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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Judy Gignac, a member of the Partnership Advisory Commission and the general manager of Bella Vista Ranches, says the group plans to introduce a model conservation ordinance next year for local governments. But Sierra Vista officials may be reluctant to embrace it: They say that conservation is expensive and ineffective compared to effluent recharge.

"Our toilet rebate program cost us $100 per toilet, and 800 toilets brought us (just) 23 acre-feet total savings," says Chuck Potucek, the city manager.

The lack of aggressive conservation measures irks Tricia Gerrodette, a member of the local Audubon Society and an alternate member to the partnership commission. Early this year, she presented the group with a proposal that would ban new residential swimming pools and water-hogging swamp coolers, and require low-water-use home landscaping, among other things. The partnership "flat wouldn’t even talk about it," she says.

"There’s so little that’s real about what is happening here. They are not dealing with growth management, and not much with conservation. There’s extremely limited requirements on new housing. We’ve done almost nothing as far as retrofitting, except for the toilet rebates."

That’s not surprising, responds Gignac. "It takes a political will to do (what Gerrodette proposes) and it also takes enforcement," she says. "How you enforce some of those things is tough."

The partnership does have the political will to support continued studies. About $3.5 million has gone into researching river ecology, the feasibility of conservation schemes, a decision-making computer model to understand the effects of water policy changes, and an updated computerized model of the groundwater system’s workings. Not everyone is pleased: Veteran University of Arizona hydrologist Thomas Maddock, who did some of the early studies more than a decade ago, says, "In essence, if you don’t want to do anything on the river, you just keep studying it." He calls the San Pedro "the most studied river in the world."

But all the studies are hobbled by the fact that anywhere from 1,500 to 1,800 homes near the river get their water from private wells, which by law are exempt from having to tell the government how much they use each year, says Maddock, now head of the university’s hydrology department. "We don’t know what’s causing the stress on our system. If we don’t know, how can we make accurate groundwater models?"

Gignac and The Nature Conservancy’s Richter maintain that the studies are building a foundation for stronger action in the future. In particular, Richter cites a soon-to-be finished, $1.5 million study of the river’s plant communities as "cutting edge," one of the Southwest’s most comprehensive studies of a riparian ecosystem. "Every year, we create an annual conservation plan. All the science that has been accomplished is incorporated into that year’s plan, and the plan is updated as new science is available," says Richter.

The growth machine

In the meantime, Sierra Vista’s population has grown by 7 percent since 2000. More than 40,000 people live here now, and the metro area could boom to close to 100,000 by 2030. Cochise County’s population is now 124,000, up from 97,600 in 1990. If every square inch of buildable private and state land in the Sierra Vista portion of the basin is developed to the maximum allowed under current zoning, it could theoretically reach about 210,000.

Unplanned subdivisions — often called "wildcat" developments — made up more than 60 percent of the county’s building activity in 2000, and they all have unmetered private wells. From 2000 through 2003, the area’s private water companies increased pumping by 13 percent, on top of a 40 percent increase between 1990 and 2000.

That’s not all: A 10-year-old change in state Water Department policy allows developers to say that Sierra Vista has enough water despite the known threats to the river. Until 1993, Arizona had acknowledged that the area’s water supply was inadequate to support new developments for 100 years. But, under pressure from developers, it reversed that policy, and since 1993, it has given water-adequacy notices to about 50 developments.

Even with inadequacy notices, these 50 developments could still have taken place. The notices are merely disclosure tools for homebuyers. But longtime San Pedro defender Robin Silver believes they can help slow development. He took the policy to court, but lost earlier this year, when a State Appeals Court panel ruled that his group, the Center for Biological Diversity, lacked standing to file the case. Silver is now considering filing a consumer fraud complaint with the state attorney general’s office, after an assistant attorney general said that the case is more of a consumer disclosure issue.

"It might not stop a development, but imagine if you are trying to get a federal loan or federal project, and the statement says there is an inadequate supply of water," he says.

The Upper San Pedro Partnership has shunned Silver, yet some of its members recognize that the group has not tackled the 900-pound growth gorilla. "Nobody in rural areas talks about growth publicly. They talk about it behind the scenes," says partnership commission member Whitmer. Even so, he says, Sierra Vista comes closer to doing so than most places.

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