The San Pedro: Saving the Last Free-Flowing River

A new legal front opens up in the fight to save the last free-flowing river in the Southwest—Arizona's 'River of Life'—The San Pedro.

The San Pedro River.
The San Pedro River is a remnant of a once extensive network of desert riparian corridors that traversed the Southwest. (Melanie Kay / Earthjustice)

Look to your right and see the San Pedro River as millions of migrating birds do—a green river of life wriggling across the hot, brown desert of Arizona. They dive into its cottonwood canopy to find respite halfway through their journey between South America and Canada. They’ve done it for thousands of years, as have a host of other creatures.

Now, head to your sink and turn on the water—to see how developers in the nearby town of Sierra Vista view the river watershed. They’ve been seeing it this way for decades.

Finally, draw a line in some dirt and see the future of the Southwest’s last free-flowing river if those developers are allowed to keep turning on the tap.

This is a river that outlasted the mighty mammoths who sipped it 11,000 years ago; the Clovis people, its first human settlers; the 18th century Spanish and the fierce Apaches who harassed them into leaving (only to meet defeat themselves in the late 1800s by the U.S. Cavalry operating out of Fort Huachuca just an arrow shot from the river).

The question is whether this ancient, stubborn waterway can resist the growth ambitions of a little town filling up in part with those lured to this literal hot spot by the benefits associated with living near a fort. City officials have long encouraged this growth, and developers have long filled the need—to the river’s detriment. As people move in, the San Pedro dwindles.

More than 10 years ago, Earthjustice began partnering with local landowner Robin Silver, his organization the Center for Biological Diversity, and others to save the river. Legal pressure secured a number of water conservation efforts, especially at the fort; and heightened public awareness about the river’s plight. Unfortunately, Arizona’s developer-friendly laws stymie attempts to stop the kind of growth that is killing the river.

In 2013, things took a grim turn for the river when a state agency ruled there was sufficient water to allow a 7,000-unit housing development to go forward. Two Earthjustice attorneys, McCrystie Adams and Melanie Kay, met with landowners and conservationists along the river in April of 2013, laying the groundwork for a challenge of the agency ruling because it failed to consider the development’s impact on the river. A lawsuit was filed the following month. The federal Bureau of Land Management is also challenging the development over its threat to BLM water rights.

Adams, who has long spearheaded the legal effort, said her recent visit to the San Pedro made her all the more determined to save it. “The San Pedro River is one of the most ‘alive’ places I’ve ever been. The river slowly winds its way through what is otherwise a hot, dry and unforgiving landscape, providing a literal oasis for all desert creatures.”

“Each step along the river brings a new discovery: blue heron eggs, mountain lion scat, tadpoles, bullfrogs, a rattlesnake, or a warbler singing in a nearby tree. Walking the San Pedro is, simply, magic.”

Written by Terry Winckler.
First published in the Summer 2013 issue of the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.