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A Call from Conservation Biologists and Hydrologists to Halt Wall Construction Impacts on Quitobaquito Springs

An “oasis of hope” in the Borderlands

As conservation biologists and hydrologists who have collectively worked on the border at Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument for over four decades, we wish to express our deep concerns about one of the most biodiverse and culturally significant oasis habitat complexes in the Sonoran Desert. Quitobaquito is facing an unprecedented crisis. In less than three months, the flow rates of the remaining springs at Quitobaquito have fallen by 44%, from 10.65 gallons per minute in March, to below 6 gallons per minute by July 15th, the lowest level on record. In the 1990s, flow rates were around 30 gallons per minute. We estimate that the pond level has dropped 15 inches in the last 3 to 4 months, leaving 15 to 20% of the former pond surface as mudflats, and 60% to 75% of the remaining pond with less than a foot of water above the mud, algae, and aquatic plants on the bottom.  

These diminished flows and water levels have eliminated most habitat for migratory waterfowl, and during most daylight hours this summer, even wading shorebird use of the oasis is now minimal. Only two of the spring flows from the hill above the oasis run more than 50 feet; four others are now small seeps with no above-ground flow; and the rest of the ancient springs have no standing surface water. Riparian and semi-aquatic plant life—the key to former habitat diversity there—are in steep decline, with the few remaining willows (3) and cottonwoods (2) shedding branches and leaves as the risk of mortality increases. Several aquatic and semi-aquatic plants have already been permanently lost. No single factor alone—damaged pond lining; drought; dynamiting; heavy truck traffic; groundwater pumping on the Mexican side; or pumping from new U.S. wells drilled to provide water for wall construction and dust control—can be fully blamed for the imminent collapse of the most important wildlife habitat in any direction for 25 to 50 miles along the border.

One factor, however, is clear: within a matter of months, the new stresses of groundwater pumping, heavy truck traffic, and dynamiting by Homeland Security have worsened conditions at the oasis, pushing the entire habitat complex over the tipping point. Hector Zamora, groundwater hydrologist who accomplished the most recent analysis of the Quitobaquito aquifer, said this about border wall pumping impacts: “It’s hard to imagine there’s not going to be an impact on the springs. If the water table drops only a few feet, due to groundwater pumping, you will no longer see the springs. We know from the Sonoyta River that not too long after irrigation started in the valley, the perennial reaches of the river started to dry out and disappeared…” 

All this has put the National Park Service in an untenable “double bind” position of having to choose between two options. At present, the NPS is opting for shunting all spring flows directly into an almost sterile, lined pond to save endangered desert pupfish and Sonoran mud turtles. But the Park Service should not dismiss the need to sustain the riparian and semi-aquatic plants that provide wildlife and fish with shade, nutrients, insect foods and other resources they depend upon for survival. We are committed to working with NPS to find solutions that enhances its ability to save individual species while also restoring the essential habitats of the world-famous biocultural oasis within this UNESCO biosphere reserve.

We draw inspiration from the Cocopah tribe in Arizona and La Lomita Chapel congregation in Texas, who have received exemptions from wall construction through court cases and negotiations with DHS. No federal agency’s actions should destroy, desiccate, or degrade a sacred site that harbors federally-listed endangered species. We stand with the National Park Service if it chooses to request that DHS stops all pumping and construction in the Roosevelt Reserve within ten miles of Quitobaquito, and seeks means other than a wall to ensure border security. 

Without any doubt, border wall construction is affecting this critically important oasis habitat and the traditional cultural properties there. It is putting at further risk threatened species; their essential habitat needs and migratory corridors; sacred sites and religious liberties protected by the First Amendment; and the scientific advances gained from millions of dollars of U.S. government investment in hydrological, biological, environmental, archaeological and ethnographic research. We request that Homeland Security cease and desist from other actions within ten miles of the Quitobaquito oasis until other federal agencies are given the opportunity to propose solutions to resolve these conflicts.  

