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Defending Arizona's "Ribbon of Life"

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)

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

Follow Doug on Twitter at @dpflugh_ej