Springs in the Sky Island Region: Inventory, Protection and Restoration

Louise Misztal
Posted on: 11/21/2014 - Updated on: 6/08/2021

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Louise Misztal

Project Summary

Springs are keystone ecosystems in the Sky Island Region, exert disproportionate influence on surrounding landscapes, and are known to be biodiversity hotspots. Although they are abundant in this arid region, they are poorly documented and little studied. They also suffer from extensive human modification and are among the most threatened ecosystems. Lack of information on their location, management context, and biological, hydrological, and ecological characteristics hinders effective stewardship of these resources. We developed new information regarding the biological and management status of springs in the Sky Island Region of southeastern Arizona. We employed a combination of expert and citizen science inventories and assessments to collect critical baseline information on known springs in areas of interest and priority for managers in the region. This volunteer-driven inventory program is a model for monitoring climate sensitive resources with limited resources.

New information on the spatial location, temporal attributes, and the biological, hydrological and geomorphological status of springs was applied to management through formal adaptation planning. Data collected through this project and previously existing data from the various cooperating agencies is now available online regionally and internationally through the Springs Inventory Database. This database provides a much-needed landscape level context for making management decisions. Other project components included extensive coordination with resource managers, an interactive map of springs that have been surveyed and survey information, and site-specific management planning for springs.


In response to increasingly dramatic changes in the Sky Island region, Sky Island Alliance initiated a climate change adaptation project in 2009.  Disruptions in the amount, timing, and intensity of precipitation combined with increased temperatures and fires events are already having considerable visible impacts on species, ecological systems and ecosystem service delivery. The Sky Island Region encompasses southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and northern portions of Sonora and Chihuahua. Sky Islands are isolated forested mountain ranges that are surrounded by desert and grassland and are located at the confluence of multiple bioregions including the Sonoran Desert, Chihuahuan Desert, Rocky Mountains and Sierra Madre, thus creating high biological diversity.

Although natural resource managers, scientists, and conservation organizations recognized the need to respond to the effects of climate change, there are many outstanding questions.

  • How can existing information be applied?
  • What is still uncertain and how do we work with uncertainty?
  • What is already being done and what should be done next?

To explore and address these questions, Sky Island Alliance convened a three-part series of climate change adaptation workshops, designed to walk managers through a process to identify practical adaptation strategies.

Workshops were attended by practitioners with extensive expertise in regional ecology including federal, tribal, state and local land and resource managers, academic researchers, private landowners and organizations. Participants utilized data on regional climate change and its effects on ecology to collaboratively identify climate change threats to their management targets, vulnerabilities, and adaptation strategies to reduce vulnerabilities. Increasing aridity and scarcity of available water for wildlife repeatedly emerged as the most pressing threats in the region.

Regional Climate Change Adaptation Workshops for Natural Resources
Workshop 1: Climate Change Adaptation in the Arid Southwest: A Workshop for Land and Resource Management
September 20-21, 2010 in Tucson, Arizona

Goals: Develop a common understanding of the impacts of climate change in the region; build a diverse network of organizations, natural resource managers and scientists interested in continuing to engage on the issues of climate change adaptation; and identify key knowledge, monitoring and implementation needs within the network.

Workshop 2: Between a Rock and a Hot Place: Climate Change Adaptation and Resource Management for the Sky Island Region
April 13-14, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona

Goal: Develop individual and collective actions to address climate change impacts. Focus: Biology, vulnerabilities and adaptation strategies specific to the Sky Island region.

Workshop 3: Learning to Live With the Heat: Adapting to a Changing Climate in the Sky Island Region
May 21-22 in Tucson, Arizona

Goals: Advance ongoing climate change adaptation collaborative projects; introduce new tools and research; share learning, progress, and strategies; and develop next steps for climate change adaptation for natural resources in the region. Focus: wildlife linkages, springs, responding to fire.


Adaptation Strategy Implementation: Inventorying and Restoring Springs

A key adaptation strategy that emerged from the workshops was the need for trans-jurisdictional spring inventory, assessment and restoration. Managers with extensive on-the-ground knowledge identified the lack of critical data on the ecological condition, management status, restoration needs and/or potential of the majority of springs in the region as a serious concern for implementing meaningful climate change-adaptive land management; either the data does not exist or is jurisdiction-specific.

These managers identified adaptation strategies to reduce the vulnerability of springs and wildlife to climate change, including inventorying spring locations, conditions and characteristics, species presence and management status; coordinating data sharing across jurisdictions to understand springs in a regional context; prioritizing springs for restoration and protective management; and coordinating management across jurisdictions to implement protection and restoration of spring ecosystems.

