Wa:k Hikdan – Bringing life back to the Santa Cruz River

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San Xavier District Natural Resources Department employees

This Stakeholder Spotlight is a collaboration between CAP and the San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation

Centuries ago, when ancestors of the Tohono O’odham Nation stood atop Sentinel Peak looking northeast toward the Catalina Mountains, they saw a very different landscape than what we see today. They saw a vast, untouched Sonoran Desert valley filled with saguaro, creosote, and palo verde, carved through by a perennially flowing Santa Cruz River. Spreading outward from the river’s banks, they saw a green expanse of mesquite bosques, cottonwood trees, and desert willow thriving for miles, following the northwest flow of the life-giving water.

In the O’odham language, Wa:k means, “Where the water goes in,” and is also the O’odham word for the San Xavier community; Hikdan means, “cutting of the earth’s surface.”

Over the years, however, groundwater pumping, livestock grazing, and a rapidly growing urban population drained the aquifer under the river, lowering the water table, extinguishing the flow of the Santa Cruz. Within less than 100 years, the river, once a beautiful lush riparian ecosystem vital to the O’odham culture, traditions, and way of life, had transformed into a dry and mud-cracked wash.

For the better part of a century, the youth of the San Xavier District (District), grew up only knowing the Santa Cruz as a dry riverbed that sometimes flooded due to monsoon rains. However, it was in the stories of their elders they learned the truth of the river. That it had been a place of cool shade cast by mesquite and cottonwood groves dotted with pools of refreshing water bubbling up from the aquifer below. It had been a place for gathering materials like beargrass, soaptree yucca, and devil’s claw used in the weaving of traditional O’odham baskets. It had been a place of gathering, culture, and community.

Inspired by the stories of their elders, those same youth, now grown men and women, developed a project to restore a portion of the Santa Cruz River back to its original state. This effort was called the Wa:k Hikdan Project.

The Wa:k Hikdan Project

The idea behind the project gained traction back in May of 1990, when the San Xavier District Council first supported restoring a portion of the river. The vision was to help heal the river and over time, the river would begin healing itself.

San Xavier District
All photos above taken from Martinez Hill looking southeast toward the Santa Rita Mountains. Top photo was taken around the 1900s, middle photo around the 1980s, and bottom photo in 2000. Photos provided by the San Xavier District

In 1996, the District was awarded an Arizona Water Protection Fund (AWPF) grant that financed the restoration project. An area of about 12 acres was selected for the project near the riverbank just southwest of Martinez Hill located in the northwest region of the District.

By 2002, workers began preparing the area and planted a variety of native vegetation, including cottonwood, willow, mesquite, and more. But those plants needed water to survive, and the Santa Cruz was not capable of sustaining such a riparian system.

As fate would have it, just two years prior, a source of renewable water became available for the District that could be utilized for the Wa:k Hikdan. Through the 1982 Southern Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act (SAWRSA), the District was granted 50,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water delivered annually through the Central Arizona Project (CAP). SAWRSA also provided federal funds to build a pipeline to deliver CAP water to the San Xavier Cooperative Farm. In 2000, the 5.6-mile-long CAP Link Pipeline was completed, connecting the CAP canal to the farm’s original water distribution system.

Velma Begay, District SAWRSA Office Contract Administrator, said, “It was about the same time that the (CAP Link Pipeline) was going in, that the AWPF had their contract to install the (AWPF Pipeline connecting the San Xavier Cooperative Farm to the Wa:k Hikdan)…(and the Bureau of Reclamation) helped them do the tie in for the 6-inch CAP line.” She added that by the end of 2002 most of the work had been completed – vegetation planted, streams and pools constructed, and piping installed. Colorado River water could now feed the growth of the Wa:k Hikdan.

Wa:K Hikdan Project Construction
Wa:K Hikdan Project Construction
Wa:K Hikdan Project Construction
Construction of the Wa:K Hikdan Project in November 2002. In the O’odham language, Wa:k means, “Where the water goes in,” and is also the O’odham word for the San Xavier community; Hikdan means, “cutting of the earth’s surface.” Photos provided by the San Xavier District Natural Resources Department

Thus began an odyssey spanning hundreds of miles from the headwaters of the Colorado River in the Rocky Mountains to the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona. To get there, the water flows through the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and eventually to Lake Havasu. There, it travels through an intake channel and is delivered to the Mark Wilmer Pumping Plant – the first stop on its way into the CAP aqueduct system. The pumping plant lifts the water about 824 feet from the lake to the inlet portal of the Buckskin Mountain Tunnel. From there, the water flows through the 7-mile-long tunnel and discharges into the aqueduct, beginning a more than 300-mile-long journey. The canal heads eastward where it enters Phoenix, then turns south toward Tucson, eventually entering the District through its northern border and into the Black Mountain Operating Reservoir.

