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

Page 4

Recently, the partnership has started to discuss seeking state legislation allowing local governments to transfer development rights. That would allow Sierra Vista to move dense development away from the river to areas where water wells would have less short-term impact.

But the Sierra Vista city government rarely, if ever, turns down a major rezoning. One of its planning commissioners, Robert Caulfield, says the city attorney told commissioners that they lack the legal right to do so, as long as the rezoning matches the city’s comprehensive plan and meets all the codes. That’s an attitude sharply different from that of neighboring Pima County, home of Tucson, which denies or sharply modifies rezonings all the time.

"It’s their property," says Caulfield, a retired Army officer who moved to Sierra Vista in 1997. "As long as it complies with the code, if they want to go from 36,000 square feet per residence to 20,000 square feet, who are we to say you can’t do that?"

But retiree and neighborhood activist Stan Gardner believes the council has been too willing to accommodate developers, and the partnership too slow to take any action.

"I go to some of their meetings. I sit and listen and think, ‘Why in the world don’t they get something done instead of talking about it?’ " says Gardner, who moved here from Ohio two years ago, drawn by the area’s bird-watching. "They’ve been in meetings five years, but as far as I can tell they have accomplished hardly anything.’’

Command and control

Sierra Vista could save water, activists say: Gerrodette points to neighboring Fort Huachuca as an example. Since 1989, when legal pressure against the fort increased, its water use has dropped by more than half, to a little more than 1,500 acre-feet per year, even though the base’s population has stayed roughly the same, according to Gretchen Kent, the post’s National Environmental Policy Act coordinator.

Since 1994, post residents have been allowed to use outdoor sprinklers two nights a week, only in May and June. Any family that is cited three times — something that has never happened — may be kicked off the post by the base commander. New homes are equipped with low-flow toilets and refrigerated air conditioners that use less water than swamp coolers. The post has replaced 350 top-loading washing machines with water-saving front-loading models, and installed 400 waterless urinals. When 1.5 million square feet of World War II-era buildings were demolished, their entire water systems were turned off.

The difference between Fort Huachuca and Sierra Vista has not been lost on Army officials. In May 2003, the Army’s Washington, D.C., office wrote that "While Fort Huachuca has undertaken aggressive conservation measures, steadily reducing its water consumption since 1988, unrestrained growth in the civilian community has continued to aggravate the water deficit situation."

City and state water officials respond that they lack the Army’s authority, and that they can’t control water rates because private water companies provide the water. The state Corporation Commission doesn’t allow the companies to raise rates to force conservation. Higher rates could reduce the companies’ water sales, the state’s Whitmer says. "It’s not that private water companies are against conservation. They just can’t afford it," he says. The partnership is looking into pushing for legislation to set up a water-pricing scheme to encourage conservation.

Yet many locals seem to favor a tougher approach to water management than the partnership’s leaders. The 300 residents who attended a series of focus group meetings on water last spring gave their greatest support — by a margin of up to 74 percent — to regulating water use through codes, charging people more for excessive water use and replacing high-use home fixtures. Importing water ranked last; only 20.8 percent supported it.

"We need to live within our means and not look to outside sources," one respondent said. "Robbing Peter to pay Paul: bad idea," said another. "Why should others make water available for us to waste?" a third wondered.

Whitmer wasn’t impressed: "The majority don’t understand that water conservation can only get you so far," he says. "You go to talk to people about water, and their general knowledge is that it comes out of a tap." Environmentalists acknowledge that conservation can’t do the whole job, but they say Sierra Vista is using that fact as an excuse to do too little. Silver has petitioned the state to impose an active groundwater-management area in Sierra Vista and its vicinity. That would give the state the power to limit pumping if local communities won’t do it voluntarily.

Gignac, campaign manager for the re-election effort of the chair of the County Board of Supervisors, says such a management scheme won’t work unless it protects the river and not just the aquifer. Most active-management areas are designed to protect only groundwater. But in Santa Cruz County to the west, a state-run active management area could help protect one of the last remnant wet stretches of the Santa Cruz River.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources will decide whether to propose such a management scheme this fall — four years after Silver filed his petition.

Unquenchable thirst

Of course, there is a time-honored Western alternative to moratoriums, conservation, effluent ponds and the like: Just buy outside water and pipe it in to save both the residents and the river.

Water importation is not an official partnership policy, but the group is having the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation study it, just in case. Already the idea has produced fireworks.

In July, as a Partnership Advisory Commission meeting wound down, Cochise County Supervisor Les Thompson, a conservative Republican, turned to a volatile subject not on the agenda. It was the partnership’s long-term study of importing water from underneath farmland north of Benson, his hometown, 25 miles north of Sierra Vista.

Over and over, partnership leaders have said that the study is just a look at the feasibility of bringing in water from Benson, or the neighboring towns of Tombstone and Bisbee, or perhaps even from the Colorado River via the gargantuan Central Arizona Project, whose pipeline now stops just south of Tucson, 90 miles west. The estimated costs of this range from as little as $6.3 million for water from Tombstone (16 miles away), to $119 million for the Central Arizona Project. Millions more would be needed just to operate and maintain the systems.

But Thompson was angry because no one from the partnership had told Benson about the study when it began. He wanted the subject taken off the table forever.

"To me, it was like blood. I’ve been a homeowner 25 years. As long as (the threat of taking Benson’s water) is there, it (creates) a cloud of distrust. I don’t know how to deal with this other than to eliminate the problem," Thompson said.

Gignac quickly told Thompson that she understood his concern. But she added that it made no sense to take any option off the table until it had been fully studied. Sierra Vista Mayor Tom Hessler said he would only kill the idea "with great reluctance."

In the end, no vote was taken. But the incident was just a hint of the increasingly broad, fierce and divisive pressures that are likely to hit the partnership, as growth — and drought — continue, and water becomes more scarce.

"It’s going to become more and more contentious," developer Gignac says. "We are going to wait and see if we have the stomach to talk about these things, argue about them, get emotional about them, and see if we can come up with solutions rather than destroying ourselves."

Tony Davis covers growth and development issues at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson. Contact him at [email protected]

This story was made possible by the support of the EMA Foundation.


For more info:

- Upper San Pedro Partnership phone 520-452-7087

- The Nature Conservancy Tucson office phone 520-622-3861; Upper San Pedro office, Bisbee 520-432-1141

- Sierra Vista City Hall phone 520-458-3315

- Arizona Department of Water Resources phone 602-417-2400

- United States Geological Survey local office phone 520-670-6671

- Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson phone 520-623-5252; Robin Silver, board chair, at 602-246-4170 in Phoenix

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