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Feds, Army lying about base’s effect on San Pedro, environmentalist alleges

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

Charging the federal government and Army are misstating the evidence, environmental group asked a federal judge Tuesday to order them to take another look at how the operation of Fort Huachuca is affecting the San Pedro River.

Attorney Stuart Gillespie said the military base is claiming that its reduction in water use, coupled with recharge efforts and buying former farmland shows there is no detrimental impact on the river, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the desert Southwest. It also is 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 Army is playing fast and loose with its claims. More to the point, he said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose blessing is needed for continued operations at current levels, has accepted the military’s findings.

At the very least, the environmental groups want the federal agency to go back and recompute whether the operation of Fort Huachuca, both on and off-base, is harming the river. Gillespie said Collins cannot allow the base to operate as it is under findings by Fish and Wildlife that are 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 challenging the federal action, the real impact may be greater.

“They’re in a box,” he said.

Theoretically, Silver said, the military can import water from other areas and use that to offset what is being used. But the more realistic is to cut water use, “which is downsizing.”

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

“That’s why they’re lying,” he said. “They’re making up water credits.”

But John Martin, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, told Collins that what the environmental groups claim is science and 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 Army is doing enough to offset its water use.

All that, however, gets into the question of whose arguments the judge believes.

At the heart of the battle is the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Created by Congress in 1988 it is home to the Western yellow-billed cuckoo, the Southwestern willow flycatcher, the Northern Mexico gartersnake and the Huachuca water umbel, a plant.

All those depend on the flow of the river.

The environmental groups say that groundwater pumping is drying up sections of the stream and damaging the vegetation around it. All that, in turn, they say has led to declines in the species by eliminating riparian habitat and food for things like nesting, migrating, good cover and shelter.

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

That, in turn, gets into the specifics of the fight.

For example, Fort Huachuca is claiming credit for retiring agricultural operations on two ranches, including a 480-parcel near the Mexican border where there used to be alfalfa farming.

Only thing is, farming stopped there in 2005, with an eye at the time to creating residential lots. And much of the irrigation system had been removed.

“There’s nothing in the record, there’s absolutely no plans and no evidence that anyone was going to irrigate this property immediately, let alone at any point in the future,” Gillespie said.

Yet he said Fish and Wildlife granted it an immediate water savings of 2,588 acre feet a year “which turned the fort’s net groundwater deficit into a purported net surplus.”

Martin estimated current fort-attributable water usage at about 4,660 acre feet a year. An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons and is considered enough for two to three homes per year.

“It’s self-evident that there is no water savings from a conservation easement if irrigation wouldn’t have occurred anyway,” Gillespie said.

Martin told Collins there’s nothing wrong with that.

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

“The benefit of acquiring a conservation easement is not its immediate effect,” Martin said. “It’s the permanent benefit of precluding 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 Army can’t take credit for every gallon of water not pumped. He said even if the land had remained a farm some of that would still have found its way back into the groundwater anyway.

Then there’s the issue that effluent recharge by the fort has not hit the predicted numbers. Martin said the answer is simple: As the base uses less water, there’s less to recharge.

Gillespie also faulted Fish and Wildlife for refusing to consider the longer-term effects of pumping on the river, into 2050, citing studies that show an accelerated depletion of the groundwater. Instead, Gillespie said, any analysis stopped at 2030.

Martin said those numbers are not reliable and Fish and Wildlife made the appropriate decision to disregard them.

“That future scenario is driven by incorrect and excessively large estimates of future population growth which drive inflated numbers for water usage,” he said.

Martin also dismissed claims that the federal agency needs to do a new study, this time factoring in the effects of climate change.

Collins took the issue under advisement.




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