Desert Homebuilding Challenged to Save San Pedro River

Groundwater-dependent growth destroying the last surviving desert river in the Southwest


Robin Silver, CBD, 602-246-4170


McCrystie Adams, Earthjustice, 303-996-9616


Neil Levine, Earthjustice, 303-996-9611

Earthjustice, representing the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a lawsuit today in U.S. District Court in Tucson to save the last surviving undammed river in the desert Southwest.

The suit seeks to force government agencies to disclose environmental impacts to the River caused by their home lending, loan guarantee, and underwriting programs, all of which are fueling unsustainable growth, in the Sierra Vista area in southeast Arizona. The federal agencies have underwritten, insured, or loaned millions of dollars to expand housing and business in an area that lacks the water needed to support them. The National Environmental Policy Act requires that federal agencies evaluate the environmental impacts of their actions and explore alternatives prior to acting in ways that might harm the environment. The lawsuit states that the Veterans Administration (VA), the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) have all violated NEPA by failing to examine the effects to the San Pedro River by ground water pumping to supply more homes and businesses.

"Ground water pumps and wells are forcing the last free flowing desert river in the southwest underground as they suck all adjacent ground water out of the area," said Earthjustice attorney McCrystie Adams. "As this river disappears all the animals and plants that rely on it are dying. We don’t think this is what the public really wants."

From October 1, 1992, through September 30, 2004, the VA guaranteed and insured 5,179 home loans in the Fort Huachuca area, which includes the adjacent city of Sierra Vista. Since September 30, 2001, the FHA has guaranteed or insured 459 loans in the same area. The SBA has loaned $8.5 million potentially creating hundreds of jobs during this same period. The FHA has another 800 new loan applications pending. The SBA and the VA refuse to disclose the number of their proposed loans.

"Federal spending is driving rapid expansion of growth in the Fort Huachuca/Sierra Vista area," said Robin Silver of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. "Water is being seized to supply this new growth and it’s all coming either directly or indirectly from the San Pedro River. The river is dying in front of us."

In 1984, when the state of Arizona recognized that an adequate 100-year supply of water does not exist in the area, the FHA and VA instituted a moratorium on their loans and underwriting. However, the VA and FHA moratorium did not last owing to a "hailstorm of developer protests" according to a High Country News article in 2004

The Arizona Department of Water Resources says ground water pumping for a housing project in Sierra Vista would dry up parts of the river in the next 100 years. As a result, the state water agency has refused to certify that the developer has an adequate water supply. However, instead of stopping the new building, the state is only requiring that housing customers be told of the water situation in sales contracts.

The state of Arizona maintained there was an inadequacy of water supplies in the Sierra Vista area until September 29, 1993 when Governor Symington, a former developer, and his Department. of Water Resource abruptly reversed this finding. Governor Symington and his agency chose to deny (1) the existence of the connection between the San Pedro River and the regional aquifer supplying its base flow, (2) the existence of federal water rights guaranteeing San Pedro River surface flows, and (3) and the fact that federal law, unlike Arizona law, recognizes the reality of the connectivity between surface water and groundwater.

The lawsuit filed today by CBD against the VA, FHA, and SBA will help assure that Fort Huachuca area consumers and investors are better protected from buying a home and waking up one day to severe water shortages. It also challenges actions that threaten an ecological jewel of the desert southwest.


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