News From the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

Conservationists, local landowners and Bureau of Land Management officials are concerned that a plan to pump groundwater from southern Arizona’s San Pedro River basin to supply a soon-to-be-built 7,000-unit residential and commercial development will permanently harm the river and, more specifically, the many bird species that rely on the river during migration.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources ruled that the developer, Castle & Cooke, has a sufficient 100-year groundwater supply to build the new development. Yet two landowners disagree and have filed suit challenging the controversial ruling. They point to a Tucson hydrologist’s 2011 study that used modeling of previous pumping and the state’s growth projections for the city of Sierra Vista.

The study predicted that parts of the river would dry up in summer by the end of this century. Sierra Vista already siphons the basin’s groundwater, and the study predicted further pumping would sharpen the drawdown.

According to reporting by the Associated Press, once the development is completed it would consume about 4,900 acre-feet a year, increasing the basin’s pumping by about 30%.

The Bureau of Land Management also is challenging the ruling because it could threaten water rights the agency holds for the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, part of the National Conservation Lands. Friends of the San Pedro River are partners, stewards and advocates for the area, which was designated on November 18, 1988, by Congress to “conserve, protect and enhance the riparian area and the aquatic, wildlife, archaeological, paleontological, scientific, cultural, educational, and recreational resources of the conservation area.” These National Conservation Lands are located in southeastern Arizona, stretching south of Benson to the U.S.-Mexico border and containing 40 miles of the upper San Pedro River.

The Associated Press reports that in its lawsuit filed last month in Superior Court in Phoenix, “the BLM said the Department of Water Resources acknowledged during an administrative hearing that it had not considered federal water rights for the conservation area when reviewing Castle & Cooke’s plan.”

It will take many months for the lawsuits to be resolved. In the meantime, the BLM’s work to ensure the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area thrives and remains for future generations goes on. The Tucson BLM Field Office is beginning to write a new Resource Management Plan (RMP)/ Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

Friends of the San Pedro River are participating in the RMP process, providing comments and input to BLM staff about how the area should be managed. The BLM Tucson Field Office will host the next two of three Public Engagement Strategy meetings from 6:00 to 8:30 p.m. in June, and encourages the public to participate:

  • June 18 Benson Fire Station, 375 E 7th Street, Benson
  • June 20 Tucson Association of Realtors, 2445 N. Tucson Blvd.

Additional meetings are also set for Saturdays in July and August. Four Education and Scoping Forums will be held from 9:00 a.m. to noon:

  • July 20 Focus: Water and Riparian, Cochise College in Sierra Vista
  • July 27 Focus: Watershed and Range, University of Arizona (UA) South in Sierra Vista
  • August 10 Focus: Wildlife and Threatened & Endangered Species, UA South
  • August 17 Focus: Cultural Resources and Recreation, UA South


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