A combination of our rich cultural heritage, strong intergovernmental relationships, and an unexpected turn of events has resulted in a unique opportunity for southern Arizona residents.
This year, Town of Marana and Pima County have entered a collaborative initiative to enrich the Los Morteros Conservation Area and the El Rio Preserve along the Tucson Mountains, and create an immersive experience for residents and visitors seeking recreational and educational opportunities in the natural environment.
Once home to ancestral Native American villagers, both locations were used as a campsite during the Spanish Colonial period by the 1775 Juan Bautista de Anza expedition, and later by Mexican and Territorial American-period ranchers and farmers, including the Pascua Yaqui. It was once the location of the 19th century historic “Pointer Mountains” Butterfield Stage Station. Los Morteros is a significant resource because of its undisturbed environment, including the remains of an ancient village with ball court and plaza, which the Tohono O’odham Nation also considers an ancestral site. It is currently one of two County-owned archaeological conservation areas open to the public, and serves as a destination for the Marana Gastronomy Tours offered by Discover Marana. To this day, visitors can still view the original mortor holes that ancient villagers used in the boulders to grind dried mesquite beans and pods into flour.
In 2014, heavy rains altered the course of the Santa Cruz River through south Marana, which overwhelmed the berm and created what we affectionately termed “Lake Marana”. This surprising oasis began a sequence of events that would lead to many opportunities, including relocating the disc golf course to another location along the property, and designating the area as El Rio Preserve in 2015 to accommodate the lush riparian area. 250 avian species have been recorded in recent years, as birdwatchers from around the world flocked to our community to observe its natural beauty.
A partnership between the affiliated agencies to enrich the area quickly followed. Part of the collaborative improvements included a crosswalk on Coachline Boulevard to link Los Morteros to El Rio Preserve, which served as a physical symbol of the County and Town’s approach in developing and promoting the recreational and educational opportunities represented by both amenities.
Continued improvements by Pima County to Los Morteros include erosion control, pedestrian trails, placement of interpretive signage, and a northern entry point. Current El Rio Preserve improvements are the first of several phases. This year, Town of Marana broke ground on an observation deck, including a plaza with interpretive signage, sitting area, butterfly garden, native landscaping, and water harvesting basins, which will add to the existing ramada and parking areas built by Pima County.
Upcoming phases will include pedestrian paths running the length of the El Rio Preserve, and a new 18-hole disc golf course along the riverbank. Pima County Flood Control District will construct a levy to keep the Santa Cruz River water in its channel during normal flows, and accept river water into the preserve area during above-normal rain events. Town of Marana will also include additional vantage points for birders, school groups, and all our residents to experience the natural environment up close at this oasis in the desert.
Town of Marana and Pima County staff involved in the projects are active members in the Lower Santa Cruz Living River Project, a joint initiative of the Sonoran Institute and local government agencies who supports research and educational and recreational projects. Our joint projects will contribute to their overall mission, including increased understanding of wetland conditions, and improving the public’s understanding of the value of wetlands.
I am excited to be a part of this joint initiative, as we enrich a valued part of our community and grow our partnerships with our regional neighbors. Once completed in October, Marana and County residents will have a unique destination that is not only steeped in history, but also a fun recreational option for the family.
El Rio Preserve phase 1 is slated for completion mid-October. For more information, visit http://www.maranaaz.gov/elrio