of the ecosystem and to enable tracking of how it has changed or is trending, as devised by U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Bruce Gungle and his team in a 2016 study.
The WHIP is structured around 14 sustainability indicators from the 2016 report’s framework, which are anchored around four important water monitoring indicator categories based on their physical relation to the San Pedro riparian system — regional groundwater, near stream groundwater, river flows and springs.
Together the data can be useful to support well–informed decisions to sustainably manage water over time in this semi–arid region.
The site delivers information on regional groundwater indicators on a subwatershed wide basis which includes regional aquifer levels, aquifer storage changes, near–stream alluvial–aquifer water levels and annual fluctuations.
River flow and water quality is monitored, Annually, The Nature Conservancy maps the river in June from its origin in Cananea to the confluence with the Gila River noting wet and dry spots of the river to see the changes in the river’s perennial, intermittent and ephemeral reaches.
Holly Richter, hydrologist for The Nature Conservancy, calls the SPRNCA “a magical oasis.” While people who come to the SPRNCA and see the narrow band of water snaking through it as little more than a creek, its size belies its importance to the diversity of plant and animal life that calls the 57,000-acre area home.
Studies show 400 species of migrating birds use the river for survival along with 80 mammalian species, a few fish species and 40 species of amphibians and reptiles. It is also home to two endangered water plant species — the Huachuca water umbel and the Arizona eryngo. There are only two confirmed surviving populations of Arizona eryngo in the U.S., which can grow to heights of 5 feet with whiteish blossoms that attract pollinators and hummingbirds. One is in the SPRNCA.
Gungle likens an early morning stroll along the river to a jungle as it comes alive with the songs of birds, amphibians and insects.
Mark Apel, Environmental Projects Coordinator for Cochise County, is familiar with the impressive amount of information available on the San Pedro River. He has been actively involved with the river for more than 30 years.
“There have been an incredible number of studies, reports and energy put into understanding the river and its complex hydrology over the last several decades,” stated Apel. “This portal provides both lay people and science-oriented audiences access to a treasure trove of the data supporting those studies in an easy–to–use interactive platform.”
A series of online meetings hosted by the USPP’s technical advisory committee over the past year helped gather information intended to make the online tool a comprehensive resource guide for all those with an interest in the Upper San Pedro Basin, noted Apel.
The project was funded through a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Applied Science grant, the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the city of Sierra Vista, Cochise County and The Nature Conservancy to offer “a map–based interface for accessing and analyzing a broad range of data.”