Earthjustice, representing the Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon, filed a lawsuit today in U.S. District Court in Tucson to save the San Pedro River, the last surviving undammed river in the desert Southwest. The suit seeks to force the Department of Defense and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider the effects of drawing too much water from underground reservoirs to provide water for people and activities associated with Ft. Huachuca. Overdrafts of groundwater to service the rapidly expanding military base and the adjacent town of Sierra Vista are causing the San Pedro River to slowly disappear beneath desert sands. Consequently, federally protected animal and plant species living along the river are facing increasing threats.
The issue of overdrafting groundwater has been in the courts before. In 2002, the federal government revised plans to mine groundwater in 2002 in response to a prior Endangered Species Act lawsuit.
In the revised plan, called a biological opinion, Fort Huachuca and DOD promised not to add more than 500 people through 2011. Since then Fort Huachuca and DOD have added and/or committed to adding, at least 2,851 new people and $621.5 million in direct or indirect economic activities. Using multipliers, this equates to 11,917 new people and $1.044 billion in additional economic activity in the immediate environs of the base. In addition, more activities are proposed that could eventually bring almost 6,000 more people and $71.8 million worth of economic activity to the area.
The peril to the San Pedro River and the endangered species that live near it has increased since the 2002 owing to the following facts:
- From 2001 to 2003 the groundwater pumping increased by almost 14 percent to supply Fort Huachuca and DOD funded activities. This has greatly exacerbated groundwater deficits, which occur when more water is taken out of underground water supplies than is recharged.
- The local groundwater deficit has increased by 134.3 percent (-5,144 to -12,050 acre-feet/year) since 2002 according to U.S Geological Survey 2003 data. The August 23, 2002, Biological Opinion mitigation is based on local groundwater deficit of 5,144 acre-feet/year.
- The water in the San Pedro during the driest times of the year continues decreasing dramatically.
- Underground water flow patterns have changed because of the pumping according to the latest data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which reveals that the Fort Huachuca/Sierra Vista groundwater-pumping center is now negatively affecting the flow gradient near the San Pedro.
Today’s lawsuit says that because more than 500 personnel have been added to the base, additional consultation between the Department of Defense and the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to make sure protected species aren’t harmed by the increased water pumping.
"Excessive local groundwater pumping supported by increasing DOD funding and personnel threatens the San Pedro," said Robin Silver of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. "Water is being seized to supply this new growth and it’s all coming either directly or indirectly from the San Pedro River. The river is dying in front of us."
"The river you see above ground is tied to the invisible water table below ground," said Earthjustice attorney McCrystie Adams. "When you take the water from underground reservoirs, the river is pulled underground to replace the missing waters. If you’re an animal that lives along the riverbanks, this can be lethal to you and indeed it has been. There are very, very few places like the San Pedro River where you literally have an oasis in the desert."
A portion of the San Pedro lies within designated critical habitat of the Huachuca Water Umbel a semi-aquatic plant, and previously designated habitat for the Southwest Willow Flycatcher.
As far back as 1984 the state of Arizona recognized that an adequate 100-year supply of water does not exist in the area.
The lawsuit filed today by CBD and Maricopa Audubon will help assure that Fort Huachuca area consumers and investors are better protected from waking up one day to severe water shortages. It also challenges actions that threaten an ecological jewel of the desert southwest.