Federal government, military lie about base’s effect on San Pedro, environmentalist says

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A beaver dam on the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona. The river flows north of Sonora, Mexico. PHOTO BY HOLLY RICHTER / NATURE CONSERVANCY

Accusing the federal government and the military of distorting the evidence, an environmental group on Tuesday asked a federal judge to order them to review how the operation of Fort Huachuca affects the San Pedro River.

Lawyer Stuart Gillespie said the military base says its reduction in water use, coupled with recharging efforts and the purchase of old farmland, shows there is no impact negative on the river, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the southwestern desert. It is also home to various endangered and threatened species.

Gillespie, representing the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Maricopa Audubon Society, told U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins that the military is playing fast and freely with its demands. Specifically, he said the US Fish and Wildlife Service, whose blessing is needed for continued operations at current levels, has accepted the military’s findings.

At the very least, environmental groups want the federal agency to go back and recalculate whether the operation of Fort Huachuca, both on and off base, harms the river. Gillespie said Collins cannot allow the base to operate because it is based on Fish and Wildlife findings based on “illusory water credits.”

But Robin Silver, one of the founders of the Center for Biological Diversity, told Capitol Media Services that if Collins accepts the arguments and scientific findings of those who challenge the federal action, the real impact could be greater.

“They’re in a box,” he said.

Theoretically, Silver said, the military can import water from other areas and use it to offset what is used. But the most realistic thing is to reduce water consumption, “which is downsizing”.

“There are no other options for them,” Silver said.

“That’s why they lie,” he said. “They constitute water credits.

But John Martin, a lawyer for the US Department of Justice, told Collins that what environmental groups claim to be science and the law is not supported by evidence. He said there is enough for Collins to conclude that Fish and Wildlife made the right decisions in concluding that the military is doing enough to compensate for its water use.

All of this, however, comes into the question of who the judge believes the arguments to.

At the heart of the battle is the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Established by Congress in 1988, it is home to the western yellow-billed cuckoo, the southwestern willow flycatcher, the northern Mexican garter snake, and the Huachuca water pennywort, a plant.

It all depends on the flow of the river.

Environmental groups say pumping groundwater dries up sections of the stream and damages vegetation around it. All of this, they say, has led to the species’ decline by eliminating riparian habitat and food for things like nesting, migration, good cover, and shelter.

What makes it a federal affair is that Fort Huachuca, as a federally funded operation, cannot make it worse. And that, Gillespie said, includes not only what is happening within the boundaries of the base, but also its indirect effect on the people of Sierra Vista.

This, in turn, goes into the details of the fight.

For example, Fort Huachuca claims the withdrawal of farms from two ranches, including one of 480 plots near the Mexican border where there was once alfalfa.

The only downside is that agriculture stopped there in 2005, with a view at the time of creating residential lots. And much of the irrigation system had been removed.

“There is nothing on file, there is absolutely no plan or evidence that anyone was going to irrigate this property immediately, let alone at any time in the future,” said Gillespie.

Still, he said Fish and Wildlife gave him an immediate water saving of 2,588 acre-feet per year “which turned the fort’s net groundwater deficit into a so-called net surplus.”

Martin estimated the current water consumption attributable to the fort at approximately 4,660 acre feet per year. One foot-acre equates to approximately 326,000 gallons and is considered sufficient for two to three homes per year.

“It stands to reason that there is no water saving through a conservation easement if the irrigation had not taken place anyway,” said Gillespie.

Martin told Collins there was nothing wrong with it.

“That’s just not how conservation easements work,” he said.

“The benefit of acquiring a conservation easement is not its immediate effect,” said Martin. “It is the permanent advantage of prohibiting certain uses to maintain certain desired environments or certain conditions on the property. “

And the spat is even more detailed than that.

Gillespie said the military cannot take credit for every gallon of water not pumped. He said that even if the land had remained a farm, part would still have found its way into the groundwater anyway.

Then there is the problem that the recharge of effluents by the fort has not reached the expected figures. Martin said the answer is simple: because the base uses less water, there is less to recharge.

Gillespie also criticized Fish and Wildlife for refusing to consider the long-term effects of pumping on the river, until 2050, citing studies that show accelerated depletion of groundwater. Instead, Gillespie said, all analysis stopped at 2030.

Martin said these numbers are unreliable and Fish and Wildlife has made the appropriate decision to ignore them.

“This future scenario is driven by incorrect and excessively high estimates of future population growth, resulting in increased water use figures,” he said.

Martin also rejected claims that the federal agency should conduct a new study, this time taking into account the effects of climate change.

Collins took the matter under advisement.


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