The Southwest's last real river: Will it flow on?

  • San Pedro River

    Diane Sylvain
  • San Pedro River

    Robin Silver
  • The San Pedro River: A green ribbon running through a sun-burnt desert

    Robin Silver
  • Cows grazing on the San Pedro in the mid-1980s

    Arizona Game and Fish
  • Illustrated chart of water table

    Diane Sylvain
  • After recovery: the same stretch of river in 1992

    Bureau of Land Management
  • Hydrologist Thomas Maddock met resistance

    Sean Justice
  • Fry Boulevard in Sierra Vista: one vision of the river basin

    Sean Justice
  • A portion of Fort Huachuca, the biggest water user in the basin

    Ed Honda
  • Groundwater pumping along Santa Cruz killed riparian mesquite trees

    David E. Brown

SAN PEDRO RIVER RIPARIAN NATIONAL CONSERVATION AREA, Ariz. - For 40 miles after flowing across the Mexican border into Arizona, the San Pedro River looks like a strip of rain forest marooned in the desert. Announced by its bright green cottonwood and willow trees, the river winds northward from headwaters in the Sierra Madre through waves of yellow sacaton grassland. In most places the river is no wider than a country lane and no deeper than most wading pools. For half of its length, it doesn't flow year-round.

Yet as the Southwest's last natural, low-desert river, the San Pedro is a nationally recognized treasure.

The region's other rivers have been killed or civilized - their trees stripped, their water tables pumped out, their banks collapsed and invaded by salt cedar, their beds made dust or drowned beneath reservoirs.

There are no concrete dams on the San Pedro, no off-road vehicles scraping away the flood-plain soil. In 1988, after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management traded other holdings for the river's banks, Arizona's congressional delegation rushed to create here the nation's first Riparian Conservation Area. The BLM pulled all the cows the same year. Sand-and-gravel mining was also retired.

Since then, the river has been cast as a success story, recognized from the halls of academe to the office of the Secretary of the Interior, in Washington, D.C., where Bruce Babbitt has photos of the river on his wall.

But today the multi-agency preservation effort is threatened by a sheer increase in the number of people wanting a piece of the river. It faces a struggle over every drop of water, a free-enterprise rebellion, a climate of denial and the irony of arms of government in conflict.

In short, it's gotten very Western.

After the BLM evicted cows and gravel scoops from the San Pedro River, everything looked good. Thousands of young cottonwoods and willows began to flourish. Banks that had been barren grew so thick with sweet clover, ambrosia and grasses that they were difficult to hike.

Bird populations skyrocketed. After just three years as a conservation area, BLM wildlife biologist David Krueper found that counts of song sparrows, summer tanagers and warblers had increased by up to 6,000 percent.

Green kingfishers - tiny, reclusive birds that previously had nested in the U.S. only in south Texas - took up residence along the river; other rare species including gray hawks and the Western race of yellow-billed cuckoo also increased. The prestigious Cooper Ornithological Society published Krueper's research, the first in the country to chart recovery of birds along a cattle-free stream.

"This is the most important experiment on public land today," said Greg Butcher, executive director of the American Birding Association. "To convince BLM to take cows off one square inch of their property was very difficult politically ... The success was much more dramatic than any of us were willing to predict; so many other areas in the West also would respond dramatically if (land managers) were to remove cows."

The San Pedro hosts more bird species - nearly 400 - than any place of its size in the nation. It has the nation's highest mammalian diversity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the river offers "promising recovery habitat: for five threatened and endangered fish species. The river graced Life magazine's list of America's Last Great Places. It has become an economic asset, attracting tens of thousands of birdwatchers a year and lots of good publicity.

Conservationists even dreamed of restoring the full marsh ecosystem that thrived little more than a century ago, when Geronimo and the OK Corral made headlines here and the river was a clear, year-round string of cienagas (desert marshes) cordoned off by beaver dams. Back then, though, the river was seen as dangerous because it bred mosquitoes and malaria; in 1879 the Arizona Daily Star condemned it as "the valley of the shadow of death." The locals declared war, blowing up the beaver dams and draining the marshes; most remnants of the marsh ecosystem disappeared in an 1887 earthquake, the largest in recorded Arizona history.

