THE SOUTHWEST’S ONLY FREE-FLOWING RIVER COULD BE SUCKED DRY BY HOME BUILDERS AND REPUBLICANS

May 1, 2016 by

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San Pedro River, holding on …

For the most part Arizona hasn’t experienced severe drought conditions like we’ve seen in California and Nevada. One reason is U.S. Senator Carl Hayden, the longest serving member of Congress (1927-1969) and a principal architect of western water policy. The unassuming but powerful Arizona Democrat engineered more water for his home state than it probably deserved, given Arizona’s tiny population at the time. Hayden’s great legacy is the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile complex of dams, canals, pumps and pipes that brings Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson—the most expensive water system the U.S. ever built.

Another reason for Arizona’s relatively stable water situation is that some forward-thinking legislative leaders, including Republicans like Burton Barr and Stan Turley, recognized the potential water disaster facing the fast-growing state, and in 1980 the legislature passed the Groundwater Management Act, which Gov. Bruce Babbitt immediately signed.

As the Phoenix area in particular sprawled out of control (“an acre an hour”), one important provision in the act required new urban developments to show they have access to a 100-year supply of water. Rural counties were invited to sign on and some did, including Cochise County on the Mexican border, which becomes central to the story.

The Colorado River that Sen. Hayden and others fought over for decades is one of the most dammed, diverted and used waterways in the world, barely dribbling into the Gulf of California. The Colorado is typical of western rivers: overly dammed for irrigation, flood control, electricity and recreation. There’s so much damming and diversion that many rivers are usually dry rock gulches. (Yes, German POWs during WWII really did try to escape down the Salt River on a raft. Hey, the river’s on the map! They didn’t float far.)

In fact, the only free-flowing river in the entire Southwest is the San Pedro, which begins in Mexico, about 10 miles south of Sierra Vista, Arizona, then runs north, passing east of Tucson and ending at the confluence with the Gila River, about 140 miles total. Some 40 miles of the river make up the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, so designated by Congress in 1988. Ecologists and nature lovers consider it an important ecoregion—one of the birding capitals of the world, which is a huge boon to the local economy. In Sierra Vista alone you’ll find 15 species of hummingbirds, while the San Pedro River is home to at least 100 species of birds and a way station for 300 additional migrating species.

One reason the San Pedro runs at all is because in 2014 the U.S. Army at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista spent millions of dollars working with the Nature Conservancy to reduce the base’s water consumption by nearly a third—in the process eliminating two-thirds of their pumping and recharging the aquifer. The military might be practicing conservation, but Sierra Vista is a sprawling blob in a majestic setting, and it wants to blob even more. But there’s that pesky 1980 Groundwater Management Act and its 100-year rule, which Cochise County co-signed.

Now, a couple measures are before the Arizona courts and legislature that could spell trouble for the San Pedro River and the area’s overall water supply. A three-judge panel is considering a request for a 7,000-unit housing complex in Sierra Vista called “Tribute” (to what?) that would tap the San Pedro in order to satisfy the 100-year requirement. The Arizona Department of Water Resources ruled, stupidly some think, that the builder can draw from the San Pedro, and they approved the deal.

However, the BLM and others sued because Tribute would require 30 percent of the river’s flow to meet the 100-year obligation—virtually the same amount the Army’s creative policies have saved. Using that much, the San Pedro could run dry at times, spoiling the rare riparian ecosystem and threatening Fort Huachuca’s supply. The California developer says it’s possible to drain off 30 percent and not harm the river or the region, although I tend to take ecological advice from scientists, not home builders. But then I’m not in the Arizona legislature.

It gets better. For them. What happens if the BLM and other river advocates convince the judges to reject the developer’s plan to use the San Pedro to meet its water obligations? The land devourers need another tactic. Just in case.

So this session GOP Sen. Gail Griffen, a Sierra Vista realtor (no conflict there), introduced the predictable: SB1268 removes the 100-year provision from the law books for some communities, including Cochise County, allowing large developers to build willy-nilly, doing no favors to future generations, and destroying sensitive ecologies that exist nowhere else on Earth.

[T]he bill would remove an impediment to building a 7,000-home Sierra Vista development called Tribute that wildlife and water activists say could kill the tiny San Pedro River and possibly endanger the future of the Army’s Fort Huachuca.

The measure passed both chambers, mostly because the huge housing development would “provide jobs,” and was sent to Gov. Ducey, whose office won’t say if he’ll sign the stinker, but responded: “Ensuring the certainty and sustainability of Arizona’s water supply is a high priority for Gov. Ducey.” If I were a betting person, I’d wager Gov. Ducey’s notion of “sustainability” doesn’t mesh with the scientists’.

This is tantamount to chopping down the last Sequoia because doing so would provide a few jobs for lumbermen.

 

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