History of Springs in a Northern Sky Island

On March 31st we heard from Don Swann, at Saguaro National Park, on the history of springs throughout the Rincon and Catalina Mountains. Through his work over the years with the National Park Service, Don and colleagues have found new springs and catalogued more than 30 rare plants throughout the Rincons. Don shared historic photos of springs and notes dating back more than a century! 

What struck me about Don’s talk is how often the history of a particular spring isn’t immediately apparent. Some springs look natural to our eyes, but in fact have layers of buried history. That history started millennia ago, perhaps with bears “stewarding” springs by wallowing in them to increase surface water, continuing with Indigenous stewardship, and then eras of ranching and farming. These layers can make “natural conditions” difficult to understand and even more difficult to decide how to manage spring into the future.  

The history of a particular spring may be completely buried, as was the case at Spud Rock in the Rincons. Volunteers help rehabilitate the spring by digging out the spring box and evaluating next steps. Photo Credit: Don Swann

For instance, at Spud Rock spring, farmers historically raised potatoes (spuds) and cabbage. In more recent years, surface water at Spud Rock spring has nearly disappeared, necessitating a deeper look at the spring. NPS staff and volunteers discovered a buried spring box and decided to rehabilitate the spring by digging it out and assessing the condition. There is still work to be done long-term to restore the spring, however.  

Check out all of Don’s talk here!

Sky Island Alliance and our partners are working to locate and monitor springs throughout the Sky Islands. Almost two years ago we initiated the Spring Seeker program, which just passed 600 surveys of springs throughout Arizona and Mexico! Our 600th spring survey was in the Rincon Mountains, where Don’s talk focused. Learn more about our Spring Seeker program and water in the desert by exploring these resources: 

  • Our community science effort to locate and monitor Sky Island springs has reached a new milestone! We have completed 600 Spring Seeker surveys since the inception of the program in Summer 2020. Explore the Spring Seeker program on our website and join us as a volunteer! 
  • Don mentioned perennial tinajas, or water-filled rock pools. There is a survey project in the Rincon Mountains to find and protect these special water sources. Learn more HERE
  • The Springs Stewardship Institute is also a great source of information on springs throughout the West! 

Our 600th Spring Seeker survey was completed by volunteer Brit Rosso in the Rincon Mountains. The image shows a small pool of water, surrounded by rock and green vegetation, including deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and seep monkeyflower (Erythranthe guttata), two plants often found at springs. (Photo Credit: Brit Rosso)