Today there is even talk of reintroducing beaver to the desert river.

But the San Pedro flies warning flags. Two summers ago, Arizona State University ecologists found that the northern and southern ends of the conservation area showed dehydration. Among the missing were cattail and bulrush and marsh grasses that had sprouted elsewhere along the river after cows were removed. Baby cottonwoods and willows weren't growing in stretches where the water table had dropped as little as three feet or so beneath the river.

In the desert, even established cottonwood trees and cattail marshes don't have much safety margin. Cottonwoods and willows start dying once the water table drops 6 to 10 feet below the surface. Marsh grasses are more vulnerable.

"It's hard to come up with a concrete statement - yes, the river is in trouble, (or) no, it is fine," said Julie Stromberg, an associate professor at ASU's Center for Environmental Studies. "But it is clear the vegetation has already been reduced. I get alarmed and scared, because we are down to so few quality rivers."

The BLM did almost everything right, drawing boundaries around the river, and buying 6 billion gallons of annual water rights from farmers, trying to ensure the river's flow.

But the BLM was just one player here - an outnumbered newcomer at that - and did not confront the primary threat. As Greg Yuncevich of the BLM admitted recently, "We knew we had to address it sometime, but not today."

The primary threat had been evident, at least in hints, for decades.

Cows or no cows, from 1943 to 1992, the U.S. Geological Survey recorded the river's dry-season flows declining dramatically, from 4 cubic feet per second to 1 cfs.

Science pointed the finger strongly in 1991, when University of Arizona hydrologist Thomas Maddock reported that increased pumping of groundwater could dry up stretches of the river within this decade. The pumpers were an Army fort and associated towns, as well as rural people living near the river.

Maddock, who belonged to no environmental group and at other times during his 26-year career had been called a lackey for farming and industry, was concerned about "cones of depression" - huge subterranean areas in the river basin that had been drained of groundwater.

In 1993, Maddock reported that the cone of depression beneath the largest town in the basin, Sierra Vista, had extended from 68 feet down to 95 feet. He discovered that the cone had reached the river and the pumping by the town was starting to pull water directly from the river.

"This gives me a rather bleak outlook for the San Pedro," wrote Interior Department consulting engineer Catherine Kraeger-Rovey. "Even if Sierra Vista stopped pumping tomorrow, which of course will not happen, depletions (from the aquifer) would continue to increase for a while. Since the pumping will only increase, depletions will also increase and the ecosystem is going to be in real trouble."

Science could discover and predict disaster, but agencies like the BLM had a hard time reacting because they're straight-jacketed by water law.

The water rights the BLM bought for the river have less priority than the rights of some of the groundwater pumpers. The U.S. Army's Fort Huachuca - founded to fight the basin's original inhabitants, the Apaches - has water rights that predate the BLM's rights for the riparian area by 100 years. The fort is the biggest water-user in the basin, but until last year, never considered its impact on the aquifer.

Moreover, like other Western states, Arizona law doesn't protect surface water from well pumping. And though Arizona has the toughest groundwater-conservation law in the nation, by a recent state estimate, the San Pedro basin is being overdrafted by 11,000 acre-feet a year - enough water for up to 11,000 families by the standard of the nearby Tucson basin, where conservation measures have been in effect for years.

As the river's flows have declined, the pumpers - Fort Huachuca, the towns and rural residents - have taken hold of the river basin, promoting their visions. And those visions have nothing to do with the health of the San Pedro.

The fort thrives as an Army high-tech center, dedicated to training intelligence officers, designing satellite installations and testing electronic systems. Even under tight military budgets nationwide, there is talk of further expansion of the fort; the locals want the federal government to continue providing a spur to growth.

Sierra Vista, adjacent to the fort and with more than half its 35,000 residents dependent on a military paycheck, has tripled in population since the 1950s and the pace shows no sign of slacking. The town's main drag, Fry Boulevard, rolls out mile after mile of fast-food joints, banks, auto dealers and convenience stores.

