Charting the course of the San Pedro

  • Upper San Pedro River Basin

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • The San Pedro is a haven for both humans and songbirds

    Robin Silver photo

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 water.

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 hand.

In the international spotlight

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 trade.

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.

This 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.

"It's a 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 buyouts.

"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."

Over the hump

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.

"Our 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 it."

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.

"It's made 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 advisory committee.

"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.

Recent 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 residents.

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."

"If 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."

Michelle Nijhuis reports for High Country News.

You can contact ...

* Richard Connor, Commission for Environmental Cooperation, 514/350-4300;

* Marie Hansen, City of Sierra Vista, 520/458-3315;

* Paul Hardy, The Nature Conservancy, 520/378-2640;

* Robin Silver, Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, 602/246-4170.

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