No Presidentially declared national emergency can override the need to keep endangered species from extinction or to assure that First Amendment religious liberties of the Tohono O’odham, Hia c-ed O’odham, Quechan and Apache communities who maintain ceremonies or cemeteries at the Quitobaquito oasis. We condemn the repeated violations of long-standing laws and inter-agency protocols by Homeland Security that are unnecessarily putting at risk rare species, habitats, cultural properties, religious freedoms and normal park functioning. Respect for both environmental and cultural preservation laws is fundamental; these must be enforced to keep the DHS lawful. History will hold current federal officials accountable should there be any further desiccation or desecration of the greatest “oasis of hope” in the entire borderlands.  

Oasis of Hope letter signed by the following in alphabetical order of last names:



Robert L. Bezy, PhD., Curator Emeritus, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Bill Broyles, Sonora Desert writer, editor of Dry Borders

Richard Brusca, PhD., Invertebrate Zoologist, Director Emeritus, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum  & Research Associate, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona

Paul Dayton, PhD., Evolutionary Ecologist & Natural Historian, Professor Emeritus, Scripps Institution for Oceanography, University of California at San Diego

Richard Felger, PhD., Botanist, Associated Researchers of the Herbarium, School of Plant Sciences, University of Arizona, Research Associate, International Sonoran Desert Alliance; & Visiting Scholar, Western New Mexico University

P.W. Hedrick, PhD., Conservation Biologist, Professor Emeritus, Arizona State University

Roy Johnson, PhD., retired Senior Research Scientist, National Park Service, & retired Professor of Renewable Natural Resources, University of Arizona

Kenneth J. Kingsley, PhD., Insect Ecologist & Entomologist, Curatorial Assistant, Insect Collection, University of Arizona

James R. Malusa, PhD., Plant and Soil Ecologist, School of Nature Resources and the Environment, University of Arizona

Carlos Martinez del Rio, PhD., Physiological Ecologist, Department of Zoology & Physiology, University of Wyoming

Rick and Sandy Martynec, Independent Archaeologists

Thomas Meixner, PhD. Hydrologist, Chair, Hydrology & Atmospheric Sciences, University of Arizona

Gary Paul Nabhan, PhD., Ethnobotanist, Senior Fellow, Borderlands Restoration Network, Ecumenical Franciscan Brother, & retired member, National Parks System Commission

Ron Pulliam, PhD., Director Emeritus of the Odum Institute of Ecology, University of Georgia, & first Director of the National Biological Survey/Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey

Amadeo M. Rea, PhD. Ornithologist & Ethnobiologist, Retired Curator, San Diego Natural History Museum

Frank Reichenbacher, M.S., Desert Ecologist & Independent Researcher

Karen Reichhardt, M.S., Botanist, Vice-President, Arizona Native Plant Society, & retired, Yuma Field Office, Bureau of Land Management

Phil C. Rosen, PhD., Research Scientist, School of Natural Resources & the Environment, University of Arizona

Michael D. Robinson, PhD., Conservation Biologist

Sue Rutman, M.S., Botanist, Associated Researchers of the Herbarium, University of Arizona, retired from National Park Service, & Arizona Ecological Services Office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service of Office

Larry Stevens, PhD., Evolutionary Ecologist & Springs Biologist, Founding Director of Springs Stewardship Institute & Curator, Ecology & Conservation, Museum of Northern Arizona

Drew M. Talley, PhD, Associate Professor/Graduate Program Director, Environmental & Ocean Sciences, University of San Diego

Benjamin T. Wilder, PhD., Desert Ecologist, Biogeographer, & Botanist

Bernd Wuersig, PhD., Zoologist, Conservatioin Biologist, Retired Distinguished Professor, Departments of Wildlife & Fisheries Sciences, & Marine Biology, Texas A&M University

Hector A. Zamora, Ph.D, Groundwater Hydrologist, Department of Geosciences, University of Arizona


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