"You are not supposed to talk about problems in Sierra Vista," Joann McEntire, a former Sierra Vista and Cochise County planner, said last summer. "They just say, "Go away, we don't want to hear about it ...' "

Recently there have been a few gestures. The fort has banned outdoor home watering for 10 months a year. The town has a landscaping ordinance and requires low-flow plumbing fixtures. Recharging the aquifer with treated sewage effluent is being considered.

But a water task force last fall could not agree on a "zero deficit" pumping policy. And while the task force was deliberating, local real estate agents funded a water study, which argued that pumping doesn't threaten the river and that the town enjoys a groundwater surplus instead of a deficit (the study got trashed by authoritative hydrologists, who said it inflated runoff and recharge rates).

Summing up the view of many locals, real estate agent Joanna Pohly saw the river as "just a piddly trickling thing." She has hiked the river's banks, but considered its flow secondary to the health of the fort, where her husband works as a software engineer. "If he doesn't have a job, I don't have a job," she said, "and the rest of it doesn't matter."

That climate reaches into state government. In 1993, the state stopped requiring subdivision developers to inform prospective homebuyers that water supply was inadequate. The state was pressured by a Sierra Vista water company whose manager has ties to Republican Gov. Fife Symington III, himself a former developer.

In reversing the policy, Symington's administration leaned heavily on a state Supreme Court ruling that said, in effect, any evidence that groundwater is linked to river flows does not meet the standards of legal proof.

The BLM, in turn, has been restrained by its bureaucratic personality of not wanting to offend. The agency mostly supported or failed to criticize various expansions of the fort. An outspoken local BLM hydrologist, Ben Lomeli, who tried to raise public awareness in water management councils, tours, schools and press interviews, was transferred to the Kingman, Ariz., office - a bureaucratic Siberia. The BLM's director at the time, Jim Baca, reversed the transfer (HCN, 11/1/93).

Since then, Lomeli has been muzzled a second time, for talking to a reporter without an okay from his boss, and he's no longer on a technical committee studying the river. He filed a grievance with the Interior Department, but some environmentalists suspect that he's bogged down in interagency squabbles. "I can't argue," Lomeli said. "They've disempowered me, taken me off committees and given me degraded jobs. I can't just sit there and take torture without complaining."

Higher-ups at his university tried to get hydrologist Maddock to back off (he refused). Sierra Vista officials scrambled to discredit his warnings - the town hired one more batch of consultants to study groundwater. But when that study was released last December, it read as if Maddock had written it.

The consultants found "inherent conflicts between groundwater pumping that accompanies economic development" and the survival of the San Pedro's cottonwoods and willows.

Environmentalists have moved in, trying an array of tactics.

Robin Silver, arguably the most effective environmentalist in Arizona, paid $150,000 for 75 acres along the San Pedro two years ago - establishing instant local roots. Silver's day job is as an emergency-room doctor in Phoenix, but his passion is serving as the director of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, which specializes in court action. He's filed two lawsuits on behalf of the river - one to force the fort to acknowledge its impact, another to force consideration of endangered species. Both suits are pending.

Silver gained the support of Jim Horton, a decorated Vietnam War Army veteran and registered Republican. After moving to Sierra Vista in 1988 and reading hydrology reports, Horton formed a grass-roots environmental group, the San Pedro 100, whose members include ranchers, contractors, government workers, schoolteachers and retirees.

While Horton might not share Silver's goal of shutting down the fort altogether, he signed on to one of the lawsuits after the city and business community refused to commit to a timetable for ending the groundwater deficit.

"They don't want to do that," Horton said. "If they put a date on it, they know we will be in court every day till they stop."

Trying to establish middle ground is The Nature Conservancy, but the national group has encountered more controversy here than it is accustomed to. The Conservancy realized that its usual strategy of establishing preserves of cottonwoods along the river would do no good if a subdivider moved in next door with hundreds of new homes and started pumping. So the Conservancy deployed a field representative, Karlene Burrus, to seek political solutions.

