Strengthening Resilience of Arid Region Riparian Corridors:
Ecohydrology and Decision Making in the Sonora and San Pedro Watersheds

Rio Sonora and Rio San Pedro Basins

This NSF funded: Dynamics of Coupled-Natural Human Systems project seeks to define the interacting influences of changes in climate, hydrology, and agent decision-making on the social and ecological resilience of the riparian corridors of two arid region rivers: the Rio Sonora in northwest Mexico and the binational San Pedro River originating at the same water­shed divide and flowing into the U.S. Southwest. Land use and decision-making differ markedly in the two watersheds: the Sonora provides ecosystem services pri­marily to subsistence agriculture and ranching, while the San Pedro supports urban activities, mining, a military base, and eco- tourism. In focusing on riparian corridors (defined as the transect from paleo-terraces to floodplains to the stream-aquifer system where biodiversity is most directly linked to hydrological processes) the project explores both coupled natural and human forcing of, and subsequent response to, riparian SES dynamics.


Social-Ecological Systems conceptual model. Solid arrows indicate water flow; dashed arrows show agents’ decision-making causality.

Social-Ecological Systems conceptual model. Solid arrows indicate water flow; dashed arrows show agents’ decision-making causality.


Our overarching goal is to enhance and refine the theoretical  foundations of resilience in human-dominated riparian systems t  through innovative conceptual and applied modeling. Specifically,  building on the SES framework (Holling 1973, Adger 2000, Gunderson  and Holling 2002, Gunderson et al. 2010), this project aims to  improve understanding of the mechanisms and extent to which  climate change-driven hydrologic variability induces institutional and  individual societal response and how societal responses affect the  biophysical system.



Research Questions. We organize our proposed research around four questions:

Rio Sonora

  • How can the resilience of coupled social-ecological riparian corridors be defined and measured?
  • How do distinct riparian SESs respond to different sources and magnitudes of change, considering interactions among ecohydrological and social-institutional subsystems?
  • Can critical thresholds be identified through scenario experimentation based on empirical data, and if so, what are the implications of threshold exceedances for SES dynamics?
  • What are the implications of this research for natural resource management in the two study watersheds and in arid region coupled-system riparian corridors elsewhere?



      National Science Foundation (NSF)

     This Dynamics of Coupled Human Systems grant is funded by NSF, an independent federal        agency tasked  “to promote the progress of science.”



Lead Partners

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The University of Arizona is the coordinating institution for the project with Principal Investigators (PI) and co-PIs from the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, School of Geography and Development, Department of Hydrology and Water Resources, and Biosphere 2.


El Colegio logo


El Colegio de Sonora (COLSON) is a lead partner of the project.




Universidad de Sonora (UNISON) is a lead partner of the project.



University of Copenhagen is a lead partner of the project.