Tucson Water
Runs Deep

Our region's proud water heritage spans centuries.

A Legacy of Water Stewardship

Discover regional traditions that preserve our vital water systems.

Pre-20th Century
Desert Dwellers
A 19th century Zanjero sits in front of an old private water company
Photo courtesy of Arizona Historical Society.
As early as 2,100 BCE there were villages along the Santa Cruz River in the heart of what would become Tucson (source). By 1,200 CE the Hohokam used the Santa Cruz River for drinking water, irrigation, and fishing. Native Americans have continuously inhabited this arid region from prehistoric times to today, pioneering water harvesting and dryland farming techniques and creating the oldest known irrigation canals in North America.

In the 1800s, Southern Arizonans appointed a Zanjero each year. This elected water steward ensured that residents adhered to the communities’ agreed-upon usage standards. During droughts, the Zanjero helped water-use levels to ensure the entire community could share in the resource. Today Tucson continue this tradition, providing free water audits to help customers conserve water.

Members of various immigrating cultures brought traditional practices of sustainable farming, household water conservation and reuse, and rainwater harvesting that underpin some of the water-wise values and methods many Tucsonans practice today.

In 1893, the first unofficial “beat the peak” campaign launched when Tucsonans were encouraged to conserve water during peak hours, delaying usage to the cooler night hours. This tradition continues today.
20th Century
A Boom Built on Groundwater
Downtown Tucson in the 1950s
Photo courtesy of University of Arizona Special Collections.
Throughout the 20th century Tucson (and its expansion) relied on the abundant stores of groundwater beneath our feet, eventually growing to become the largest city on the continent dependent entirely on groundwater.

Groundwater pumping allowed the community to grow but over-pumping dried up springs, wells, and creeks – including the Santa Cruz river itself. As we pulled water from the aquifer faster than it was replenished, the land in some areas began to subside, putting buildings and infrastructure at risk.
Tucson Water crew poses for a photo in front of their truck, circa 1970s
Photo courtesy of Tucson Water archives.
This was a departure from wise water management, but it brought with it a recognition (and a remembrance) that Tucsonans embrace to this day: water is precious and vulnerable in our desert city, and it’s something we can all help to steward as responsible desert dwellers.

In the 1960s and 70s, the City of Tucson purchased farmlands in the Avra Valley, retiring them to stop groundwater pumping and save water rights for the community’s future. In the city, what had been a patchwork of small water systems were consolidated into Tucson Water, becoming a robust, valley-wide water system that could meet the needs of the growing community.
1970s - 2000s
Public Conservation Efforts
In the later part of the 20th century, Tucson Water took the lead on community conversation campaigns that were highly effective in instilling a culture of responsible desert dwelling among new generations.

In 1977, we saw the first official “Beat the Peak” campaign, echoing efforts from a century earlier to lower water use at peak times. The campaign also saw the creation of Pete the Beak, an iconic mascot for water conservation. If you grew up in Tucson in the 1980s or 90s, you probably know and love Pete.
This property uses reclaimed water
Photo courtesy of Tucson Water.
Around this time Tucson Water also began providing community conservation education and offering rebates to customers to implement water saving measures in their homes.

In 1984, Tucson became one of the first communities in the nation to recycle treated wastewater at a large scale for landscape irrigation. Today, most golf courses and parks rely on Tucson Water’s reclaimed water system, known as “purple pipes.” This system has grown to one of the largest in the country.
Building a Water Future
Today our water system looks much different than the groundwater-dependent system we saw in the 20th century.

Now, those retired farmlands in Avra Valley host large basins we use to recharge Colorado River water (delivered by the Central Arizona Project canal) into the local aquifer. For more than 20 years Tucson Water has served this water to customers and stored the excess for the future. Local groundwater supplies have become our “savings account,” a backup supply we can draw on in drier years and add to when there’s water to spare. As we’ve stopped pumping so much local groundwater, aquifers have begun to recover, rising more than 100 feet near downtown.
An infographic shows positive water level change across most of Tucson
Infographic courtesy of Tucson Water.
In 2008, the City of Tucson Mayor and Council established a defined service boundary for Tucson Water, outside of which the utility cannot serve water. This policy recognizes that our water resources are finite, and makes it possible for us to plan for a sustainable future.

In recent decades, our community has become known as a global leader in rainwater harvesting, water recycling, and conservation. One culmination of these efforts came in 2019, when the Santa Cruz River near downtown began to flow again after 100 years!

Tucson Water’s Santa Cruz River Heritage Project adds up to 2.8 million gallons per day of treated recycled water into the river just south of downtown, providing an oasis enjoyed by residents and wildlife alike. This project helps replenish our groundwater and has brought back some of the abundant native vegetation and native fish and wildlife that disappeared when the river ran dry.

Creative approaches to water management like these are a big part of why Tucson has enough water to thrive in our desert environment both today and tomorrow.
Water sits in the Santa Cruz river on Tucson's west side
Photo courtesy of Tucson Water.

Population Growth vs. Water Usage

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Today Tucsonans use 1/3 less water per person than they did in 1980. This, together with the birth of our reclaimed water system, is how our community grew by 200,000 people without increasing our drinking water use.

Chart is an approximation for illustrative purposes only.

Responsible stewardship of our water system is a shared value across all Tucsonans, and has been for centuries. This sense of pride around our care for our environment has seated us uniquely in the West. It is because of this culture that our water is, and will continue to be, an abundant resource.

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