Healthy Coexistence: Key to Saving San Pedro River

Suit seeks to make Army help protect the river and its species

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Two endangered species that call the San Pedro River in Southern Arizona home—the Huachuca water umbel and southwestern willow flycatcher –should have their long-term survival guaranteed under the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, those species have waited in vain for that help while two federal agencies have dragged their feet.

A suit filed at the end of January by Earthjustice attorneys Melanie Kay and McCrystie Adams seeks to end that wait and compel the U.S. Army’s Fort Huachuca to coexist with the San Pedro and the plants and animals that are the original inhabitants of the valley.

Kay and Adams brought this suit to force the Army and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to comply with a 2011 court order that mandates the agencies to implement a viable plan to meet the Fort’s mission without jeopardizing the endangered flycatcher and umbel. The Fort has been operating outside the law, having failed to produce a plan—known as a Biological Opinion—that meets the requirements of the ESA and the court’s order.

Along with our clients, we hope this case will cap the string of legal victories that have marked our work to protect this jewel of the desert and ensure that the San Pedro will continue to flow.

The San Pedro River nourishes a rare swath of green as it cuts across the desert, heading north from the Mexican border to the Gila River east of the Grand Canyon State’s major metropolitan areas. We have written at length about the importance of this river, about its role as a lone remnant of a lost network of desert riparian areas and the critical habitat that it provides. The magnitude of its contribution to our ecology bears repeating, however…

The Southwestern willow flycatcher.  (USGS)

Numerous mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish depend on the San Pedro. Representatives of nearly half of the bird species in the United States spend time in the San Pedro River watershed; the river corridor is one of the most important migratory flyways in the United States, hosting millions of songbirds each year during their migrations between Central America and Canada. In addition to 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 same factors that make the river so important—its uniqueness in the desert landscape—also explain the risks that imperil the San Pedro. The surface flows and the aquifers that funnel water from the Huachuca Mountains to the river channel provide the only accessible water in the basin. And this water is as important to the groundwater-dependent Fort Huachuca and the growing community of Sierra Vista as it is to the flora and fauna along the river corridor.

Resident conservationists of the Upper San Pedro valley, business interests and the Fort have engaged for more than a decade in multiple efforts to resolve the fate of the San Pedro. There have been public processes, committees, media campaigns and, of course, litigation as the different parties worked for their vision of the future of the river.

Arguably, there has been progress. An understanding of the role of the river in the local community and economy and the need for wise water use has blossomed, and the fate of the San Pedro has taken center stage in the local conversation. Notably, the Fort and others have embarked on efforts that they claim reduce or offset the groundwater pumping that intercepts water bound for the river.

Local boosters point to this work and assert that the situation is under control. But should we really be declaring “mission accomplished?”

Put simply—no. The base flows in the San Pedro continue to drop and the species that depend on the river remain at risk. Although we have bought some time, a recent study demonstrates that within a century the river will run dry in key sections if groundwater pumping continues at the current rate. In truth, the work is far from done.

The San Pedro Riparian National
Conservation Area. (BLM)

And that is why we are back in court, following through on the series of cases that have gotten us to this point where some, but not nearly enough, progress has been made.

The Biological Opinion is a critical piece of the puzzle in providing long term protection to the San Pedro and the many species which depend upon the river. Unlike other approaches, a rigorous Biological Opinion would provide meaningful and enforceable accountability and would move us forward from the grey area of competing studies and claims that has stymied real progress for the San Pedro.

There is no controversy regarding the need for the Fort and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to complete the Biological Opinion. The law is clear and the agencies do not contest the requirement. They have not, though, followed through on their duty, missing a series of self-imposed, generous deadlines. Now, nearly three years after the judge’s order, we have given up waiting on something that appears unlikely to come to pass on its own.

We are confident that the Fort can meet its essential national security work while helping to preserve our natural heritage. It is time for the agencies to lay out their path forward and move on with it.

Follow Doug on Twitter: @dpflugh_ej

Doug Pflugh was the Research Analyst and GIS Coordinator in the Rocky Mountain office until 2014. He worked on a full range of issues confronting the Four Corner states: climate change and energy development, public lands management, and river protection. He is also a great backcountry skier and hiker.

Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office protects the region’s iconic public lands, wildlife species, and precious water resources; defends Tribes and disparately impacted communities fighting to live in a healthy environment; and works to accelerate the region’s transition to 100% clean energy.