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Defending Arizona's "Ribbon of Life"

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View Doug Pflugh's blog posts
16 May 2013, 10:00 AM
Lawsuit seeks to protect San Pedro River from huge development
The upper reaches of the San Pedro River.  (Melanie Kay / Earthjustice)

Earthjustice has worked with our partners for more than a decade to sustain the San Pedro River of southern Arizona. Our attorneys have taken legal action—a series of cases challenging inappropriate groundwater depletions by the U.S. Army’s Fort Huachuca—to keep water in the river until a balance can be struck between the needs of the river and the local communities. While we have had success through the years, the San Pedro is unfortunately one of those places where the effort to achieve a lasting solution has been difficult.

Champions of the San Pedro now have a great opportunity to change that tide and secure meaningful protection for the river into the future. A challenge was filed this week to a 7,000-unit suburban development planned for the upper San Pedro valley which had been given the go-ahead by the state of Arizona. This development would be fueled by groundwater pumped from the San Pedro watershed and will, if built, drain the remaining flows from the river. The challenge seeks to deny the planned groundwater pumping, force the state to acknowledge the authority of water rights granted to the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area and, by doing so, keep the river alive.

A Gila monster rests along the San Pedro. (Melanie Kay / Earthjustice)A Gila monster rests along the San Pedro.
(Melanie Kay / Earthjustice)

Success will mean that the state of Arizona recognizes that groundwater pumping impacts the flow in the San Pedro. This is supported by scientific studies and common sense but has not been the law of the land in Arizona. The national conservation area’s water rights, afforded special status as federal reserved water rights, offer the first chance to confront the legal fiction that has constrained real protection for the San Pedro.

A win for the San Pedro is a win for all of us. The San Pedro River and its surrounding rich wildlife habitats are a remnant of a once extensive network of desert riparian corridors that traversed the southwest. It is a refuge against the ravages of development and climate change that are transforming the region. Mammals, reptiles and amphibians, fish and especially birds depend on this ribbon of life.

Two of our Denver-based attorneys—McCrystie Adams and Melanie Kay—visited the upper San Pedro River valley in April, meeting with concerned landowners and conservationists and laying the groundwork for this challenge.

They brought back photographs and lasting memories of their time on the river. In the words of Adams:

The San Pedro River is one of the most ‘alive’ places I’ve ever been. The river slowly winds it way through what is otherwise a hot, dry and unforgiving landscape, providing a literal oasis for all desert creatures.

Each step along the river brings a new discovery: blue heron eggs, mountain lion scat, tadpoles, bullfrogs, a rattlesnake, or a warbler singing in a nearby tree. Walking the San Pedro is, simply, magic.

Attorney Kay was also enchanted:

On the morning of our first walk to the river, I was amazed how in a few short steps we transitioned from sun-baked desert to cool oasis teeming with life.

The river hosts a hidden world of flowing water, rustling leaves, bird calls, and flashes of fluorescent wings straight from the tropics. It’s a beautiful sensory display in the most unlikely of places.

Dr. Robin Silver, along the San Pedro River. (Melanie Kay / Earthjustice)

Dr. Robin Silver, a long-standing advocate for the River,
walks along the San Pedro. (Melanie Kay / Earthjustice)

Follow Doug on Twitter at @dpflugh_ej

This is an absolutely beautiful area. It needs saving both for the beauty and the creatures that live there.

In western Miami-Dade county in Florida, new developments have to prove where their fresh water source will come from since our out of control building west into the Glades has caused so many problems and causes much water to be dumped to the sea. I would think there would be stronger protections for this gorgeous river which I have visited while birding in AZ. I would think it would be easy to make the developer look like the destroyer of a paradise which he is.

Fight this hard.

If anyone is expecting developers to be reasonable about any of the rules and regulations set forth by a governing body of a particular parcel of land, think again! They don't care and they won't wait. If they bought the land they are allowed to fuck it up as they see fit. And they are allowed to suck anything that is around their property dry. Like a bunch of vampires they will have their profits, people be damned.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Melanie and McCrystie during their recent visit. So energizing to be with them and feel the case is in good hands. I'm also one of the plaintiffs, along with Robin Silver.

When money becomes god these are the insane actions we have to contend with - since all common sense and conscience seems to have gotten smothered by greed - human being becomes more and more pathetic each decade that passes. I hope God helps to restore sensibility before more and more suffering occurs - unfortunately , its seems that we may have to take the dire consequences for a lot of 1% decisions being made which dramatically determine the future.

So where do we take action against this? Talk does nothing, really.

Soon they will go the way of the Anastazi..They'll be forced to migrate to the Great Lakes.. When they get there they'll drop dead from drinking that. Look up The Chicago Tribune water reports.. It's like Erin Brockovich but much bigger..our entire Great Lakes. There's no way to clean it. These chemicals NEVER decay.

"Human progress" always occurs at the expense of the environment, from water use to timber harvests. However is it wise to deplete the resources we and all the earth depend upon for the sake of perpetuating the advancement of detrimental corporate greed in land development and mining and the poor planning by municipal and state governments which allows the unrestricted use of water or lands. This is in short, dumping, rather than wise usage. A balance is absolutely invaluable, but a solution should not be viewed as set in stone. It will need to be adjusted as conditions change.

Ft. Huachuca, perhaps the area's largest water consumer, may have to relocate in order to have the water it needs for its future. In ten years, with the rate of consumption, the Buffalo River will no doubt be gone, but the need for water will not. It may in fact be in the best interests of the federal government to relocate the fort or reduce the fort's consumption by upgrading its technology and reducing the numbers of personnel and other causes of water usage.

However balance is key at this present time, before the situation becomes even more problematic.

Read "San Pedro River" where I wrote Buffalo River. Was working on two issues at once. My bad! Thanks!

hopefully our goverment will do all they can do to save these waterways,rivers and lakes/

Maybe it's an image problem. Change the name of the river to the "Ronald Reagan River" and watch the planned development get shot down by the "Arizona Tea Party Committee to Conserve the Republican Myth of Saint Ronnie."

A majority of Arizonans voted for Jan Brewer for governor. If electing Governor Bonefinger is any indication of Arizonans' critical thinking skills, the river with the Spanish name is a goner.

I love Ronald Reagan and the San Pedro River. To bring politics into this is unwise. The earth is not partisan. Government should supply for the basic needs for its citizens. Nothing is more basic than taking care of the earth we live on. That is job one. BTW, the ESA, Clean Water Act and Clear Air Act, all came in to being under Nixon.

I live in Arizona (and did NOT vote for her). Why didn't I think of that!!!!!????????? Splendid idea.

We face a very similar situation in North Florida where several of our large lakes which recharge the Upper Floridan Aquifer have been drained by over pumping the aquifer and
excessive Consumptive Use Permitting beyond the safe yield of the Upper Floridan.

Unfortunately we do not have such legal support, and the plans to set new lake levels so low that they will create permanent dry prairies where the lakes used to be...will be successful.

Keep up the good work, and be mindful that your precedents may help us all,

Frustrated in Florida

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