The challenge to the Arizona Department of Water Resources’ (ADWR) approval of a massive groundwater pumping project that threatens the survival of the Upper San Pedro River in Southern Arizona took a major step forward Thursday when Earthjustice, representing Dr. Robin Silver, presented its legal claims in an opening brief in a lawsuit in Arizona Superior Court.
This lawsuit seeks to protect the river flows that sustain the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a reserve managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to protect and enhance the San Pedro and the natural systems that it supports.
“Allowing the proposed groundwater pumping to proceed could be the last straw for this amazing river,” said Earthjustice attorney McCrystie Adams said. “The San Pedro is one of Arizona’s last living rivers, home to hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife. We are excited to be representing Dr. Silver in this critical effort to keep this river alive.”
ADWR’s decision ignores federal water rights granted to the BLM that guarantee river flows critical to the national conservation area. Had ADWR considered BLM’s water rights and then explored the connected relationship between surface water levels and ground water, they likely would have discovered insufficient groundwater to supply the thousands of proposed new homes without impoverishing the San Pedro River as well. Moreover, the agency’s decision fundamentally undermines the purposes of Arizona’s critical water adequacy law, put in place to help local governments conserve dwindling aquifers and end a history of developers selling land and homes without adequate water.
Earthjustice has worked with partners including Dr. Silver for more than a decade to sustain the San Pedro River and the rich ecosystems that flourish there.Dr. Silver is an Arizona native, a landowner along the San Pedro River, and a long-standing advocate for the river.
The Upper San Pedro is the last undammed and free-flowing river in the desert southwest. Its desert riparian ecosystem is one of a few remnants of the formerly extensive network of similar areas throughout the region.
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 and amphibians and fish depend on the river and riparian habitat. 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.
The 57,000-acre San Pedro River National Riparian Conservation Area, designated by Congress in 1988, included water rights necessary to protect the San Pedro’s rare remnant desert riparian ecosystem. The San Pedro has aptly been called a “Ribbon of Life,” and that role persists through today.
The national conservation area conserves both the natural and human history of the San Pedro. More than 250 historic and pre-historic sites—dating back 11,000 years—are found within the national conservation area and signal the long importance of the river to both human and animal residents and travelers.
Tribute is a 7,000 unit new development planned for Sierra Vista, a small city 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.
ADWR’s April 2013 determination of an adequate water supply for the proposed Tribute development will allow the groundwater-fueled suburban community to drain the San Pedro River. Tribute’s groundwater pumping would suck up the same water that was decreed to the wildlife, fish and birds of the national conservation area. Despite volumes of scientific study—and common sense—that demonstrate that the river and the groundwater aquifer are interconnected, the determination was based on the legal fiction that the two are separate. Without the determination of water adequacy, the proposed development could not move forward.