What was once a flood basin now looks like a very large pond, or maybe even a midsized lake.

That's what the Ed Pastor Kino Environmental Restoration Project on Tucson's south side looks like this week, thanks to the heavy rains in the Tucson area earlier this month.

Water from the storms has filled the cottonwood-shaded pond to its highest level on record - and that will save taxpayers money for irrigating athletic fields.

The restoration project - part wildlife habitat, part flood-control project and part water-harvesting basin - is storing enough rainfall right now to water all of the various athletic fields at the neighboring Kino Recreation and Sports Complex for the next six months, said County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

If the county had to buy that much reclaimed water - which is what is used to water the fields at the sports complex - it would cost about $86,000, Huckelberry said. As potable drinking water, if purchased from Tucson Water, it would cost about $111,000, he told the Board of Supervisors in a memo.

The water stretches and winds through groves of mesquite, willows and palo verdes as well as cottonwoods for about seven blocks east to west, roughly from Country Club Road to Tucson Boulevard.

For the first time, the large volume of floodwater was also backed up from that pond into the massive, concrete Tucson Diversion Channel that feeds the restoration area. That lasted for a day after the final big rain of the recent series of storms on Sept. 15, Huckelberry wrote.

The restoration project was finished in 2002 at a cost of $12 million, split about 60-40 between the county and federal governments. The entire environmental restoration project spans about 125 acres.

The area is intended to capture runoff from an 18-square-mile, developed area and to control flooding. Besides irrigating the sports fields, it creates a desert wetland area. For 36 years before that, it was a conventional flood control basin, used mainly to detain floodwaters and release them after storms died down.

These days, the county normally harvests about 250 to 400 acre-feet of rainfall from that area in a year to irrigate the fields. The latest storms - primarily the Sept. 15 blast - left somewhere between 300 to 400 acre feet of water in the basin, Huckelberry said. An acre-foot is enough water to support three households for a year.

But only two years ago next month, the project area contained so little rain after a prolonged drought that the county wasn't able to harvest any rainwater for months to spread on the athletic fields. Still, the county has always been able to harvest at least 250 acre-feet of water from the basin in a given year, with the worst runoff year being 2004, said Suzanne Shields, director of the county's Regional Flood Control District.

In a typical year, the project area draws enough water to irrigate athletic fields from later summer until March or April.

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"This is good news obviously from a budget perspective," Huckelberry said of the latest storms. "It will be better news if we get any rains in the winter. Then we won't need to use any reclaimed water on the athletic fields until next summer or even later."

On StarNet: Find stories on nature, wildlife and the environment in Southern Arizona at azstarnet.com/environment

IF YOU GO

• To reach the Environmental Restoration Project, take Kino Boulevard south to Ajo Way, and turn left. Go east to Country Club Road and turn left. Make the first left, at Sam Lena Drive, to drive into the project area and park.

• Depending on the time of year, you can see a good variety of shorebirds and riparian-area birds there.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.