Of politics and the river

An Arizona congressman and a military base threaten the last free-flowing river in the desert Southwest

  • Cottonwood trees line the banks of the San Pedro River as it wends its way toward the Charleston Hills in southern Arizona

  • The Sandlin property


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Soon after the land sale, a lobbyist for the other private group interested in a federal land swap, Resolution Copper Co., complained to Renzi that Preserve Petrified Forest had received preferential treatment. According to the Associated Press, Renzi later dropped support for Preserve Petrified Forest's land swap, and neither of the land swaps has occurred.

Last April, the FBI raided Renzi's business office, which includes a family-owned insurance company. Several news outlets have reported that he is the focus of a Tucson-based federal grand jury investigation. He has temporarily resigned from several House committees, including the committee that oversees land exchanges.

Calls to Renzi's office seeking comment about the San Pedro River and the Sandlin land sale were not returned, and attempts to contact Preserve Petrified Forest's managers, including Babbitt, were unsuccessful.

Former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, who represented Renzi last fall, said then that the congressman wanted Sandlin's land to be swapped to the federal government to protect the river and Fort Huachuca operations. Woods said Renzi walked away from the proposed land swap when people questioned his role in the deal, according to the AP.

"He was trying to do the right thing and help a wide variety of constituents out," Woods said. "The minute he heard anyone insinuate there was a problem, he said, ‘Fine,' and walked away."

Last October, Guy Inzalaco, a top manager with Preserve Petrified Forest, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that he hadn't known that Renzi and Sandlin had once been business partners. Inzalaco told the Associated Press he didn't know why Renzi never followed through with the land-swap legislation, leaving his company with 480 acres of environmentally sensitive land. "We feel we've been somewhat victimized here," Inzalaco said.

Preserve Petrified Forest is now offering to sell the 480 acres for $5.2 million, says Sierra Vista Realtor Beth Wilkerson, the listing agent for the land.

Wilkerson says the land is zoned to build up to 161 homes and has unlimited water available for development. "The owners are highly motivated to get rid of this parcel," she says.

Proposed land swaps and questionable federal legislation aside, it's clear the San Pedro is in trouble.

Mac Nish's flat declaration that the river will dry up is the starkest warning to date. It's a warning that carries weight, given Mac Nish's 30-year tenure in Arizona, at USGS and as an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona.

Early this July, the San Pedro River nearly ran dry at a key monitoring station known as the Charleston gauge. The river recorded no flow there in July 2005 and July 2006.

Flows at the Charleston gauge — a location where bedrock forces groundwater to the surface — have been monitored for more than 70 years, and, before 2005, the river had never run dry there. Scientists and environmentalists blame a combination of drought, water absorption by streamside vegetation and excessive groundwater pumping for the decreased summer flows.

Mac Nish says groundwater withdrawals over the last 50 years have created a deepening and widening "cone of depression" that has now reached the San Pedro and "will continue to deepen at the river even if the pumps are shut off."

The San Pedro, he says, is only beginning to feel the impacts of past groundwater pumping.

The city of Sierra Vista, which lies 12 miles west of the river, has been growing at more than 2 percent a year for the last 15 years, reaching a population of 44,870 in 2006. The city's population is projected to reach 51,000 by 2011, and there are tens of thousands more people living in adjacent unincorporated areas.

That growth rate doesn't bode well for the river. In 2002, groundwater pumped out of the San Pedro River Basin exceeded replenishment by 5,144 acre-feet per year, according to Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based environmental group. By 2006, groundwater pumping exceeded replenishment by 11,300 acre-feet — or almost 3.7 billion gallons — per year, Silver says.

Despite the clear connection between groundwater withdrawals and the health of the river, Mac Nish says community leaders have avoided taking the necessary steps to save the river.

"I've been working on that basin since the late '80s, and starting in 1990, it became apparent that groundwater pumping was going to have a pretty strong impact on the river," Mac Nish says. "We talked to county officials, city officials, fort officials about the river. But everybody kept looking for other explanations for why the river seemed to be drying up."

The Upper San Pedro Water Partnership, a group of water users authorized by Congress to find ways to save the river, hopes to reduce groundwater pumping immediately adjacent to the river by purchasing property and conservation easements, rather than addressing groundwater depletion caused by water use in Sierra Vista.

"This is such an urgent issue that there is a need to focus on the direct and immediate impacts on this river system, because we are right on the edge," says Holly Richter, chairwoman of the partnership's technical advisory committee. "If we don't solve the short-term impact issues now, there won't be a river to conserve later."

The author is a contributing editor from Tempe, Arizona.

This article was made possible with support from the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation and the Jay Kenney Foundation.