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San Pedro River Faces a New Threat


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17 April 2013, 2:55 PM
Massive development could kill desert ribbon of life
Rich ecosystems flourish around the San Pedro River.  (Jeff Kennedy / USGS)

The upper San Pedro River valley in Arizona is the epitome of the Wild West. Open and arid, stretching north from Mexico and lying in the shadow of the rugged Huachuca Mountains, the valley looks much the same as it did more than a century ago when miners and settlers uneasily shared the land. It is a place where the long shadows at sunset bring visitors back to a long-past time.

Cutting across that mythic landscape is the treasure of the valley, the San Pedro River, last free-flowing river in the desert Southwest. A remnant of the formerly extensive network of desert riparian ecosystems, the river has dwindled in recent decades as development moved into the valley. And now the San Pedro may be drained to feed a proposed mega-development.

The Southwestern willow flycatcher. (USGS)The Southwestern willow flycatcher.  (USGS)

The river’s death would imperil important habitat for a wide array of species. Even in its current diminished state, the San Pedro provides a refuge from the impacts of development and climate change. The river corridor is one of the most important migratory flyways in the United States; millions of songbirds use it each year during their migrations between Central America and Canada. And two endangered species, the Huachuca water umbel and the southwestern willow flycatcher, call the San Pedro home.

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. (BLM)The San Pedro Riparian
National Conservation Area.  (BLM)

A critical section of the riparian habitat is embraced by the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a 57,000-acre reserve managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to protect and enhance this national gem. The area includes 40 miles of river and adjacent lands. Each year, the conservation area and surrounding lands attract thousands of visitors, who contribute millions of dollars to the local economy.

But the area also includes Sierra Vista, a city of nearly 50,000 at the gates of the still active Fort Huachuca. The city, the fort and other development in this arid region are dependent on groundwater, pumping what they use from an aquifer that is intimately connected to the river.

The San Pedro’s “base flows”—flows that run year-round and are not dependent on precipitation—depend largely on water from the aquifer. The volume of groundwater pumped to accommodate the growing population, lawns and golf courses now far exceeds the amount of water naturally recharging the aquifer. This deficit pumping is leading to a decline in the river’s flow that is projected to worsen in coming years. Sadly, key stretches of the upper San Pedro now stand dry for portions of the year. The river has little left to give.

Earthjustice has worked with our partners for more than a decade to sustain the San Pedro River and the rich ecosystems that flourish there. We seek to keep water in the river until a balance can be struck between the needs of the river and the local communities. Our work has focused on a series of cases challenging inappropriate groundwater depletions by Fort Huachuca. This effort improved the fort’s water management practices and bought the San Pedro some time.

Now, the Arizona Department of Water Resources has approved a massive groundwater pumping project that could be the end of the river. This decision ignores the project’s impact on birds, wildlife, and local residents and businesses that are dependent on a healthy river.

The planned groundwater pumping will feed a massive, 7,000-home new development in Sierra Vista. By the developers’ own admission, the proposed construction will consume “virtually all of the available development land” left in the city and will significantly expand the population of this critically water-short area. The developers could not proceed with the project without the state’s determination of an adequate water supply—a determination the state could only make by assuming there is no connection between groundwater and water in the river.

Incredibly, despite volumes of scientific study demonstrating that the river and the groundwater aquifer are interconnected, the state has now made that determination and the pumping may begin.

Earthjustice attorney McCrystie Adams said:

The upper San Pedro River is the lifeblood of this region. The state of Arizona continues to hold fast to the fiction that groundwater and surface water are not connected. In the meantime, the river is disappearing and the birds, wildlife, and people who depend on a living San Pedro are left high and dry.

The BLM (asserting its federal reserved water right), conservation organizations and property owners along the river—including Dr. Robin Silver—have opposed the determination and may challenge ADWR's action in court.

Adams added:

Allowing this groundwater mining to proceed is signing the death warrant for the river. This one decision could undo many years of hard work by residents and organizations fighting to keep the San Pedro flowing.

Earthjustice is reviewing legal options with Dr. Silver.

Follow Doug on Twitter at @dpflugh_ej

AGAIN, PLEASE READ "CADILLAC DESERT" AND I AM CERTAIN EARTH JUSTICE WILL HELP PUT SOME OF THE GREAT IDEAS REISNER HAD FOR THE WATER PROBLEMS OF THIS NATION INTO ACTION, CAN'T WE ALL HELP IN SOME WAY??????

Please tell us what we can do to help preserve the San Pedro river.

Please tell us what we can do to help preserve the San Pedro river.

Please protect the San Pedro River

We live in neighboring New Mexico and we visit the San Pedro Conservation Area often. It is a lovely spot and the only riparian area left for birds and wildlife between the Colorado River and the Rio Grande River, a distance of over 300 miles. If the San Pedro disappears to water golf courses in Sierra Vista it will cause the death of countless wild animals and birds. I am a member of Earthjustice and I hope you will fight as hard as possible to save the San Pedro

why dont we start a public campaign to build a water pipeline to canada instead of the keystone xl ?

that way we could bring something we really need to the southwest united states and save the colorado and other rivers that we are sucking dry

pretty sure canada has plenty of water that theyd be willing to sell us

and if we convinced them that clean canadian water was worth more than dirty tar we put a stop at the source of the problem since they wouldnt want to pollute the resource

if there is a ruptured pipeline the consequences would be much less harmful to the environment

I really agree with this.

