In the hot, dry grasslands of southeastern Arizona, the San Pedro River is an oasis. Unlike many other desert rivers, the shallow San Pedro is free-flowing, and its banks are soil - not concrete. Cottonwood and willow forests line the northward-flowing river, from its origins in Sonora, Mexico, to its confluence with the Gila River, providing a 145 mile-long haven for migratory songbirds and humans alike.
"It's the best
fishing hole, by far the best birdwatching area, and it's the best
place to catch some early afternoon shade when it gets really hot,"
says Paul Hardy, director of The Nature Conservancy's Upper San
Pedro River program. "Its health is impaired, but it hasn't been
degraded to the point that other Southwestern rivers have."
These days, the San Pedro River Basin is
booming. The towns of Sierra Vista and Huachuca City are attracting
retirees looking for good weather and a small-town lifestyle.
Subdivisions and unplanned "wildcat" developments are on the rise,
competing with the river for the basin's limited
The fate of the San Pedro has been a hot
local issue for years (HCN, 6/12/95), and its designation as a
National Riparian Conservation Area in 1988 helped bring it
national attention. Now an international environmental commission
has joined the debate, hoping to point the way toward a better
future for the desert river and the basin's communities. The next
step is up to local residents. If they don't take action, federal
regulations could force their
In the international
Many conservationists feared the 1993
North American Free Trade Agreement, a treaty intended to reduce
trade barriers between Canada, Mexico and the United States, would
allow corporations to evade environmental regulations with a quick
and easy border crossing. In response to these concerns,
negotiators created the trinational Commission for Environmental
Cooperation. The commission, which has no enforcement power,
analyzes environmental problems related to international
Two years ago, the Southwest Center for
Biological Diversity and the Denver-based law firm Earthlaw
petitioned the commission, asking it to study the effects of
residential groundwater use, irrigated agriculture and cattle
grazing on the health of the San Pedro River. Their petition was
successful, and in May 1997 the commission began its first
investigation in the United States.
Just over a
year later, the commission began pumping out reports. First came a
draft report from a panel of experts, which described the threats
to the San Pedro from increasing groundwater use by residents of
the basin. The report was summarized and distributed in
southeastern Arizona newspapers. The commission, in cooperation
with the Udall Center for Public Policy at the University of
Arizona, then held a series of public meetings inside and outside
the basin, and the Udall Center released a two-inch-thick
collection of public comments in September. A final expert report
is expected to be completed in the spring.
past fall, a 13-member advisory panel - including local
politicians, a rancher from the San Pedro Basin, academics from all
three nations, and a former prime minister of Canada - used the
draft expert report to come up with some recommendations for the
communities of the San Pedro River Basin.
very eclectic group," says Jack Pfister, a professor at Arizona
State University and co-chairman of the advisory panel. "It's made
consensus a little more difficult, but it's a strong group."
The panel's report, released in December,
addresses problems on both sides of the international border. On
the U.S. side, the panel recommends more aggressive growth
management in the basin and the retirement of irrigated fields
along the San Pedro through easements or
"Their call for stronger zoning and
control represents great progress," says Robin Silver, conservation
chair of the Southwest Center and landowner in the San Pedro basin.
"They're admitting that there need to be some changes locally, and
we were vigorously attacked for suggesting the same thing just a
few years ago. But if there's no enforcement, this means nothing."
The small towns near the San Pedro must now
decide what to do with the panel's recommendations, and it doesn't
look like the decisions will come easily.
experience is that these guys (from the commission) are little more
than new-age, feel-good thugs," says Harold Vangilder, a Sierra
Vista city councilman. "If the San Pedro River is a national
treasure, we are an impoverished nation. You can't drown a fish in
There is a great deal of local resistance
to conservation measures for the San Pedro. Some environmental
groups, including the Southwest Center, have long pointed to Fort
Huachuca - a military base in Sierra Vista with more than 10,000
employees - as the biggest drain on the river. Although the
commission reports have opposed the closure of the fort, citing its
importance to the local economy, the commission has still drawn
fire from supporters of Fort Huachuca.
a lot of people feel defensive and a little bit paranoid," says Al
Anderson, a Sierra Vista resident and owner of the Gray Hawk Ranch,
a guest ranch for birdwatchers located near the San Pedro River.
"(The commission) has made it harder for our elected officials to
deny and ignore the issue, but it's also made them stonewall."
Other residents are supportive of the
recommendations, but wonder where they'll find the money to
implement them. "Without somebody coming forth with a grant to set
up a central agency - without someone in power to bring these
recommendations into actual being - nothing's going to happen,"
says Jack Ladd, a rancher on the San Pedro and a member of the
"To ask a community of 40,000
people to come up with multiple millions to solve this problem - it
just isn't feasible," says Marie Hansen, public information officer
for the city of Sierra Vista. "But I think the attention we're
getting (because of the commission report) can be positive in terms
of securing funding." Private foundations have expressed interest
in funding the conservation effort.
rumblings of federal regulation may cast the commission's advice in
a new light. At the end of December, in response to a lawsuit from
the Southwest Center, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed
the designation of sections of the San Pedro as critical habitat
for the Huachuca water umbel, an endangered semi-aquatic plant. A
critical habitat designation would give the federal agency
responsibility for protecting the San Pedro, taking much of the
decision-making out of the hands of basin
It's a switch that few locals want to
see, regardless of their political stripe. "What will get us over
the hump? A stick like the (Endangered Species Act) would probably
do it," says Hardy. "But none of us wants to see that. It would be
our local failing if the (Act) is invoked."
the recommendations of our report are totally ignored, the ultimate
consequence is going to be a long, protracted battle in court,"
adds Pfister. "That may still happen, but at least we're pointing
the way to an alternative course of action."
reports for High Country
You can contact
* Richard Connor, Commission for
Environmental Cooperation, 514/350-4300;
Hansen, City of Sierra Vista, 520/458-3315;
Paul Hardy, The Nature Conservancy,
* Robin Silver, Southwest Center
for Biological Diversity, 602/246-4170.