Skip to main content

Dogged San Pedro River Advocate Files Lawsuit against Government to Uncover Settlement Talks on Local Water Rights

Potential settlement of federal water fights could suck the San Pedro dry
The flowing San Pedro River and snow-covered Galiuro Mountains.

The flowing San Pedro River and snow-covered Galiuro Mountains.

Lon&Queta / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
March 4, 2019
Tucson, AZ —

Veteran San Pedro River advocate Tricia Gerrodette has filed a suit in federal court in Tucson challenging the Bureau of Land Management and the Interior Department’s violation of the Freedom of Information Act. Gerrodette has requested records that would shed light on potential settlement talks between the federal government and others for water rights in the San Pedro River, but the federal agencies have ignored her requests on information that should be publicly available. Earthjustice is representing Tricia Gerrodette in her lawsuit.

Local conservationists worry that the San Pedro could face the same fate as the Santa Cruz River, roughly 50 miles to the west. That river now runs dry most of the year after heavy water usage by Tucson, except where waste treatment plants dump their treated water.

“The San Pedro River supports some of the most spectacular species diversity in North America, and is host to millions of songbirds that flock to the river during their spring and fall migrations. It is one of the natural wonders of Arizona. None of this is possible without water in the river,” said San Pedro River advocate Tricia Gerrodette. “Any decision on the river’s water rights that fails to provide the flows necessary to protect it would be a blow to its future. I’m suing to vindicate my right — and the public interest — in seeing government documents that would alert us to the risk of an inadequate settlement that could suck the river dry.”

In 1988, Congress created the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a federally protected area east of Sierra Vista, and gave it water rights sufficient to support the river and the wildlife habitat found there. (Those “federal reserved water rights” are the subject of a trial unfolding now in Maricopa County.) But in 2016, a U.S. Geological Survey report showed that water levels are declining in areas along the San Pedro River, and that the base flow is in decline along the entire river reach.

“When Congress passed legislation to protect the San Pedro River and the incredible diversity of life it supports, it entrusted the Interior Department to protect the water rights the San Pedro needs to flow and to survive,” said Earthjustice attorney Alex Hardee. “We are going to court to shine a light on the Interior Department’s settlement discussions, and ultimately to protect the last free-flowing river of the desert Southwest. Arizona can’t lose this river the way it has lost others.”

Industry Greed Threatens Arizona’s Songbird Paradise, The Last Free-flowing River In The Desert Southwest

Mining companies and developers have contested BLM’s claims, arguing that the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is only entitled to a minimal amount of water. Groundwater pumping for irresponsible luxury mansion developments like “Tribute” and the “Villages at Vigneto,” north of Sierra Vista, have also threatened to dry up the river.

The Upper San Pedro is the last undammed and free-flowing river in the desert Southwest. This desert riparian ecosystem is one of the few remnants of a 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. It provides a home and migratory resting ground to more than 400 species of birds, 100 species of butterflies, 83 species of mammals and 47 species of amphibians and reptiles.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. Nearly half of the bird species in the United States spend time in the San Pedro River watershed. The San Pedro has aptly been called a “Ribbon of Life,” and that role persists through today.