If you want a lawn or a golf course, stay the hell out of the desert!

I grew up in Cochise County, another time I lived on Aravaipa Creek, which feeds into the San Pedro. This is a changing World. We pilfer from wildlife, we steal from Mother Nature.
The Earth suffers because humans won't curb their populating motives.
Crush greedy republican annihilation of the Earth, curtail the religious silliness of the fruitful & multiply nonsense...
This is a beautiful spot upon the face of the Earth, it's worth fighting to save.

Why are we trying to kill ourselves? Water is the life blood of our civilization. We must establish high requirements and regulations that must limit the waste of water and restrict the depleting of our aquafiers. No water....no life.

Typical American development pattern. It seems that human nature blindly supports profitmaking over survival.

I said that twice 'cause I hit the button twice be acccident.

And I can't spell

Typical American development pattern. It seems that human nature blindly supports profitmaking over survival.

People need to consider golfing less, letting their lawns dry up and taking up bird watching and cactus spotting. Enjoy, cherish and respect the unique desert land around you. I live in England... its wet and lush green 24/7... even in people's homes! Trust me, to see a beautiful picture of the Arizona desert on a wet, cold day in London, bring me inner warmth, peace and excitement. Enjoy the unique desert flora and fauna the beautiful state of Arizona offers. Green lawns should not even be considered a possibility in AZ. This picture of green-perfect in such a hot dry climate is unsustainable and ironically will suck the life out of all the naturally lush parts of the desert as is now the case with the San Pedro. For us here in London, England, to create an outdoor desert landscape, we would need a 100 huge electric heat lamps within close proximatey to fight with the cold and suck the moisture from the environment in an effort to welcome a prickly padre and feel a bit of 'desert' like heat. How crazy would that be? Would we wonder why, if when 10,000,000 Londoners were doing that all day every day that the nations natural resources were running out trying to keep up with this ludicrous demand? I have never seen a campaign warning of the 'extinction' of a river. This is crazy. We as creatures can't survive any time at all without water... yes, days and weeks without food, but not without water. When you are down to your last half-gallon of drinking water, do you really go out and water the plants?

I live not far from the San Pedro and I can verify that the "river" is barely more than a small creek and at times is completely dry in most areas. This is not a sustainable water source and will devastate the area if this pumping is allowed. We must work together to stop this intrusion on protected wildlife habitat areas.

Please protect the San Pedro. No more groundwater mining!

Where's the petition?

Clean water life blood of land for people.

Keep our rivers flowing for the wildlife and cause no more harm to their environment.

Keep our rivers flowing for the wildlife and cause no more harm to their environment.

Developers will make any inane argument if there is a profit motive. They should be more concerned than we are that the pumping is unsustainable. Who would buy a home that will run out of water in a few years, while a vibrant part of the local economy dries up? What is the sustainable proposal?

Thanks for your interest in helping the San Pedro!  Even if you don’t live in Arizona, the fate of the river is the fate of your public lands and the species that depend on them. You can do your part by:

  •  Contact BLM Director Robert Abbey (http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/info/directory.html), BLM Arizona State Director Raymond Suazo (http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/info/arizona_offices.2.html) and Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell (http://www.interior.gov/public/contact-us.cfm) - thank them for asserting the Federal Reserved Water Rights of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area during the state proceedings  and urge them to keep up the fight.  BLM’s water is essential to maintaining the health of the upper San Pedro!
  • Contact Governor Jan Brewer (www.azgovernor.gov/) and the state legislators (http://www.azleg.gov/MemberRoster.asp) - urge them to bring water management in the state of Arizona into the 21st Century.  Its time for the state to acknowledge the connection between groundwater and surface water and manage its resources in accordance with reality rather than outdated tradition. 
  • Spread the word about the value of the San Pedro to us all and the threats the river faces.  Share this blog on your Facebook page, tweet it to your followers, email it to your friends and family!  The Sierra Vista Herald (http://www.svherald.com/), The Arizona Daily Star (http://azstarnet.com/) and the Arizona Republic (Arizona Republic) cover the San Pedro and accept letters to the editor.  As you can see from comments on the Earthjustice Facebook post on this issue (https://www.facebook.com/Earthjustice, April 17) the more people who know about the situation, the greater the energy to find a solution!

Thanks, Tricia, for catching my Friday afternoon slip-up.  Bob Abbey left BLM last year, after a three-year tenure at BLM and many years in public service. Please reach out to Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze.
 

All other contact information as listed above is current and correct but not Bob Abbey. He retired from BLM in 2012.

Although I live in the northeast, this issue resonates with me. Is there a petition to sign?

Here in Massachusetts, the so-called Department of Environmental Protection recently determined "Safe Yield" water withdrawal limits that are up to six times higher than current withdrawals, and are higher than current withdrawals in all 30 major watersheds in the state, including many basins that have been classified as "stressed" by the Massachusetts Water Resources Commission. In doing so, MA DEP violated a 2009 pledge to establish Safe Yield water withdrawal limits that "include environmental protection factors, including ecological health of river systems." See: http://www.mass.gov/dep/water/resources/safeyield.htm

Massachusetts receives less rainfall per capita than Nevada, and many rivers and streams, especially those in the eastern half of the state, are severely depleted in summer. Some dry up completely. Trout populations have been reduced or eliminated in most of the state.

I did not support what you did to prevent drilling in Alaska, but now I support your efforts

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