Mural Highlights Endangered Sonoran Pronghorn, Southwestern Marsh Bird

YUMA, Ariz. – The fastest land mammal in North America and a large-footed marsh bird in the Southwest have been listed as endangered for more than half a century. The Sonoran pronghorn and the Yuma Ridgway’s rail are featured in a vibrant new mural at the Arizona Western College theater that’s meant to show how climate change and human activity are serious threats to these animals.

The Sonoran pronghorn’s range is bounded by Interstates 10 and 19, the Colorado River and the border with Mexico. The Yuma ridgway’s rail, formerly known as the Yuma clapper rail, makes its home in the wetlands and flatlands ranging from the Colorado River Delta in Mexico up the Colorado River to southern Nevada. There are more rail populations along the Gila River into Phoenix, and by the shrinking Salton Sea in California.

“They sort of represent a lot of what the Yuma ecology is really defined by: the meeting of the rivers and the broad, open desert; that’s kind of austere,” said artist Roger Peet, who’s coordinating the Endangered Species Mural Project in association with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.

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The mural is meant to bring awareness to how change in the environment threatens the survival of these species, which were listed as endangered in 1967. Drought caused by overextraction and misuse of water threaten the rail’s marshy habitat, while the pronghorns are affected by Border Patrol activity along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Studies show that the pronghorn were being disturbed an average of once every four hours by Border Patrol helicopters, by Border Patrol SUVs, and I mean, imagine being one of only 19 animals left,” said Laiken Jordahl, who works on borderlands issues for the Center for Biological Diversity. “You have to repopulate your entire species or face extinction and you’re being disturbed every four hours.”

Since 2002, when there were just 19 Sonoran pronghorn in the U.S., the population has increased to about 200. In 2018, the Yuma Ridgeway’s rail population in the U.S. improved to an estimated 757.

Mural of a jaguar by Tucson, Ariz., artist Kati Astraeir. (Photo by Russ McSpadden/ Center for Biological Diversity)

Peet, who lives in Portland, Ore., has painted many murals around the country featuring endangered animals. He usually partners with a local artist in each location.

This time, he partnered with Lucinda Hinojos of Phoenix, who’s widely known as La Morena. She traditionally paints immigration murals, and this was her first environmental piece.

“These type of murals actually unite and bring people together and that’s what I love about murals and that’s one of the reasons why I paint is to educate and bring people together, so they get the information they need,” Hinojos said.

The Endangered Mural Project has 20 murals in multiple cities, including sockeye salmon in Portland, a blue whale in Los Angeles and a jaguar in Tucson.

Treatment plant battles leaking sewage pipe, heavy metals that kill key microbes

NOGALES – A transborder pipeline that brings millions of gallons of raw sewage from Mexico to the U.S. faces challenges on two fronts. The pipe is nearly 70 years old and increasingly prone to leaksand heavy metals in the wastewater are causing problems at the Arizona plant where it’s treated.

Every day, 14 million gallons of wastewater are delivered to the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant near Rio Rico after traveling about 9 miles through a pipeline known as the International Outfall Interceptor. The arrangement was reached in the 1940s when the U.S. agreed to treat sewage from Mexico. The treated effluent also is used to supplement the Santa Cruz River and riparian areas along its banks.

After a monsoon storm surge last July, the pipe broke, spewing millions of gallons of raw sewage and toxic heavy metals into streams that feed the Santa Cruz. That section of pipe has been fixed, but the entire pipe needs repairs.

The Santa Cruz river in Tubac, Arizona. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Cronkite News)

There are plans to line the pipe with fabric coated in special resin. It would cost nearly $25 million, most of which would come from federal funds. The remaining $4.6 million would come from Arizona or local entities.

Erin Jordan with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality said conversations are ongoing over where they could find those dollars.

That’s the long-term solution, but U.S. and Mexico officials must deal with how to keep the system working with microorganisms that feed off the sewage.

After the water gets to the treatment center, it takes 12 hours for full treatment. Microorganisms are one step of the process before the treated water is released into the Santa Cruz River. Without this effluent, the river would shrink to 6 miles long from 18 miles long in Santa Cruz County.

Hans Huth, an ADEQ hydrologist, said those microorganisms struggle to survive when such metals as nickel, copper and zinc are present. In June, a spike in zinc in the wastewater decreased the microbes’ efficiency. Lori Kuczmanski with the International Border and Water Commission, which operates the Nogales treatment center, said the metals come from south of the border, but the exact source of the contamination isn’t known.

“The levels were high enough to impair the operational efficiency of the plant, specifically the microbiology,” Huth said at a public meeting earlier this month in Tubac.

Lorenzo Ortiz, Assistant Area Operations Manager of Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant talks about the workings of the treatment plant in Nogales, Arizona.The plant processes wastewater from Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona and puts the treated water into the Santa Cruz river. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Cronkite News)

Glycerin helps keep the microbes active when water toxicity gets too high, Kuczmanski said. If the bacteria die off, ammonia could end up in the river and hurt wildlife.

Officials are now looking for options to either certify labs in Mexico to test and monitor metal levels there. Otherwise, a U.S. lab may have to step up and support the effort to ensure compliance.

Even though the wastewater brings hazards, the water helps keep the Santa Cruz River from shrinking and provides water to farmers and industry.

Green Valley resident Marilyn French-St. George, who attended the public meeting, said she worries the water may disappear.

“I’m of an age where I don’t want to be moving in my 80s because there’s no water,” French-St. George said. “All the value of my home is diminished considerably because of poorer water quality.”

– Video by Bryce Newberry

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.