« Return to this article

Know the West

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.


Note: a sidebar accompanies this story, focusing tightly on the dewatering of the San Pedro River.


A small oasis of cattail marshes and ponds thrives amid the paved roads and parking lots in this city of strip malls and car dealers. Though bird-watchers slink along its shores, trying to catch a glimpse of a black-necked stilt or American avocet, this marsh is not natural. Its water comes from the toilets, sinks and grease traps of the burgeoning Sunbelt city of Sierra Vista.

This is the Environmental Operations Park, a $7.8 million wastewater recharge project designed to help the city hold onto as much of its precious water as possible. Fifty acres of marshy wetlands take up nitrogen from partially treated sewage. Then, the water is transferred into 30 acres of basins, where it is supposed to settle into an aquifer, replenishing the water that’s been pumped out. The recharge project sinks 1,840 acre-feet of water into the ground each year — enough water to cover 1,840 football fields a foot deep. It is the most visible accomplishment of the Upper San Pedro Partnership, a six-year-old consortium that represents government, environmental and development interests.

The partnership has embraced a very ambitious goal: to balance pumping and recharge, and eventually put more water back into the ground than farmers, businesses and residents take out. If it succeeds, Sierra Vista will be able to do what virtually no other community that relies on groundwater in the arid West has ever done — live sustainably on a limited water supply. In water lingo, it’s called "sustainable yield."

Achieving this would also halt the decline of the Southwest’s last undammed and ungrazed river, the San Pedro, which needs ample groundwater to maintain its surface flows. The San Pedro’s marshy jungles of cattails and bulrushes and its unmatched stands of cottonwoods and willows support 350 to 400 species of birds. Up to 4 million visitors come here every year: Sierra Vista has become an internationally known bird-watching destination. But the city’s excessive groundwater pumping could dry up the river; studies have been sounding a warning for two decades now.

The sewage recharge project is just one of 100 activities the partnership has started to save the San Pedro. Over the past six years, it has raised $46 million to plan and build recharge projects, finance water studies and carry out conservation projects. It has started a "Waterwise" public education program. And it has won friends in the research community and among many public officials.

The partnership is the most effective watershed management group in Arizona and perhaps in the West, says Tom Whitmer, a member of the Partnership Advisory Commission and an Arizona Department of Water Resources official. Mark Anderson, a top-level United States Geological Survey official in Tucson who also sits on the 25-member advisory commission, agrees: "They’re making things happen," he says. "They’re more influential than a lot of organizations at securing money to support science to make management decisions."

Despite the partnership’s work, groundwater pumping is still on the rise in Sierra Vista. Critics, including both local and national environmental organizations as well as neighborhood groups, are growing impatient. The Arizona Department of Water Resources estimates that the overdraft has reached about 8,400 acre-feet annually, a 20 percent increase since the partnership was founded. Holly Richter, a Partnership Advisory Commission member and The Nature Conservancy’s Upper San Pedro program manager, says that when conservation measures are properly accounted for, the overdraft is more like 3,500 acre-feet. But the Audubon Society, another Partnership member, says that number can’t be validated without further study.

There are other questions. The U.S. Geological Survey has found layers of clay and silt 100 to 200 feet thick, 100 feet beneath the wastewater recharge ponds. Clay is far less permeable than sand or gravel, and it could be actually diverting the effluent northward, away from the river. One spring a mile and a half north of the recharge plant seems to be increasing its flow.

The critics say that even if the recharge plan works, it’s no more than a Band-Aid slapped on the San Pedro’s primary threats: growth and unregulated groundwater pumping. So far, the Upper San Pedro Partnership has been unwilling to confront these issues. Partnership leaders say conservation can’t do the job alone, and that growth can’t be stopped, although it can be redirected. They warn that Sierra Vista may eventually need to import water.

In an era of drought, the partnership wants it all: growth, a bustling economy — and a healthy San Pedro River. The question arises: Is that even possible?

Born of failure

The Upper San Pedro Partnership, like so many of the West’s collaborative enterprises, grew out of the muck of past failures and old conflicts. Doubts about Sierra Vista’s water use began to surface in the 1980s, when the first of a long list of studies from state and federal agencies and university scientists warned that the San Pedro River was living on borrowed time. Continued overpumping, they said, was to blame (HCN, 6/12/95: The Southwest's last real river: Will it flow on?).

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.

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.

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