Conservationists on Friday filed suit against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the United States Department of Defense, the United States Army and Fort Huachuca (collectively, “DoD”) to enforce a 2011 court ruling and halt the threat to the San Pedro River from the Fort’s groundwater pumping. The Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon Society, represented by the public interest law firm Earthjustice, filed the complaint in United States District Court for the District of Arizona to compel 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 10, 2012.
“DoD and USFWS’s endless delays in developing a workable plan to protect the San Pedro River are inexcusable,” said Melanie Kay, attorney for Earthjustice. “While the agencies drag their feet in complying with the nearly three-year-old court order, the Fort continues to drain the San Pedro River at the expense of species teetering on the verge of extinction.”
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 western yellow-billed cuckoo and the northern Mexican gartersnake, two species recently proposed for listing under the ESA.
“The importance of the San Pedro River and the food, water and shelter that it provides for migrating and resident birds can not be overstated,” said Mark W. Larson, President of the Maricopa Audubon Society. “This last sliver of riparian habitat is an irreplaceable component of a vital migration corridor hosting millions of birds each year as they travel to their breeding grounds as far away as Alaska. When gone, it can not be replaced.”
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 groundwater pumped from beneath the desert along the banks of the San Pedro River. The San Pedro River depends on this same groundwater 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 of successful challenges stretching back to 2000. Despite these wins, however, the Fort’s pumping continues at an unsustainable level and still threatens the San Pedro. If the groundwater pumping is not reduced, the San Pedro River and the life it supports will disappear.
“We have again been forced to return to court to protect the San Pedro,” said Dr. Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity. “For two decades now we have worked to get the Fort to do the right thing and to obey the law. We will continue to do everything that we can to guarantee that the San Pedro survives.”
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.