A Thirst for Growth

For decades, Sierra Vista, Arizona, has pumped groundwater like there's no tomorrow. Now, to save the Southwest's last free-flowing river, the city's leaders must confront an age of limits.

  • 'Wildcat' subdivisions spread out from Sierra Vista. Many of the homes have unmetered private water wells

    Adriel Heisey
  • Birders at Sierra Vista's Environmental Operations Park, where wastewater is purified before it eventually seeps back into the aquifer

    Ed Honda
  • Port Huachuca near Sierra Vista, Arizona

    Diane Sylvain
  • A beaver dam on the San Pedro, where beavers were relocated starting in 1999

    ? Robin Silver
  • Center-pivot irrigation near the San Pedro River. The Nature Conservancy and Fort Huachuca have bought 900 acres of farmland and ended groundwater pumping there

    Adriel Heisey
  • At Fort Huachuca, workers construct a recharge basin that will capture runoff and allow it to percolate back into the San Pedro aquifer

    John Roberts photo, Fort Huachuca Environmental and Natureal Resources Division

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In 1984, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development responded, briefly imposing a moratorium on new FHA-approved mortgages in the Sierra Vista area. A hailstorm of developer protests followed, and the moratorium was lifted the same day news of it broke in local papers. Ten years later, as evidence of overpumping mounted, community leaders formed a Water Issues Group. It agreed to push for state legislation to create a locally run groundwater-management area. But that effort imploded, too, after nearly a thousand people turned out at a January 1995 public hearing in Sierra Vista to accuse the group of "jamming it down our throats," according to the Sierra Vista Herald.

In 1997, the Commission on Environmental Cooperation — which represents Mexico, the United States and Canada and enforces environmental rules under the North American Free Trade Agreement — commissioned a team of experts to look at the San Pedro. Its 1999 report advocated "aggressive water conservation and harvesting strategies" (HCN, 4/12/99: Charting the course of the San Pedro). It called for a locally approved strategy to limit water pumping, an effort to manage and guide population growth, and the voluntary retirement of irrigated agriculture in the Upper San Pedro River Basin north of Mexico.

Jack Pfister, the retired Phoenix-area utility executive who chaired the commission’s San Pedro Advisory Panel, added a postscript to that report. He said that many panel members believe the river will survive "only if the local leaders have the courage and creativity to give protecting the river the same priority and energy as promoting growth."

Today, although little has been done in Sierra Vista to limit urban pumping or manage growth, The Nature Conservancy and Fort Huachuca, a nearby Army base, have bought 900 acres of farmland to retire its groundwater pumping. The federal government has reintroduced beaver in the San Pedro, hoping that beaver dams will back up water and help restore century-old marshes. And a key commission recommendation — the formation of a local advisory panel — was realized in 1998. That group became the Upper San Pedro Partnership, which now represents 21 interest groups, including eight federal agencies, four state agencies, five local governments, The Nature Conservancy, the Arizona Audubon Society and Bella Vista Ranches, the area’s largest developer.

Four years after its formation, the partnership received an unwitting boost from a federal judge and the Endangered Species Act. For many years, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity had been pressing legal action against Fort Huachuca, accusing it and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of failing to properly account for the fort’s impacts on the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher and the Huachuca water umbel, an aquatic plant. In April 2002, U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez in Tucson ruled that the base’s operations are in fact likely to jeopardize the continued existence of both species.

The decision sparked fears in Sierra Vista that the military base would be cut back, or shut down altogether. Fort Huachuca has been the area’s economic bulwark for more than a century; it employs 9,000 people full-time and pumps up to $600 million a year into the local economy. Intense congressional debate followed, and legislation was introduced that would have absolved the fort of responsibility for all off-post water use. Finally, a rider to the 2003-2004 Defense Authorization bill was passed, limiting Fort Huachuca’s liability for actions outside its boundaries.

The compromise legislation, introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was blasted by some activists as a slow death sentence for the river. Yet it had a silver lining: It ordered the Upper San Pedro Partnership to produce a series of annual reports on how it will end the overpumping of groundwater by 2011. The law does not require that the overpumping actually cease. But the partnership has signed a pledge to stop it, and it has promised annual reports on its progress.

If the partnership succeeds, Fort Huachuca will survive. It may even get larger: Officials from Gov. Janet Napolitano on down are pushing to add more missions and jobs to the post next year.

In search of political will

To save the river — and still accommodate growth — the partnership has lassoed state and federal dollars to recharge treated sewage and retire farmland. And it plans to spend millions more over the coming decade.

But the group has moved much more slowly when it comes to garden-variety water conservation. Sierra Vista now requires swimming pool covers to prevent evaporation, and it has subsidized replacement of high-flow with low-flow toilets. Waterless urinals are required in new commercial developments, water misters are banned, car washes must recycle 75 percent of the water they use, and turf use is prohibited in nonresidential development.

But the partnership’s 2004 conservation plan concentrates on building new detention basins and recharge plants, instead of telling — or even asking — people to use less water. Ironically, the group believes growth can help reduce the overpumping: It anticipates that rainfall runoff will increase as the desert is paved, and that this extra runoff will dump more water into the washes that help replenish the aquifer. Based on one study, the partnership is using this formula to credit 3,200 acre-feet against an expected 13,900 acre-feet deficit by 2011.

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