The Conservancy has actually suggested that the Central Arizona Project - the canal that delivers Colorado River water from the California border hundreds of miles uphill to Tucson - could be extended another 70 miles to the San Pedro basin. The Bureau of Reclamation estimated the cost at $95 million. Other estimates were much higher.

"I admit CAP is not the most palatable option; for the time being we would like to see the local community deal with this locally," Burrus said. "But if you get 20 years down the line and they grow to a certain point and want to grow more, do you let the river die or do you look for another solution?"

Another Conservancy proposal, for the creation of a new local water-management agency, was hissed and booed by the audience at a January public meeting. More than 1,000 locals packed a Sierra Vista high school auditorium, voicing a loud "NO!"

The audience shouted insults even at members of the local establishment. The mood was so ugly that when a woman collapsed from a seizure, others converged on the disturbance, thinking that a fight had broken out. Intimidated, state water officials expressed concern for their workers' safety and delayed a plan to collect data on water levels of the wells near the river.

"We spent two years working with Sierra Vista to convince (town and military leaders)," Burrus said after the confrontation, "and it may take another two years to get these folkds (the citizen rebels) to understand and bring them into the process."

The Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, in Arlington, Va., is supposed to make a recommendation to Congress this month on another expansion of Fort Huachuca. But downsizing the fort has been rejected as an option, so the agencies seem fairly irrelevant at this point. The river won't be truly protected without the support of enough of the people living around here.

"It's a classic environmental problem - it takes a long time to raise consciousness," said Peter Galvin, a conservation biologist for the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. "By the time you do, what's left?"

All the suggested solutions - importing water, water conservation, water harvesting, or effluent recharge - would cost a fortune.

The San Pedro has another set of expert witnesses who could offer testimony more powerful than computer models, recharge schemes or environmental lawsuits. They're the dead rivers of the Southwest.

Some experts estimate that 90 percent of riparian habitat in the Southwest has been destroyed or seriously degraded.

Seventy miles northwest of here, for example, the Santa Cruz, a parallel river flowing north from Mexico, has been converted to a ghostly "linear park" of landscaping along cement-lined banks in Tucson. Primarily due to groundwater pumping, the Santa Cruz's cottonwoods and mesquites withered decades ago. Where fish once lived, today the Santa Cruz is a lifeless ditch, wet only during rainstorms.

Farther west, the Gila and lower Colorado rivers are just more plumbing for agriculture and cities. North, the Salt River is mostly dry highway underpasses and a toxic waste dump for Phoenix. East, in Catron County, N.M., cows have pounded much of the length of the San Francisco River.

The stakes on the San Pedro seem clear.

Tony Davis is a frequent contributor to High Country News from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Arizona naturalist Sandy Anderson tries to educate people about the wildlife of the San Pedro.

- Sierra Vista City Councilman Harold Vangilder defends human use of the San Pedro River.

For more information, contact:

Bureau of Land Management, San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, 1763 Paseo San Luis, Sierra Vista, AZ 85635;

Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, c/o Robin Silver, Box 39382, Phoenix, AZ 85069-9382;

San Pedro 100, c/o Jim Horton, 3305 Eagle Ridge Road, Sierra Vista, AZ 85635;

Huachuca 50, c/o Ted Fichtl, BDM Corp., 333 West Willcox, Suite 200, Sierra Vista, AZ 85635;

Karlene Burrus, The Nature Conservancy, 27 Ramsey Canyon Road, Hereford, AZ 85615;

Sierra Vista mayor's office, 1011 N. Coronado, Sierra Vista, AZ 85635;

Fort Huachuca, Department of the Army, USAIC and FR, attn Frank Shirar, Public Affairs Office, HUZ-PA, Fort Huachuca, AZ 85613-6000;

Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, Wade Nelson, communications director, 1700 N. Moore St., Suite 1425, Arlington, VA 22209.

High Country News Classifieds
    For more information visit www.
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
    For more information, visit
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details:
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...