Ariz. regulators reaffirm sprawling development plan over BLM objections

Posted: Apr 22, 2013

Written by

April Reese, E&E
San Pedro Riparian NCA

Arizona regulators have reaffirmed their approval of a major housing development in the city of Sierra Vista despite concerns from the Bureau of Land Management that the subdivision would pose a threat to southern Arizona's last free-flowing desert river.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) said last week that developers of the Tribute subdivision have shown that there is enough groundwater for their planned development of about 7,000 houses and apartments. The development would be about 75 miles southwest of Tucson.

Developer Castle & Cooke plans to pump about 3,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from state land near the Upper San Pedro River. An acre-foot is about the amount of water used annually in a suburban household. Under state law, developers must demonstrate there will be adequate water to support a subdivision for 100 years.

Robin Silver, who owns land along the river and works for the Center for Biological Diversity, said groundwater pumping will deplete the river, which flows into the 57,000-acre San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, managed by BLM. Congress designated the conservation area in 1988 to protect the desert riparian ecosystem.

Silver and the BLM had challenged the state's initial determination of an adequate water supply for the proposed development, but ADWR Director Sandra Fabritz-Whitney announced last week that the department would stand by its decision.

"The state refused to consider the impact on the San Pedro River, and willfully put on blinders," said McCrystie Adams, an attorney with Earthjustice. "They approved pumping water without looking at what the cons of pumping that water are."

There's already a significant gap between the amount of water being pumped and the rate of aquifer recharge, she added.

The Tribute tussle is emblematic of an increasingly fraught struggle in the West to allow for growth while also protecting riparian ecosystems.

During administrative hearings on the Tribute project in November in Phoenix, BLM argued that the development's pumping of groundwater that provides base flows for the river would affect its federal water rights. But the state said its only responsibililty is to ensure there is adequate water supply for the development; it doesn't have the authority to consider impacts from pumping on the river. Furthermore, BLM's federal water rights to the San Pedro River have not been quantified, state officials said.

Administrative Law Judge Thomas Shedden agreed with state regulators and dismissed the appeals. The department then reissued its favorable determination for the developers last week, allowing the project to proceed.

The Upper San Pedro River provides habitat for hundreds of fish and wildlife species and is an important migratory flyway for birds moving between Central America and Canada, BLM says.

Arizona Water Resources spokeswoman Michelle Moreno would not comment on how the department made its determination or the criticisms of it, saying it planned to "wait until all the appeals have been exhausted" before it would discuss the matter.

Critics have 30 days to request a rehearing or a review of the decision by the department director or to file an appeal to Arizona Superior Court, she said.

The fracas over the impacts of the proposed subdivision on the river likely would have turned out differently if a legislative proposal floated six years ago to try to balance development and river protection had gone forward.

In 2007, the Arizona Legislature authorized the creation of an Upper San Pedro Water District that would have required developers to demonstrate that their projected water use would maintain the hydrological conditions in the Upper San Pedro River. But legislators left it up to voters to decide whether to establish the water district, and they rejected it in a November 2010 election.

Silver is considering an appeal of the department's decision, and Earthjustice may represent him, although nothing has been decided yet, Adams said.

BLM could not be reached for comment by publication time.

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