Of politics and the river

An Arizona congressman and a military base threaten the last free-flowing river in the desert Southwest

  • Cottonwood trees line the banks of the San Pedro River as it wends its way toward the Charleston Hills in southern Arizona

  • The Sandlin property


PALOMINAS, ARIZONA - A longtime water expert for the U.S. Geological Survey is predicting that the last free-flowing river in the desert Southwest will stop flowing because of excessive groundwater pumping.

"The San Pedro River will run dry, even if they shut off all the pumps tomorrow," says Robert Mac Nish, the former district chief of water resources in Arizona for the USGS. "Nothing is poised to take the necessary steps to save the river. Everyone is standing around and wringing their hands and doing studies. In the meantime, the river is going to go dry."

The San Pedro Watershed includes the nation's first national riparian conservation area, established by Congress in 1988 to "protect and enhance" habitat for some 300 bird species. Mac Nish's gloomy assessment comes just weeks after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a controversial biological opinion allowing the San Pedro River Valley's primary economic engine — Fort Huachuca and the U.S. Army Intelligence Center located there — to add 3,000 personnel to the more than 12,000 soldiers and family members who live on and off post.

Environmental activists have long argued that Fort Huachuca expansions trigger groundwater-dependent development outside the military installation in areas that threaten the San Pedro. Mac Nish says the June 15 biological opinion "doesn't make sense" and only worsens an already dismal outlook for the river.

The biological opinion is controversial not just for its environmental conclusions, but also for its political dimension — a dimension that includes the federal grand jury investigation of Arizona Congressman Rick Renzi.

The recently completed Endangered Species Act evaluation of Fort Huachuca focused on a plant called the water umbel. The review reached a conclusion that was surprising to many environmentalists: Expansion of the fort would have no impact on the water umbel, considered a key indicator of the San Pedro's health.

But the evaluation was conducted under constraints — contained in a rider to a Defense Authorization bill that Congress passed in 2003 — aimed specifically at Fort Huachuca.

And that rider was no ordinary rider.

It was championed by Renzi, a three-term Flagstaff Republican whose congressional district includes neither Fort Huachuca nor the San Pedro River. And it required the Fish and Wildlife Service to look only at environmental impacts caused directly by federal personnel when it prepared its opinion on Fort Huachuca expansion.

Private economic activities — new domestic wells that only need state and county permits, for instance — would normally be included in the analysis for such an opinion, says Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for the wildlife agency. But, Humphrey says, "Our ability to do that was removed by that legislation."

It's impossible to say whether the outcome of the biological opinion would have been different if Renzi's rider had not been enacted, Humphrey says: "That would be sheer speculation."

And spokeswoman Tanja Linton says the Army has made no decision on whether or when Fort Huachuca might expand operations.

All the same, Fort Huachuca currently accounts for about two-thirds of all business activity in rapidly growing Sierra Vista and unincorporated Cochise County, injecting $830 million a year into the local economy.

It seems reasonable to wonder whether the potential for an expanding Fort Huachuca could increase the value of nearby private property — such as an irrigated field once owned by one of Congressman Renzi's business partners. That field is now apparently part of a federal grand jury investigation.

In early 2005, Renzi began negotiations with two private groups seeking to exchange environmentally sensitive private land for federally owned land. Though never consummated, those proposed trades have garnered headlines in the national press and attention from the FBI.

In both proposed trades, Renzi asked the private groups, which wanted to acquire the public land for development purposes, to purchase a 480-acre irrigated alfalfa field a half-mile west of the San Pedro River. The field was using up to 1,500-acre feet of water a year, enough to have a direct impact on flows in the nearby river, hydrologists say.

But this field was not just any field. It was owned by James Sandlin, a former business partner of Renzi who'd purchased it for $960,000 in February 2000, property records show.

In May 2005, Sandlin sold the 480 acres for $4.5 million to one of the groups seeking to trade for federal land, Preserve Petrified Forest Land Investors LLC, an Arizona partnership that lists former Interior Secretary and Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt in its management. Preserve Petrified Forest had received Renzi's assurance that he would support a land swap of the San Pedro acreage for federal property in central Arizona the partnership wanted to acquire, the Wall Street Journal has reported.

On the day that Sandlin sold the alfalfa field to Preserve Petrified Forest, apparently making a $3.5 million profit, he sent $200,000 to a company owned by his former partner, Renzi.

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