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."

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.

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.

Many of these people are drug addicts and alcoholics. Many are mentally ill. Most homeless substance abusers won't use homeless shelters provided by social service agencies because of restrictions placed on use of drugs and alcohol and the requirement that they seek treatment.

During the winter, the city doesn't require the homeless to enroll in programs to stay at the Watkins Street shelter. Instead, it simply opens the facility's doors to give the homeless shelter from freezing weather -- with no strings attached.

The city should immediately make the improvements necessary for the Watkins facility to function as an emergency homeless shelter not only in winter but during the sweltering summer months.

Terry Bower, director of the Day Resource Center at Maricopa County's Human Services Campus, says opening the winter shelter during the summer would "absolutely" save lives.

"We need a year-round overflow shelter," Bower says. "There is no stopgap."

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