River Gamble

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.

"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.

But worries persist that the base may be closed if it cannot find additional water supplies to support expansion. The state is developing a plan to transfer water from closed mines in Tombstone and Bisbee to Fort Huachuca to accommodate future growth.

Renzi's family ties to Fort Huachuca defense contractors are drawing sharp rebukes from congressional watchdog groups that monitor Congress for ethical violations.

"He, like other members of Congress whose decisions benefit friends and family members, is going to have to answer questions about where his loyalties lie," says Steve Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics. "The voters have a right to question whether their interest or his father's interest are foremost in his decision-making process."

Weiss says Renzi is taking a significant political risk to sponsor the legislation that has the appearance of a conflict of interest.

"It's a political calculation irregardless of whether he set out to benefit his dad or not," Weiss says. "He had to recognize the possibility of this coming out and looking bad."

Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project says Renzi is making a serious blunder that could damage his credibility with other members of Congress for supporting a bill that could provide major financial benefits to his father's company.

"Doing such things can cause huge political black eyes even if they are not explicitly a violation of House ethics rules," he says.

Renzi is even more exposed to criticism because the amendment affects a facility that is not in his district.

"It's obvious that Renzi doesn't know the lay of the land yet and has a lot to learn," Ruskin says. "He should just stop."

Renzi's provision has passed the House, but the Fort Huachuca exemption is not included in the Senate's version of the defense-spending bill. A House-Senate conference committee is expected to soon take up the matter. The conference committee includes Arizona Senator John McCain, who is opposed to Renzi's amendment.

McCain "does not agree with the current language as passed by the House because it does not adequately protect the San Pedro River," according to a statement released last week by his office.

McCain "is working on legislation that protects the river and acknowledges that the long-term viability of the river is the responsibility" of the base and the civilian community that has developed around the post, the statement attests.

Renzi's measure is also drawing fire from Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who supports efforts that led to the pending agreement between the fort and U.S. Fish & Wildlife to reduce groundwater consumption.

Originating in Arizona and flowing south into Sonora, Mexico, before backtracking and flowing north into Arizona, the San Pedro is a crucial corridor for millions of migratory birds. The river has been designated by the Nature Conservancy as one of the world's eight "last great places."

Congress, in a bill co-sponsored by Representative Kolbe, designated 45 miles of the river as the nation's first National Riparian Conservation Area in 1988 but failed to secure water rights to protect the river.

The agreement reached last year between the Army and USFWS came after 10 years of contentious negotiations and lawsuits filed by environmental groups.

In the agreement, Fort Huachuca acknowledges that it is responsible for 54 percent of the population and water consumption in the area because of its primary economic role in the region.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty