In northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States, limited water supplies and fragile landscapes jeopardize world-renowned biological diversity. Simple rock detention structures have been used to manage agricultural water for over a thousand years and are now being installed to restore ecohydrological functionality but with little scientific evidence of their success. The impacts, design, and construction of such structures has been debated among local restoration practitioners, management, and permitting agencies. This article presents archeological documentation, local contentions, and examples of available research assessments of rock detention structures in the Madrean Archipelago Ecoregion. A US Geological Survey study to quantify impacts of rock detention structures using remote-sensing analyses, hydrologic monitoring, vegetation surveys, and watershed modeling is discussed, and results rendered in terms of the critical restoration ecosystem services provided. This framework provides a means for comparing management actions that might directly or indirectly impact human populations and assessing tradeoffs between them.