Springs Inventory and Management Planning

Specific project goals include:

  • Reduce the vulnerability of springs to climate change and non-climate stressors.
  • Develop new information about the ecological condition, current management of and threats to new springs in order to inform management decisions.
  • Increase regional understanding of the status of springs, their ecology, and their contribution to resilience at the landscape level and their relationship to the hydrogeologic areas in which they are located.
  • Build and enhance technical capacity to collect and understand critical baseline information on unstudied springs and to monitor them long-term.
  • Help managers adapt management of springs to climate change and promote climate change adaptation practices at the landscape scale.
  • Guide future restoration efforts to increase the resilience of springs ecosystems in the face of climate change impacts and non-climate stressors.
  • Enhance stewardship of springs in the face of climate change by providing information necessary to make management decisions, replicable models for inventory, and by conducting adaptation planning.


Springs Restoration

We seek to increase the resilience of spring resources and the wildlife that rely on them by removing human-caused stressors and restoring their ecological function. We also seek to demonstrate climate change adaptation strategy implementation and efficacy through hands-on work, the monitoring of ecosystem response and methods effectiveness, and dissemination of this information.

Activities include:
  • Implement site-specific restoration plans based on the current Springs Project collected data, a restoration assessment and an agency, partner, and stakeholder site visit.
  • Restore nine springs to a more natural state including hydrology, vegetation and animal communities, geomorphology, and ecosystem function.
  • Re-assess spring health at the springs restored using the same assessment protocols from baseline spring assessment.
  • Publish and publicize restoration and assessment methodologies (from adaptation planning to project implementation).

This project is funded by the Kresge Foundation, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, the Wildlife Conservation Society Climate Change Adaptation Fund, and the Desert Landscape Conservation Cooperative. This project was made possible by hundreds of volunteers that contributed many thousands of hours to survey springs in the field and to participate in restoration activities.


Project partners include the Springs Stewardship Institute, Coronado National Forest, Pima County, Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGF), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Safford Field Office, Bat Conservation International, Southwest Research Station, USGS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center, The Nature Conservancy, Desert Botanic Garden, Desert Landscape Conservation Cooperative, University of Arizona, National Park Service Sonoran Desert Monitoring Network, Saguaro National Park, Pima Association of Governments, and private landowners.

We have undertaken the following activities:

  • Work collaboratively with land and resource managers to identify priority watersheds for spring surveys
  • Develop a regional database for housing and serving historic data from cooperating agencies along with new data generated through this project.
  • Conduct spring inventories and assessments using trained volunteers and professional staff and partner personnel (principally biologists and hydrologists) and institute a citizen scientist monitoring framework.
  • Formal trainings on springs protocols for volunteers and managers conducted in cooperation with the Springs Stewardship Institute
  • Conduct spatial and temporal analysis of newly gathered assessment data in combination with historical data to identify springs of highest conservation value and highest priority for restoration.
  • Conduct a workshop on developing a springs restoration guidebook with practitioners and experts in cooperation with the Coronado National Forest
  • Constructed three new ponds using an excavator in May of 2014 during a collaborative Wetlands Creation and Restoration Workshop held at the Southwest Research Station in Portal – participants came from four states and various agencies to learn the ropes from wetlands expert Tom Biebighauser. The ponds were designed to allow bats to drink from them, Chiricahua leopard frogs to live and breed in them, and to provide food and cover for pollinators and wildlife.
  • We removed invasive plants and installed native plants to increase wildlife resources and decrease plant water use at Rancho Fundoshi spring in the Santa Catalina Mountains.
  • We repaired a spring fed pond and installed native plants at Wild Duck pond in the Huachuca Mountains.
  • We installed fencing around a large perennial spring on private property to keep cows out of the wetland habitat. This will improve water quality and, coupled with planting of native species will restore plant diversity.
  • We installed wildlife entry/exit ramps at developed springs that are in key locations to support meta-populations of endangered Chiricahua leopard frogs.
  • We repaired fencing at a high elevation open water spring to keep cows out and maintain plant diversity.

Outcomes and Conclusions

Project outcomes include:

  1. New protocols for using trained volunteers to collect hydrological and biological data on springs ecosystems,
  2. New critical baseline data on springs and a regional analysis of threats to springs, 
  3. A regional database to inform management,
  4. An adaptation plan for springs in the Sky Island Region,
  5. Identification of protection and restoration actions,
  6. Restoration of 9 priority springs, and
  7. Assessment of restoration efficacy.


Springs Inventories

We developed new information regarding the biological and management status of springs in the Sky Island Region of southeastern Arizona. Newly collected and previously existing assessment information from the various cooperating agencies (Pima County, Santa Cruz County, US Forest Service, National Park Service, US Geologic Survey, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Arizona Game and Fish Department) is now available online regionally and internationally through the Springs Inventory Database. This database is a central repository for inventory information that transcends jurisdictional boundaries and provides information about water availability, its relationship to groundwater basins and its importance to wildlife, plants and humans. This database provides a landscape level context for making decisions about management of these crucial resources; this integrated approach was not previously possible due to data being stored by individual agencies in different formats.

