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Mexico-U.S. border wall construction threatens sacred Quitobaquito oasis in Arizona

  • Mexico-U.S. border wall construction threatens sacred Quitobaquito oasis in Arizona
    Quitobaquito Pond (Wikipedoa/CC).

Quitobaquito Springs, an oasis in the portion of the Sonoran Desert located in Arizona, has been used by native tribes for more than 10,000 years. This one-of-a kind spot is home to the Sonoyta pupfish and the Sonoran mud turtle, endangered species unique to the springs. It is also considered sacred by the Hia-Ced O’odham indigenous people.

But the water flow in the oasis, already in decline since the 1980s, has decreased about 30% since March and it is at its lowest point in more than ten years, informs National Geographic. The water pond is about 60 metres from the boundary with Mexico, where construction of the border wall is in progress. Wall construction uses large amounts of groundwater which could be exacerbating already falling water tables, drying up the springs in Quitobaquito.

Quitobaquito is located in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Originally a spring flowed into a wetland, but in 1962 the National Park Service (NPS) enlarged the pond and built a clay liner. It has been repaired several times in the past and the NPS suspects it is leaking, but work on it has been delayed due to the pandemic. Water levels at the springs usually fluctuate, said a spokesperson from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), who monitors the area jointly with the NPS.

Although groundwater hydrology in the area is complex and not fully understood, at least part of the water that enters Quitobaquito likely comes from the Sonoyta aquifer which was already being depleted due to overdraft for agriculture and ranching in Sonora, Mexico.

The pupfish and mud turtles that live in the spring can only be found at Quitobaquito Sprins and a small part of Mexico’s Sonoyta River. They are adapted to survive in the desert’s arid conditions. The pupfish can survive in shallow water with very little oxygen and at temperatures of some 37 degrees Celsius. The Arizona monsoon should bring rain to Quitobaquito very soon, and hopefully will increase water levels in the pond. In the meantime, the NPS is "working with agency partners on short-term strategies to maintain habitat and survival for the Quitobaquito pupfish and Sonoyta mud turtles” said Vanesa Lacayo, public affairs specialist. In the long term, they are looking into options to protect the habitat with input from the public and tribes.

The O’odham are offended by the desecration of Quitobaquito, used for ceremonies and to worship ancestors, but also by the construction of the border wall in their ancestral homeland. This type of large-scale construction would usually require studies and consultations, according to legislation like the  Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. But the 2005 Real ID Act allows waivers to any laws that interfere with the construction of physical barriers at the border, at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security. Tribes members and environmentalists are upset that the CBP and its contractors are not required to abide by any of those laws. Democratic congressman Raúl Grijalva, representing the district where Quitobaquito is located, is opposed to the expansion of the border fence: “It looks like Trump’s border wall continues to damage environmental treasures and sacred Native American sites like Quitobaquito Springs,” he said. “What’s happening in Organ Pipe is one of the many reasons why we should end wall construction once and for all.”

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