Vast expanses of the main pond at Agua Caliente Park northeast of Tucson have dried up in the drought - and even 55,000 gallons of well water pumped daily into the spring-fed pond won't refill it, officials say.
"It's absolutely as dry as it's ever been. It's really heartbreaking," said Wendy Burroughs, environmental education program manager for Pima County.
The county manages the park, known officially as Roy P. Drachman-Agua Caliente Regional Park. It's at 12325 East Roger Road.
Burroughs said the main reasons for the loss of water are ongoing drought conditions, loss of spring flow to the pond, evaporation in the heat, and transpiration - giving off of moisture - by palm trees and cattails around the pond.
"The spring essentially stopped running last summer," she said. "There has been intermittent flow since that time, but it's still at a very low level."
That has drastically reduced the pond, which provides important habitat for aquatic wildlife and attracts bird-watchers, walkers and others to what has long been a natural oasis in the desert.
Water remains in some parts of the pond, but much of it has been reduced to dried, cracked mud flats.
Burroughs had no immediate information on the pond's normal acreage or the percentage of it that's now dry.
PRESERVING THE POND
Burroughs said pumping well water into the pond has kept it from drying up more drastically but won't be enough to refill it completely.
"We're supplementing with 55,000 gallons a day" of well water, she said. "That's essentially the maximum we can draw from the well according to our permit" from the Arizona Department of Water Resources. "It's not having a bigger effect on refilling the pond because of the rate of evaporation and transpiration from plants."
Monsoons rains will add water, but it's unlikely the rains will have a substantial effect on refilling the pond.
Possible long-term solutions to the problem include bringing reclaimed water to the pond, reducing its surface area and installing a liner to limit water loss, Burroughs said.
Most of those solutions, she said, are "high-ticket ideas" and probably would require a bond package to pay for them.
"We're talking about solutions because the county is quite motivated to maintain the historic character of this desert oasis in whatever way it can be done," Burroughs said.
IMPACTS ON WILDLIFE
"The wildlife is still using the area, but we don't see the variety of waterfowl we usually see," Burroughs said. "Normally we would have a pretty good flock of mallards" - but not this year.
A few of the fish in the pond - which include bass, grass carp, bluegills and others - have died as waters have receded.
Turtles that live in the pond were put there by people and aren't native to the site, Burroughs said.
"They are self-sustaining at this point," she said. "We don't see a die-off from them because they are scavengers" and find sufficient food.
LETDOWN FOR VISITORS
People visiting the pond on Wednesday found it a different sight from what they remember in previous years.
"We've come here at least once a week for years, and I've never seen it this low," said Ned Mackey, who bicycled to the park with Bob Swaim and Don Peters.
On StarNet: Watch a video with the Star's Doug Kreutz showing the dried lagoon at azstarnet.com/video
did you know?
The site of Roy P. Drachman-Agua Caliente Regional Park was part of a cattle ranch in the 1800s and also housed a hot-springs resort in bygone years. The park's name means "hot water" in Spanish.
Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz