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Sabino Creek dwindles, but tranquil pools remain

The creek in popular Sabino Canyon northeast of Tucson has slowed to a trickle in the dry and increasingly hot days of late spring — but visitors in search of watery splendor can still find it in tranquil pools that remain along the watercourse.

“There’s just a very slight amount of water seeping over Sabino Dam” in the heart of the canyon, said Emmet McGuire, field office chief at the Arizona Water Science Center. A gauge “is showing 0.09 cubic feet per second, so it’s just barely seeping if it is flowing at all.

“It will probably be dry within the next week,” McGuire said. “We’ve probably seen the end of the flow until the monsoon.”

The effects of that dry-up, which often occurs in late spring, are tempered by the beauty — and ecological value — of pools that linger long after the streamflow stops.

POOLS BENEFIT WILDLIFE

“The pools are like a biological hot spot,” said Mark Hengesbaugh, a member of the Sabino Canyon Volunteer Naturalists. “Because water is so scarce in the desert, the pools often have wildlife around them.

“I’m seeing pools all the way from the top of the road in the canyon all the way down below Sabino Dam,” Hengesbaugh said. “It seems like the longer the pools last, the more profuse the bird life is. We see more species, and more individuals within each species, as long as the water is there.”

He said the water and greenery around the pools attracts a variety of insects.

“When the bugs are there, then the things that prey on bugs — such as lizards, snakes and birds — are also there,” Hengesbaugh said.

OF FISH AND FROGS

Pools in the canyon play a critical role in the lives of native fish and frogs, said David Lazaroff, a naturalist who has written books about Sabino Canyon.

“Every year around this time, as Sabino Creek begins its early-summer drying out, visitors to Sabino Canyon wonder what will happen to all the fish,” Lazaroff said. “It’s a good question. After all, the fish can’t suddenly speed up evolution, science-fiction style, grow legs, and walk away.

“Oddly enough,” he said, “certain other creatures do something like that every year. Canyon treefrogs — those little, granite-colored frogs that cling to the boulders along Sabino Creek — begin laying their eggs in the stream around April. Out of the eggs hatch not frogs but tadpoles, and these tiny, fish-like animals might be in trouble later on if evolution hadn’t neatly timed their life cycle. Before the stream dries up, the tadpoles grow legs and lungs, turn into froglets, and hop away.”

Lazaroff said Sabino’s native fish, members of a species called the Gila chub, “aren’t quite so talented.”

“They simply seek out the deepest pools and take their chances against evaporation,” he said. “If enough water remains in a pool through the drought, the fish survive to swim another day. If the pool dries up they’re raccoon food. Fortunately, every year enough pools hold water through June for Gila chub to repopulate the creek once it’s refilled by summer rains.”

Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at dkreutz@tucson.com or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz


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