Doomed River

The Southwest's last free-flowing stream ran dry for eight days in mid-July. It's time to act

Towering Fremont cottonwoods and Goodding willows provide welcome shade as I approach the banks of one of Arizona's most threatened natural wonders -- the San Pedro River.

A hawk is perched on a branch overhead as I place my sandal-clad feet into the cool water that's just a few inches deep on a hot summer afternoon. I'm amazed at how narrow the river is -- literally no more than 20 feet wide.

But its diminutive size is deceptive.

The dry bed of the San Pedro River.
John Travassos
The dry bed of the San Pedro River.

The San Pedro supports the highest variety of mammal species in the United States and the second richest on Earth. Only the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica hold more.

The stream nourishes a treasure trove of wildlife including native lowland leopard frogs, a native fish called the longfin dace, zone-tailed hawks, yellow warblers and the rare yellow-billed cuckoo.

For tens of thousands of years, the river has flowed through the Sonoran Desert from mountains in Mexico to its confluence with the Gila River near Winkelman.

But that is changing.

Rampant, uncontrolled development spurred by the Army's Fort Huachuca base near Sierra Vista is now threatening to destroy one of the world's most important riparian corridors.

In a chilling harbinger of the fate that most surely waits unless dramatic reforms are put into place, the Southwest's last free-flowing stream ran dry for eight days in mid-July.

This marked the first time in recorded history dating back 101 years that the San Pedro failed to flow past an important monitoring gauge just east of Fort Huachuca. It's a discouraging signal that the San Pedro may soon suffer the fate of many of Arizona's other major rivers, including the Salt River, which once flowed through the Phoenix metropolitan area but is now a dry river bed.

We've already destroyed more than 90 percent of Arizona's river, stream and creek habitats to build our sprawling, disconnected, polluted and increasingly congested metropolises in Phoenix and Tucson.

We must decide now if we are going to crucify our handful of remaining rivers, including the San Pedro and the Verde River, on the cross of development or whether we can finally co-exist with the splendors of a desert stream.

Clearly, the biggest threat to the river is Fort Huachuca. The Army base is the economic engine for the region, contributing to as much as two-thirds of the local economy. The San Pedro and more than 72,500 residents in the region depend on the same groundwater basin to survive.

The river's getting the short end of the stick. If it dries up, the impact on wildlife will be devastating.

The San Pedro hosts millions of songbirds migrating through the Southwest every year to and from their wintering grounds in Central America and Mexico and their summer breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States.

Nearly 45 percent of the 900 total species of birds in North America utilize the San Pedro at some point in their lives. The American Bird Conservancy named the San Pedro its first "Globally Important Bird Area" in the United States because "it is considered the largest and best example of riparian woodland remaining in the southwestern U.S."

The San Pedro is so important that Congress designated it as the nation's first National Riparian Conservation Area in 1988.

But the congressional title has done little to protect the last remaining stretches of the San Pedro from imminent destruction.

The U.S. Department of Defense has an opportunity during the ongoing review of military base closures to sharply scale back operations at Fort Huachuca. Instead, DOD appears ready to expand personnel at the fort, which will only put increasing pressure on the San Pedro.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Department of Water Resources is ignoring the San Pedro's precarious condition and is continuing to give a green light to developers planning to build thousands of homes in the area that rely on groundwater that also feeds the river. ADWR is allowing developers to tell prospective homebuyers that the area has adequate water supplies.

This, however, appears to be misleading. The San Pedro has federally reserved water rights that -- if ever exercised by the Department of Interior, which controls the San Pedro conservation area -- could force private property owners and developers to sharply curtail groundwater pumping.

Most of Arizona's political leaders, including Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano, are supporting only voluntary controls on groundwater withdrawals to protect the San Pedro.

Such an approach is doomed to failure.

Only Republican U.S. Senator John McCain appears to be deeply concerned about the fate of the river, although even he has supported voluntary conservation measures.

McCain issued a July 15 statement after learning that the San Pedro River had run dry for the first time.

"This historic event signals the need for . . . all levels of government to redouble efforts to achieve sustainable water use and management of the regional aquifer," McCain stated.

McCain went further and made a statement that is sure to infuriate pro-growth factions in Sierra Vista, who have steadfastly refused to acknowledge that groundwater pumping is having any direct impact on the San Pedro River.

The fact the San Pedro went dry, McCain stated, "is visible evidence of the interconnection of area ground and surface water supplies and the effects of ground water pumping and extended drought."

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