Flying above one of America’s most endangered rivers

Flying above the Santa Cruz River. Photo by Julius Schlosburg

LightHawk conservation partner American Rivers recently released their list of the most endangered rivers in the United States. The Santa Cruz River in Arizona was named as the Number Four Most Endangered River on the list for 2024. We are partnering with American Rivers with flights to document and highlight the threats to this precious desert river system.

The history, present and future of the Santa Cruz River could be summed up as, “The Bad News, Good News, Bad News, and Possible Good News!”

The Bad News/Good News: Once a life-giving desert river oasis, carefully used and stewarded by Tohono O’odham and other indigenous peoples, the health of the Santa Cruz River steadily declined following western expansion in the 1800s. The next century saw massive groundwater withdrawals that brought the once perennial flows to an end. In addition, wastewater discharges into the river created harmful aquatic conditions for humans as well as for the natural environment.

But in 2008, upgrades in wastewater treatment facilities along the river improved water quality. Native fish, birds, reptiles and vegetation began to return to the area. State, federal, private and university efforts leveraged financial resources for the river and fostered a community reconnection to it.


Photo by Julius Schlosburg

The Bad News/Possible Good News: Continued progress in restoring the river corridor is now threatened. For a river to be a river, there must be water – and that is not a condition that is assured in the face of climate change. Temperatures continue to rise, periods of drought are lengthening, and demand for the desert’s scarce water is only increasing. A strategy to protect and provide for water in the river is needed. And that is what is behind the effort of several environmental organizations who are advocating for a “Santa Cruz River Urban Wildlife Refuge.”

The Sonoran Institute and the Wilderness Society are two organizations calling for this designation. Such a designation would entail identifying protected areas and potential future acquisition areas – which would help ensure water inflows. This – as well as the American Rivers’ listing – brings important visibility for the river.

In February 2024, LightHawk partnered with American Rivers and the Sonoran Institute on a flight to capture images of the river as part of that awareness-raising campaign. The Santa Cruz River is also part of the Colorado River Basin, and LightHawk has an ongoing focus to highlight the water scarcity issues across the Basin.

LightHawk volunteer pilot Chuck Schroll provided the flight for our conservation partners. Thanks to Chuck for this and the many other flights he donates throughout the year.

Partners from American Rivers pose for a photo with volunteer pilot Chuck Schroll. Photo by Julius Schlosburg

Santa Cruz River. Photo by Julius Schlosburg

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