Legal Challenge Filed Against Arizona’s Approval to Drain the San Pedro River

Massive new development threatens river and wildlife


McCrystie Adams, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9616


Melanie Kay, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9623


Robin Silver, M.D., (602) 799-3275

A lawsuit filed today in Arizona Superior Court challenges the Arizona Department of Water Resources’ (ADWR) recent approval of a massive groundwater pumping project that will drain the Upper San Pedro River in Southern Arizona. The lawsuit seeks to protect the river flows that sustain the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a reserve managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to protect and enhance the San Pedro and the natural systems that it supports.

Dr. Robin Silver, at the San Pedro River.
(Melanie Kay / Earthjustice)

“ADWR’s approval of Tribute’s commandeering of an amount of water equivalent to the entire yearly base flow of the San Pedro River is a travesty of historic proportion,” said Dr. Robin Silver, plaintiff in the case. “If ADWR’s decision stands, it will be the death knell for the River.”

ADWR’s April 2013 determination of an adequate water supply for the proposed “Tribute” development will allow the groundwater-fueled, suburban planned community to drain the San Pedro River. Despite volumes of scientific study—and common sense—that demonstrate that the river and the groundwater aquifer are interconnected, the determination was based on the legal fiction that the two are separate. Without the determination, the proposed development could not move forward.

The 57,000-acre national conservation area, designated by Congress in 1988, included water rights necessary to protect the San Pedro’s rare remnant desert riparian ecosystem. Tribute’s groundwater pumping would suck up the same water that was decreed to the wildlife, fish and birds of this national gem. ADWR choose to ignore this fact.

“The state of Arizona continues to hold fast to the fiction that groundwater and surface water are not connected,” said Earthjustice attorney McCrystie Adams said. “In the meantime, the river is disappearing and the birds, wildlife, and people who depend on a living San Pedro are left high and dry.”

Earthjustice has worked with partners including Dr. Silver for more than a decade to sustain the San Pedro River and the rich ecosystems that flourish there. Dr. Silver is an Arizona native and has been a landowner in the San Pedro watershed near Sierra Vista for more than two decades. He is also cofounder of the Center for Biological Diversity and a long-standing advocate for 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 a few remnants of the 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. Numerous mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and fish depend on the river and riparian habitat. 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. Representatives of nearly half of the bird species in the United States spend time in the San Pedro River watershed.

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area conserves both the natural and human history of the San Pedro. Over 250 historic and pre-historic sites—dating back 11,000 years—are found within the national conservation area and signal the long importance of the river to both human and animal residents and travelers. The San Pedro has aptly been called a “Ribbon of Life,” and that role persists through today.

Tribute is a 7,000 unit new development planned for Sierra Vista, a small city in the desert east of Tucson. By the developers’ own admission, the proposed construction will consume “virtually all of the available development land” left in Sierra Vista, and will significantly expand the population of this critically water-short area.

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