Frustrated by two years of inaction, conservationists have notified the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the United States Department of Defense, the United States Army and Fort Huachuca (collectively, “DoD”) of their intent to sue to enforce a 2011 court ruling that required Arizona’s Fort Huachuca to develop mitigation measures to protect two endangered species that depend upon the San Pedro River. The Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon Society, represented by the public interest law firm Earthjustice, have filed a 60-day notice in preparation for litigation aimed at compelling the agencies to complete a court ordered re-consultation required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Ongoing groundwater pumping by the Fort threatens to drain the San Pedro River’s base flows and imperil the endangered Huachuca water umbel and southwestern willow flycatcher. In the 2011 order, the U.S. District Court in Arizona required DoD and USFWS to prepare a Biological Opinion with mitigation measures that would alleviate the impacts of the Fort’s operations on the two endangered species and their critical habitats. The court did not impose a deadline but under USFWS regulations, the new Biological Opinion should have been completed by April, 2012.
“We are frustrated that more than two years have passed since the court order,” said Melanie Kay, attorney for Earthjustice. “Every day that the ground water pumping continues unabated, the species that depend on the San Pedro are pushed closer to the edge.”
The Upper San Pedro is the last undammed and free-flowing river in the desert southwest and is a remnant of the region’s historically extensive network of desert riparian areas. The river is a biological treasure, providing important habitat for a wide array of species and a refuge from the impacts of development and climate change. Numerous mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish depend on the San Pedro.
The San Pedro corridor is also one of the most important migratory flyways in the United States; millions of songbirds use the San Pedro each year during their migrations between Central America and Canada. Representatives of nearly half of the bird species in the United States spend time in the San Pedro River watershed.
In addition to providing habitat for the endangered water umbel and flycatcher, the river is also home to the yellow-billed cuckoo and the northern Mexican garter snake, two species recently proposed for listing under the ESA.
“The loss of riparian habitat in this vital migration corridor would be a severe blow to millions of warblers, grosbeaks, tanagers, buntings, and other dazzling Neotropical species,” said Mark W. Larson, President of the Maricopa Audubon Society. “These birds depend on the food, water, and shelter they find along the San Pedro River to help them reach their breeding grounds as far away as Alaska.”
Fort Huachuca, located just north of the border with Mexico, is a vast complex developed in one of the most arid areas of the United States. The Fort is completely dependent on ground water pumped from beneath the desert along the banks of the San Pedro River. Unfortunately, the San Pedro River also depends on this same ground water to supply its base, or non-storm dependent, flows. As the Fort and the surrounding areas have grown, they have continued to deplete the aquifer, leading to river dry-up and habitat destruction.
The conservationists’ 2011 court victory was the latest in a series stretching back over nearly two decades. These victories have compelled the Fort to implement some mitigation and conservation measures to protect the endangered species and reduce the impacts of its pumping on the river. Despite these successes, however, the Fort’s pumping continues at an unsustainable level and still threatens the San Pedro. If the ground water pumping is not reduced, the San Pedro River and the life it supports will disappear.
“We have been patiently waiting for DoD to obey the law—but they refuse,” said Dr. Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We are now forced to return to Court to protect the San Pedro.”
Litigation is also ongoing over the proposed local Tribute development, a 7,000 unit new development planned for Sierra Vista, a small city adjoining Fort Huachuca in the desert east of Tucson. By the developers’ own admission, the proposed construction will consume “virtually all of the available development land” left in Sierra Vista, and will significantly expand the population of this critically water-short area. The twin threats of the Fort’s continued illegal operations and the potential explosion of private water consumption place the San Pedro in grave peril.