Oak Creek Recreation Survey (cont.)

Marco Janssen


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Nestled between Flagstaff and Sedona, Oak Creek Canyon is a staple in Arizona’s tourism and recreation industries. With inflows from the Verde River, Oak Creek Canyon is a popular destination for both in-state and out-of-state visitors, with plenty of options for recreation, including camping, hiking, and swimming. As the City of Sedona draws in over three million visitors a year, the Canyon has become a popular tourist destination, bringing significant economic benefits to the local community while providing essential ecosystem services to regional water sources. 

With an influx of visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the watershed is affected by E. coli due to several pollutants, mostly caused by human activities. As visitors continue to visit the Canyon, they often leave behind trash, namely diapers, which can then infiltrate and contaminate the watershed. After facilitating a series of community workshops and meetings regarding the issue of E. coli contamination in Oak Creek Canyon, key stakeholders, including the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality – Water Quality Division (ADEQ) and the City of Sedona, decided to partner with Leave No Trace to develop an educational communication campaign targeted at recreational users visiting Oak Creek Canyon. The campaign is targeted toward visitors and includes simple but effective messaging for visitors to reduce their environmental impact. 

A graduate student from the School of Sustainability evaluated the campaign’s effectiveness and visitor’s awareness of issues in the Canyon in partnership with ASU Project Cities, starting with a pilot survey during the summer 2022 recreation season. Following the initial analysis of the campaign, undergraduate students participating in the Sustainability Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) applied research program continued the study through fall 2022 and spring 2023. The students continued data collection with a revised survey and interviewed key community stakeholders to inform strategies and recommendations for managing E. coli contamination throughout Oak Creek Canyon. 

While the students found that people recreating near water sources are relatively aware of the Canyon’s water contamination risk, most recreation users do not identify E.coli as the source of water impairment. Generally, people on trails are less concerned about water quality issues, although all traces left while recreating in the watershed can potentially enter Oak Creek. Overall, the students found high awareness about the main causes of water contamination related to recreational activities, except for diapers, and the good practices for improving water quality. 

Visitors indicated the need for more education and infrastructure, such as garbage cans, pet stations, and restrooms. Based on the interviews with key stakeholders, students identified a critical need for more structured cooperation and communication among stakeholders to address water quality concerns in Oak Creek Canyon. Through greater collaboration, stakeholders can take a targeted approach to addressing issues in the Canyon through educational messaging and improved infrastructure.

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