River Gamble

Rick Renzi's hoping people buy his line that an amendment he's sponsoring has nothing to do with his father's defense business

Congressman Rick Renzi is sponsoring a provision in a defense-spending bill that could provide hundreds of millions of dollars to his father's business while delivering what environmentalists say is a death blow to the San Pedro River, the state's last free-flowing desert stream and one of the most important environmental areas in the world.

The freshman Republican's amendment to the bill would exempt the Army's Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona from meeting strict groundwater conservation measures designed to protect the nearby San Pedro. The amendment would scrap a 2002 agreement between the Army and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service requiring that the base be held accountable for about half of the off-post groundwater deficit caused by neighboring homes and businesses.

Renzi's provision would require that the Army only be held responsible for reducing groundwater use on the sprawling post that has more than 8,000 personnel. The amendment is supported by the towns of Sierra Vista and Huachuca City, as well as Cochise County, a coalition of businesses and the University of Arizona -- which is seeking to expand its campus in Sierra Vista.

Congressman Rick Renzi's on the hot seat.
Congressman Rick Renzi's on the hot seat.

"This language would prevent the Department of Defense from being held responsible for civilian water consumption impacting critical habitat or endangered species occurring outside the military installation and beyond its authority to control," supporters of the amendment state.

Environmentalists say the amendment would clear the way for expansion of the base and unfettered growth in the surrounding area that would ultimately result in drying up the San Pedro.

Renzi's amendment "would guarantee the death of the San Pedro River, the last surviving desert river in the Southwest," says Robin Silver, conservation chairman of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Groundwater is the primary source of potable water in the area. Government and academic researchers have linked a dramatic decline in surface flows in the San Pedro to steadily increasing groundwater pumping for the rapidly expanding communities adjacent to Fort Huachuca.

One of the businesses that stands to benefit from the expansion of operations at Fort Huachuca and the surrounding area is ManTech International Corp., a Fairfax, Virginia-based defense contractor. Renzi's father, Retired Major General Eugene Renzi, is an executive vice president with the company.

ManTech already has $467 million in contracts from Department of Defense agencies based at Fort Huachuca and has contingent contracts worth another $1.1 billion over the next four years. General Renzi served at Fort Huachuca during an active-duty career that included a stint as Director of Command and Control and Communications Systems for the Army's Pacific Command.

Renzi's staffers say there is no link between the congressman's amendment and his father's business operations at Fort Huachuca and contend that environmentalists are attempting to smear the character of Renzi and his family in a last-ditch effort to derail the legislation.

"The fact is, defense companies' contracts are with specific Department of Defense activities and do not depend on the future of an installation at Fort Huachuca," says Kevin Messner, Renzi's Chief of Staff. "Should the Department of Defense activities they support move to another location, the contracts will go with them."

Renzi did not comment directly on whether his father's business may have had a role in his decision to sponsor the amendment that exempts Fort Huachuca from meeting key provisions in the Endangered Species Act. The amendment does not provide similar protections to any other defense facility in the country.

Neither the fort nor the San Pedro River is in Renzi's congressional district. Renzi says he introduced the measure at the request of Arizona Republican Representative Jim Kolbe, who has sponsored nearly identical measures in Congress the previous two years that were defeated. Kolbe represents the Fort Huachuca area and is backing Renzi's current effort.

Renzi says he introduced the measure to protect the fort from closing, due in part to the Army growing weary of defending itself from litigation by environmentalists seeking to reduce the base's impact on the San Pedro River.

"I submitted the Fort Huachuca preservation amendment at the request of Congressman Kolbe to help ensure the Post stays open," Renzi says in a prepared statement. "This preservation amendment is about keeping this vital facility open, saving and creating jobs and defending our country. It's about doing my job as a Congressman fighting for the people of rural Arizona."

It is unclear why Kolbe asked Renzi to introduce the rider rather than doing it himself as he has in previous years. Kolbe sits on the House appropriations committee and could have added the measure. Instead, he asked Renzi, who grew up in the Sierra Vista area and owns a ranch nearby, to sponsor the amendment.

"We worked very, very closely with Congressman Renzi's office in putting together the bill," says Neena Moorjani, Kolbe's press secretary.

Silver says Fort Huachuca is not in any danger from closing because of environmental lawsuits.

The fort is vital to military interests, Silver says, because its remote location provides a clean electromagnetic environment to operate highly sophisticated intelligence equipment. The fort also has 1,000 square miles of restricted airspace and is the only major military installation on the U.S. border between El Paso and San Diego.

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