In an abrupt about-face, Army officials at Fort Huachuca have announced that the Army will reinitiate consultation with federal wildlife officials to determine the effects of groundwater pumping on protected wildlife living along the San Pedro River. The announcement comes in response to a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity. The lawsuit is aimed at getting Fort Huachuca to address how its new missions, and regional population increases associated with the fort, affect groundwater pumping, the San Pedro River, and endangered species.
"Fort Huachuca has expanded its activities greatly since its last evaluation in 2002. These activities have increased the groundwater deficit that jeopardizes the San Pedro," said Dr. Robin Silver, Board Chair of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Off-post, unmitigated, fort-fueled growth continues without regard for the river. The fort has done pretty well with water conservation on-post. However, off-post the fort has received essentially no help from Sierra Vista or Cochise County. The fort must now provide more mitigation or down-size."
In the 2002 Biological Opinion, the fort was charged with mitigating the overdraft groundwater use of 54 percent of the population in the Upper San Pedro River Sierra Vista sub-watershed. The fort also agreed to not expand by more than 500 people through 2011. Since that time, the fort has added or committed to adding more than several thousand people. With the addition of those troops, their families, contractors, and the other people that have or will move to the community because of the fort’s presence, the overall population increase using standard multipliers would be several times that.
New information has become available that also triggers the need for reinitiating consultation: recent estimates of the groundwater deficit are double the amount estimated in the 2002 bi-op; groundwater pumping for the fort and City of Sierra Vista has been found to intercept water that would otherwise contribute to the base flow of the river; the San Pedro went dry for the first time on record last year; and surviving locations of the endangered Huachuca water umbel, a plant that relies on the perennial flow of the San Pedro, have subsequently been reduced.
"We saw a key stretch of the last free flowing river in the desert southwest go dry last summer for the first time in recorded history," said Earthjustice attorney McCrystie Adams. "It’s clear that too much water is being taken from the river and the aquifer that it sits atop. We’re glad the fort has decided to take a step towards addressing the problem."
Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity are continuing to pursue other claims in the lawsuit against other federal agencies that continue to encourage unsustainable growth in the communities around the base.
"Significant new data has come to light since the 2002 biological opinion. The survival of the San Pedro River and the rich plant and wildlife communities that depend on it are fully in the hands of the fort and off-post community’s coming to grips with their overuse of groundwater. The fort’s decision to reinitiate could help lead to changes needed to avoid a dry riverbed," said Silver.