Sherry Sass of Tubac has a passion for the health of the Santa Cruz River. A scientist and environmentalist, she’s friendly, energetic, determined and a long-time community activist.
In 1991, Sass was among those who founded Friends of the Santa Cruz River to help protect the water, plants and animals of the local waterway, and 28 years later the nonprofit organization continues to support the environment through its advocacy.
Why has she stayed with FOSCR all that time? “It’s close to my heart. I think even if I moved to the moon, I would still be a member,” she said.
“One reason is that I have the heart of a biologist and the life along this river is spectacular, and I just can’t get enough of it, ever.”
The second reason is “all the fabulous people I have met working on this river and other people that care about it.”
Ben Lomeli, an FOSCR board member who has known Sass since 1996, said: “She’s an incredible person and she has an incredible amount of energy. I don’t know how she does so many things for so long.”
She is also a board member for the new Tubac Nature Center, which opened in January at the Tubac Community Center and focuses on environmental education.
Sass has the professional qualifications to be an advocate. She holds master’s degrees in ecology from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and in public administration from the University of Arizona. She and her husband, Dr. Carlton Baker, moved to Arizona from Massachusetts in 1988 and moved to Tubac in 1991 with their young daughter, Justine.
Early advocacy for the Santa Cruz River, which flows north, east of Nogales, through Rio Rico and through Tubac, began in the 1990s. The river was polluted due to the poor quality of effluent being released into it from the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant in Rio Rico.
Friends of the Santa Cruz River played a significant role in lobbying the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to upgrade the treatment plant. Sass looks back on that accomplishment with satisfaction.
“We did help demonstrate that there was a tremendous concern for the water quality and habitat and I think that helped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which really pushed the EPA to protect endangered topminnow, and they did,” she said.
“The EPA upgraded that plant and it made all the difference in the world, so we got our fish back. That was a wonderful thing.”
Connie Williams, a FOSCR member and volunteer with the Anza Trail Coalition, has started an educational program called “Corridor Keepers” that helps families and elementary-aged children learn about the Santa Cruz River. She called Sass “naturally careful and accurate.”
“I learn something interesting whenever I hear her talk about how life interconnects along the river. She works tirelessly to keep our environment healthy and safe,” Williams said.
Going forward, Sass said, FOSCR is concerned with protecting the river from residential development, the aging International Outfall Interceptor sewer line that periodically breaks and contaminates the waterway, and pollution from the Nogales Wash.
“The only long-term way to deal with those problems is to look at a comprehensive solution, the whole watershed – both cities” Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora.
Friends of the Santa Cruz River is also working to make sure the river doesn’t simply dry up, which requires clean effluent from the treatment plant that originates largely in Mexico.
“Long term, we want to help develop a way to pay Mexico for the river’s use. Our whole aquifer benefits,” Sass said.
Overall, she said, the situation looks to be improving, and she believes that the river, the trees and plants along it, and the local and migrating birds “have become a part of how Santa Cruz County identifies itself.”
Learn more at friendsofsantacruzriver.org.