“From the Black Mountain Operating Reservoir there is a 72-inch pipe that goes all the way to Pima Mine Road, where it ends,” Begay said. “Just a little bit before the terminus, they cut in right where it crosses the I-19, and pipe runs (northward) along the interstate about five miles,” where she said it eventually reaches the farm just west of the interstate, and then to the Wa:k Hikdan through the AWPF Pipeline.

A Community Returns to the River

Now in 2023, standing under the shade of towering cottonwood trees with a stream of Colorado River water gently flowing past, David Tenario, San Xavier District Natural Resources Department Assistant Supervisor, gestured toward a thick bosque of mature mesquite trees, “There were only two original trees on this site (before the area was developed), there were two cottonwoods, but all the rest that you see here were brought in,” he said. “(Now), there are about six hundred trees and four hundred shrubs –  one thousand in total to establish this.”

Wa:k Hikdan stream
A small stream flows through the Wa:k Hikdan, providing sustenance to cottonwood and mesquite trees, as well as to a variety of vegetation in the riparian area. Photo by CAP

“As you can see, they brought back the cottonwood and the willow, and there are other types of vegetation here, there is sycamore, ash and you can see a variety of mesquite – you’ve got your screwbean, your velvet, and your catclaw acacia,” Tenario said. “(But before), it was just bare, there was nothing here just fine sand. Over the years it stabilized, and you can see a lot of green and grass.”

The goal of all that hard work to build the site, nurture, and maintain the area for more than two decades, Tenario said, was done to restore the land back to how it was when their parents and grandparents were young. He said at the time of the project’s development, the District asked community elders what they wanted to see brought back.

“A lot of them thought about the vegetation,” Tenario said. “Many years ago, there was this great mesquite bosque that eventually got wiped out, but the elders remember the tall trees and the shade, coming down here to have picnics with their family. This place is based on them – it was created off their memories.”

That hard work has paid off. As the trees grew and plant life became more abundant, the animals returned. By firsthand account and through wildlife cameras, the District’s Natural Resources staff have seen javelina, coyotes, skunks, bobcats, deer, owls, hawks, blue jays, wild turkey, and even spotted mountain lion prints in the area. But wildlife isn’t the only thing that returned to the banks of the river. Community members started visiting the area just like they had done so many years ago.

“The community comes out here for different events, they come out here for birthday parties,” Tenario said. “We had a couple of families come out here for Easter, (and) on three different occasions there were different couples that got married. This is a very special place for the community.” Tenario added that the area is also used as an outdoor classroom to teach youth and provide a space for them to engage with the natural world, as well as learn to be good stewards of the environment.

Tenario said he grew up near the Santa Cruz and saw that the area along the river was a hot and dry place not often visited by community members. But now, after 23 years of nurturing and growth, it looks completely different than the surrounding desert. The trees have become mature over the years, casting much needed shade, allowing the undergrowth to flourish. Tenario said they even hold occasional staff meetings at the site because there can be up to a 20-degree drop in temperature once you enter the Wa:k Hikdan, making the area comfortable even during the hot summer months.

“As a member of the tribe, seeing things like this is extremely important in connecting our tribe’s history back to these areas, the Santa Cruz, and how things were not that long ago. Each time I come back I see something different. Just to see this life, the green, the trees, sometimes the animals too.”

Colorado River discharging into pond
A discharge pipe pours Colorado River water into one of two discharge ponds located in the riparian area. Photo provided by the San Xavier Natural Resources Department
From left to right, San Xavier District Natural Resources Department Groundskeepers, Ivan C. Jose, Stewart Gilmore Sr., Velma Begay, Sally Pablo, and David Tenario. Photo by CAP

“I think it does something (for us) emotionally,” Tenario said. “There are times that I’ll be on the site, and something will make me stop and I’ll take it in and think, ‘Oh wow.’ I just get this amazing feeling; I can’t put it into words. To know that we are doing something positive for the community. When we bring people out here, to see them get excited, we know that we are doing our job.”

To visit the Wa:k Hikdan, an official request must be made through the San Xavier District Office. Any visit to the site without permission from the District is considered trespassing. For more information call the San Xavier District Natural Resources Department at 520-573-4055

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