Groups Send Notice of Intent to Sue Over Pinto Valley Mine Excessive Groundwater Pumping

Pumping would harm endangered species, reduce flows to Roosevelt Lake


Perry Wheeler, Earthjustice,, (202) 792-6211

Sandy Bahr, Sierra Club,, (602) 999-5790

Conservation groups yesterday sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for violating the Endangered Species Act in approving expanded operations at the Pinto Valley Mine, east of Phoenix. The groups seek to protect Arizona’s Pinto Creek and vulnerable species in the region from the mine’s excessive groundwater pumping. The Forest Service approved the mine, with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s sign-off, despite known impacts to the western yellow-billed cuckoo, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and the southwestern willow flycatcher, which is listed as endangered.

The mine’s expansion and continued operation is depleting flows in Pinto Creek, degrading valuable wildlife, fish, and recreational values on the Tonto National Forest. In spite of this, the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service failed to require the mine to implement any mitigation measures that would protect water flows, even though alternative water sources were proposed during the approval process.

“The federal government’s job is to protect the broader public interest in a healthy environment and the careful stewardship of scarce water resources, especially in an arid state like Arizona,” said Sandy Bahr, director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter. “With Arizona’s increasingly scarce and stressed waters, including our groundwater, this kind of excessive groundwater pumping is plain wrong. The mining industry, and government agencies, need to ensure that mining occurs without permanently harming natural resources that all Arizonans value and depend on.”

The Forest Service’s approval of the mine expansion and groundwater pumping violates the Endangered Species Act. The Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ignored significant stretches of habitat along Pinto Creek that will be dewatered by the mine’s pumping, which rendered the analysis of the mine’s impacts on the species useless. The agencies also failed to consider how the mine’s pumping will affect the creek in combination with climate change, which has already caused precipitation declines in the area.

Studies conducted by the mine’s own consultants show that after Pinto Valley mine initiated pumping in 2013, baseflows in the creek plummeted by 82%, and portions of the creek that previously flowed year-round began running dry for parts of the year. Even after the mine closes, the creek will be left with only 62% of the flows that existed before pumping began. By allowing the mine to grow and extending its operations for 19 more years, the agencies are delaying the creek’s recovery for almost two decades, further degrading riparian habitat and harming imperiled species in the meantime.

“Efforts to begin and insure recovery of this fragile riparian habitat are long overdue,” said Charles Babbitt, conservation chairman of the Maricopa Audubon Society. “The Pinto Valley Mine only adds to the stressors that the western yellow-billed cuckoo and southwestern willow flycatcher are already facing.”

“Mining operations need to be carefully planned and permitted to avoid harmful environmental impacts, but this approval would continue and expand known harms to Pinto Creek and the species that depend on its riparian habitat,” said Tom Delehanty, senior associate attorney with Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office. “The mine should be required to source its water in a way that doesn’t harm imperiled species like the cuckoo and flycatcher.”

Years ago, Forest Service personnel foresaw the possibility that Pinto Creek could be threatened by mining activity. In order to protect the stream, they acquired water rights to ensure that flows needed to protect wildlife, fish, and recreational values on the National Forest would be maintained. In spite of the fact that recent studies have shown conclusively that the mine’s pumping of water is dewatering Pinto Creek, the Forest Service has inexplicably done nothing to assert its legal rights to keep water in the creek. In effect the Forest Service handed over a crucial public resource to the mine.

Additionally, because Pinto Creek flows into Roosevelt Lake, loss of water due to the mine’s excessive groundwater pumping also affects water users in Phoenix. For that reason, the Salt River Project (one of the primary water providers for much of the Phoenix metropolitan area) objected to the proposal during the Forest Service’s decision-making process. Salt River Project (SRP) explained that the mine’s pumping “will reduce inflows downstream at Roosevelt Lake and will impact SRP, its shareholders, other senior water rights holders, and will impact millions of water users in the Salt River Valley.”

Earthjustice and the Western Action Mining Project are jointly representing Sierra Club and Maricopa Audubon Society in the lawsuit.

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