Our study area was the Cienega Creek hydrogeologic area within which we identified 118 springs using existing maps, expert input, and survey data. We inventoried and assessed springs within the hydrologic area to collect baseline biological, hydrological and geological data and conducted assessments to characterize springs ecological integrity in relation to human influences. We used geospatially-stratified random sampling to identify a subset of 50 springs for targeted assessment. This allowed us to draw conclusions about springs ecosystems and integrity at a regional level. We visited a total of 61 springs, 45 of which were part of the random-sample study design and 43 of which we were able to locate. We also inventoried all previously unmapped springs that we discovered through field surveys. See the link to the final report for more information.

We conducted spring inventories and assessments with teams that consisted of at least one Sky Island Alliance staff person trained in springs inventory protocols (or a suitable professional partner substitute) and one or more volunteers formally trained in assessment protocols.

Springs inventories and assessments were part of a larger Sky Island Region project focused on improving the understanding and management of springs. Other project components included extensive coordination with resource managers, development of an online Springs Inventory Database, formal climate change adaptation planning for springs in the Sky Island Region and site specific management planning for springs.


Next Steps

  • Train managers in use of the online Springs Inventory Database
  • Implementation of Adopt a Spring to monitor key springs, including restored springs, to record seasonal changes in flow and water quality and to track climate change impacts
  • Publication of an Arizona Springs Restoration Guidebook and associated website to inform climate-smart restoration techniques
  • Further surveys and assessments of springs in the Sky Island Region and expand surveys to the Mexico portion of the region
  • Begin to address fire impacts to springs and ecosystems - convene a workshop on the nexus of scarce water resources and fire regime changes to further develop adaptation strategies
  • Ongoing outreach via case studies, webinars, and presentations at professional meetings to share project methods, outcomes and lessons learned
  • Seek further funding for addressing restoration needs at the springs identified as priorities for restoration to support wildlife adaptation and ecosystem function


Lessons Learned

Querying managers to understand their information needs and management objectives before constructing this project proposal was key to its success. It ensured we were developing the right level of information and focusing our efforts on the right outcomes. Continued coordination with partners throughout the project has also been key to its success. This type of coordination also causes changes in approaches to management as more creative energy is focused on identifying and solving management challenges associated with springs. Springs ecosystems have risen to the forefront of conversations in the region in relation to wildlife adaptation to climate change, amphibian management, watershed restoration efforts, management planning and other topics.

Through the course of the project we identified a water quality measurement tool that is not only significantly less expensive than our original tool to purchase and calibrate, but much more accessible to volunteers and easier to carry. Moving forward we will be using the Hannah combo handheld meter for field measurements of water quality, and we will share this insight with other land managers involved in spring monitoring activities.

Volunteer surveyors were a critical component of this project. We would not have been able to complete the extensive fieldwork without a corps of trained volunteers. This project demonstrates that in times of decreased agency resources, properly trained and led volunteers are a valuable workforce for gathering baseline information on springs. A key consideration in using volunteers as the primary work force is data quality control and protocol compliance. Because of this, we recommend that volunteer teams always be accompanied by a staff professional formally trained in assessment protocols.

Volunteer recruitment and maintenance were critical to this project. We found that planning fieldwork to travel to high elevations sites in the summer and low elevation sites in the winter is most effective for volunteer participation. We found engaging volunteers in springs inventories to be an excellent avenue for educating the public on the importance of these waters. Our volunteer engagement model is building a community of local citizens that have an interest in understanding and stewarding springs ecosystems, and may be a powerful voice for conservation measures that will require public support.

The randomized sample design was key to developing information on springs that could be generalized to the full study area. This framework was important to ensuring that springs inventories were not limited to well-known and/or easily accessible sites but covered a diversity of springs.

In future inventory work, there is a need for volunteers with plant identification skills. This could be accomplished through targeted training of volunteers in plant identification. It could also potentially be addressed by coordinating more effectively with organizations like the Arizona Native Plant Society or with our agency partners to get professional assistance on surveys.


Misztal, L. (2014). Springs in the Sky Island Region: Inventory, Protection and Restoration. Ed. Rachel M. Gregg [Case study on a project of the Sky Island Alliance and partners]. Retrieved from CAKE: www.cakex.org/case-studies/springs-sky-island-region-inventory-protection-and-restoration (Last updated November 2014).

Affiliated Organizations

Sky Island Alliance is a grassroots organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of the rich natural heritage of native species and habitats in the Sky Island region of the southwestern United States (Arizona, New Mexico) and northwestern Mexico (Sonora, Chihuahua).

We work with volunteers, scientists, land owners, public officials, and government agencies to establish protected areas, restore healthy landscapes, and promote public appreciation of the region's unique biological diversity.

Although they are among the most biologically and culturally important and highly threatened ecosystems on Earth, springs are poorly studied and inadequately protected. Most springs are relatively small size, yet they support at least 20% of the endangered animals in the United States, as well as untold thousands of rare or highly restricted species.