Doomed River

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

Last year, McCain steered legislation through Congress that created the Upper San Pedro Partnership to develop a plan to protect the river while ensuring economic growth. The partnership is composed of developers, state and federal agencies and environmental groups.

The partnership is supposed to put into place voluntary water conservation measures by 2011 that will eliminate the overdraft of groundwater in the region.

While this is a step in the right direction, it is nowhere near enough to guarantee the survival of the river. There is only one way to guarantee a reduction in groundwater withdrawals -- and that is to make it mandatory.

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

But don't expect the state Legislature, which is beholden to Arizona's powerful real estate development interests, to pass a law to protect the river. Nor can we expect Napolitano to do much -- especially since she is committed to keeping and expanding military installations such as Fort Huachuca.

But there is another option.

Former Arizona governor and Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt told me last winter that the only way to save the San Pedro is for voters to pass a statewide initiative to legally restrict groundwater pumping to a level that will preserve the river.

Babbitt says voluntary restrictions on groundwater withdrawals are doomed to failure.

"If you look at the protection of water resources, there has never been a purely voluntary effort that has been successful," he said.

Babbitt has a long history of advocating for the protection of the San Pedro. While governor in the mid-1980s, he helped negotiate a complex land trade that led to the creation of the riparian conservation area. If he was still Interior secretary today, my bet is that he'd be using his department's power to preserve the San Pedro.

"We ought to have the gumption to save the last flowing river in Arizona," Babbitt told me.

I wholeheartedly agree.

No one has done more to protect the San Pedro than Dr. Robin Silver, a founder of the Tucson-based environmental group Center for Biological Diversity.

For more than 15 years, Silver has scoured scientific data, filed numerous lawsuits, engaged in vigorous debates and incurred the wrath of developers, military brass and state and federal regulators in what I consider to be a heroic and selfless effort to save one of the world's great natural treasures.

Silver makes his living as an emergency-room physician. But his true passion is for protecting wild places for future generations.

"The San Pedro River is the last surviving river in the desert Southwest and is truly one of Arizona's, the nation's, and the world's environmental crown jewels," Silver said.

Silver is convinced that groundwater pumping in the region is having a direct impact on the river. His contention is hotly disputed by the military and development advocates in Sierra Vista.

On July 20, Silver announced that the Center for Biological Diversity's lawsuit against the Defense department uncovered crucial documentation showing Fort Huachuca has collected evidence that excessive groundwater pumping is "likely" affecting the river.

A May 15, 2005, Army report calls into serious doubt claims by Fort Huachuca brass and local economic development cheerleaders that groundwater pumping is not affecting the San Pedro. The 10-year study of monitoring wells shows declining groundwater levels within two miles of the San Pedro River.

The report states that if groundwater development in the Fort Huachuca/Sierra Vista region continues at present rates, groundwater levels near the river will also decline.

"The effect of long-term groundwater development in the Sierra Vista/Fort Huachuca region on the flow of the San Pedro River can potentially be significant," the report concluded.

Fort Huachuca officials are downplaying the report and the center's claim that it is powerful evidence that groundwater pumping is damaging the river.

"We don't believe the data . . . support the claim that the Fort is directly harming the San Pedro River," Colonel Jonathan B. Hunter, Fort Huachuca garrison commander, stated in a July 21 press release.

Come on!

Common sense and a mountain of evidence indicates excessive groundwater pumping is sucking the life out of one of the most biologically diverse river corridors in the world.

It's time to launch the statewide initiative to save the San Pedro River from extinction.

As homeless people were dropping like flies on the streets during the late July heat wave, the City of Phoenix kept an emergency homeless shelter with 400-plus beds closed.

Moises Gallegos, deputy director for the city's Department of Community Services, tells me the city didn't open the winter overflow homeless shelter at 1120 West Watkins Street because the building doesn't have air conditioning.

What a lame excuse! At least 28 people died of heat-related causes in Phoenix during the last two weeks of July. Nearly all were homeless.

What the hard-core homeless wandering the streets in downtown Phoenix want more than anything is shade and water.

Many would have welcomed the opportunity to go inside the city's emergency overflow shelter during the heat wave -- even if it was cooled simply with fans and some misters.

How much could that have cost? A few hundred dollars, maybe.

Instead, these homeless spent the day chasing shade cast from big buildings. They crouched on scorching sidewalks, all the while trying to avoid police enforcing trespassing laws.

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