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Springs Inventory, Assessment, and Management Planning in the Sky Islands

Project Summary

Springs are critical water sources that provide important habitat to a wide variety of species, particularly in arid lands. Arizona has one of the highest densities of springs in the U.S. but these biodiversity hotspots are increasingly threatened by human activity and climate change. Springs in Arizona’s Sky Islands are particularly important climate refugia for plants and animals in a warming, drying world, but they are among the most threatened of the region’s ecosystems. Since many springs and their attributes are little studied despite their ecological significance, the non-profit Sky Island Alliance (SIA) partnered with other entities to conduct an inventory, assessment, and management planning project to address information gaps regarding these vulnerable habitats. Such baseline knowledge is essential to focusing protection and restoration efforts on the highest priority sites, and allows resource managers to better integrate spring stewardship into their land management activities. SIA and its partners collected baseline ecological information on springs and documented their management status. The team subsequently identified priority springs for restoration and protection, in addition to working to increase awareness of the springs’ importance to both resource managers and the general public. The team created an internationally accessible online data portal to share spring monitoring information and worked to help integrate spring stewardship into other land management activities.

Project background and scope

Springs are critical water sources, particularly in arid country and in a warming world. Despite being biodiversity hotspots that often exert a disproportionate influence on surrounding landscapes, many springs are little studied and insufficiently protected. In order to rectify a lack of information about these important water resources and climate refugia in the Sky Island’s of southeastern Arizona, the non-profit Sky Island Alliance and its partners surveyed and monitored the region’s springs. The collaborative effort identified spring locations and evaluated each spring’s biological, hydrological, and ecological characteristics to facilitate future stewardship of these vital desert resources.

Project Process and Implementation

This project relied on hundreds of volunteer citizen scientists to gather baseline ecological information on the region’s springs. The data that were collected filled important information gaps that helped managers prioritize future conservation and restoration efforts for these important ecosystems, and helped foster a greater public appreciation of the value of springs. Finally, the collaborative helped disseminate information about springs both regionally and internationally (through data collection, website information, and an online data portal).

Project Outcomes

This collaborative effort produced a wealth of important information about the region’s springs that helped land management agencies make informed decisions about conserving and restoring these critical resources. Springs were inventoried and assessed across jurisdictional boundaries, and the information that was gathered helped integrate spring management into other land management planning programs and processes. Collaborators also created an online data portal to share springs monitoring data internationally.

Management Objectives

  • Inventoried and assessed springs (and their associated biotic communities) within the Cienega Creek hydrogeologic area to collect baseline biological, hydrological and geological data
  • Conducted assessments of springs to characterize their ecological integrity, assess their vulnerability in the face of a changing climate, and evaluate the extent of current and potential human impacts
  • Coordinated with resource managers to assist in the development and prioritization of future conservation and restoration plans for this vulnerable resource
  • Developed an online Springs Inventory Database
  • Engaged in formal climate change adaptation planning for springs in the Sky Island Region and collaborated on site specific management planning for springs
Riparian and Groundwater-Dependent Ecosystems Approaches: Maintain or restore natural flow regime to buffer against future changes Tactic:
  • Identify and protect springs and groundwater
Increase resilience by preserving biodiversity Tactics:
  • Identify and protect critical areas
  • Inventory plants and other biotic resources associated with springs and groundwater-dependent ecosystems
Increase population resilience by reducing non-climatic threats Tactic:
  • Identify and maintain hydrology of critical habitats
Manage for resilience of groundwater-dependent ecosystems, springs and wetlands by considering the broader forest landscape, including uplands Tactics:
  • Assess the health of springs and evaluate potential resilience to changes in the water supply during the growing season; prioritize areas for management based on the results of the assessment
  • Devise and implement protocols to assess spring flows, volumes, and water quality
Manage water to maintain springs and wetlands; improve soil quality and stability Tactics:
  • Evaluate human impacts to springs and work with managers to mitigate impacts
Hydrology Approach: Improve natural water storage and retention through healthy watersheds, riparian and wetland areas, and groundwater-dependent ecosystems Tactic:
  • Identify and evaluate the impact of water developments at springs and work with managers to mitigate impacts
Fisheries Approaches: Increase understanding of thermal heterogeneity in streams and cold-water refugia Tactic:
  • Identify and inventory springs, and groundwater input to springs
Increase water residence time and store water on landscape Tactic:
  • Identify and protect springs
    Wildlife Approach: Prioritize watersheds based on condition and a variety of resource values, including wildlife Tactic:
    • Identify, protect, and manage springs, which are critical water resources for wildlife in arid lands and are often biodiversity hot-spots

    Project challenges and lessons learned

    Volunteer citizen scientists required initial training on data collection methodologies. Although there was a shortage of volunteers with strong plant identification skills, the use of volunteers was instrumental in increasing the number of areas monitored, keeping costs low, and encouraging the public to become natural resource stewards. The project’s success also depended on engaging land managers to better understand their questions, constraints, and conservation and restoration options. Explore the story map!