Upper San Pedro Partnership

Posted: Dec 1, 2004
Written by: 
April Reese

Upper San Pedro River watershed, southern Arizona

Objective: To coordinate and cooperate in the identification, prioritization, and implementation of comprehensive policies and projects to assist in meeting water needs in the Sierra Vista sub-watershed of the Upper San Pedro River Basin.

Participants: Federal and state agencies, local government officials, environmental groups, Fort Huachuca officials

History: The San Pedro River, whose northward flow from Mexico into Arizona provides a rich riparian haven for a cornucopia of animal and plant life, is a rarity in the Southwest. Its undammed, year-round flow supports more than 400 species of birds, 80 species of mammals, two native species of fish, and more than 40 species of amphibians and reptiles.

Several of those species are listed under the Endangered Species Act, including the endangered Huachuca water-umbel, a small, semi-aquatic plant, and two threatened fish, the spikedace and loach minnow.

Recognizing the river's ecological significance as a rare remnant of functioning riparian systems in the Southwest, Congress protected 40 miles of the river's upper reach as the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area on November 18, 1988.

But since the conservation area's designation, groundwater pumping to meet the needs of nearby Fort Huachuca and neighboring communities has lowered flows in the San Pedro River, which is fed in part by the underlying aquifer. Federal models suggest the river could cease to flow year-round in less than 25 years.

 Huachuca water umbel, an endangered species, is usually found in water with a depth of two to six inches.
USFWS/Photo by Jim Rorabaugh
After finding that endangered species that depend on the river could slip into further decline if the rate of pumping continued, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a "biological opinion" directing the fort to scale back its water use to ease pressure on the aquifer and the river it feeds. With an increasing gap between groundwater pumping and aquifer recharge, a group of local interests ranging from federal land managers to city officials to environmentalists began meeting to come up with ways to reduce the area's water deficit.

The group, which grew out of an ad hoc watershed group encouraged by the Arizona Department of Water Resources, officially came together as the Upper San Pedro Partnership in 1999. It now includes participants from 21 government agencies and private organizations -- representing all of the various water interests in the area -- working together to ensure a sustainable water supply for the area's 70,000 residents and the San Pedro River ecosystem.

The area's largest community, Sierra Vista, sprouted up in the 1950s in the shadow of Fort Huachuca, and the town's prosperity is intertwined with the fort. The military base is under a federal mandate to cut its water use to 5,100 acre-feet by 2011, and the town of Sierra Vista, which is a member of the partnership, is working with the fort to reduce water use and recharge the aquifer both on the base and in the community. The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area attracts bird watchers, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts, making tourism something of an economic engine for the area as well. Thus, Sierra Vista finds itself in the unique position of needing to protect both the river and its water supply, as well as that of the fort.

The partnership depends primarily on federal funding from the Bureau of Land Management, Department of Defense, National Park Service and other agencies. The partnership has put together a $33.9 million, five-year financial plan that taps into the resources of several agencies.

Decisions are made by a core group of participants representing all of the interests in the area, including the fort, the conservation area and city officials. This group, called the Advisory Commission, receives recommendations on policy issues from various committees -- including a technical committee, an administrative committee, a government affairs committee and an outreach committee -- and then decides what policy suggestions or projects to implement. The Commission generally makes its decisions by consensus, but will decide an issue by majority vote if commission members cannot agree.

Bob Strain, who chairs the partnership, emphasizes that none of the entities that participate in the group give up any sovereignty. The partnership itself does not directly carry out projects or adopt policies; participating agencies and organizations brainstorm and research strategies and then follow through by implementing specific projects individually, sometimes with the help of funding secured through the partnership.

Accomplishments: The partnership has more than 100 projects in various stages of development, ranging from recharging the aquifer with treated effluent to offering rebates to residents who install low-flow toilets. The partnership has purchased conservation easements on private lands to help maintain current levels of water use, and several partnership participants point to the partnership's water conservation plan, which is updated annually, as a significant accomplishment.

 Members of the Upper San Pedro Partnership meet with U.S. Representative Jim Kolbe.
Photo courtesy of Upper San Pedro Partnership
Unlike many collaborative groups, the Upper San Pedro Partnership has the fortunate distinction of having congressional support for its work. Responding to the FWS directive to protect the river's endangered species and the economic and military importance of the fort, Congress in 2003 granted the partnership official recognition. The 2004 Defense Authorization Act included a section that essentially offered congressional sanction to the partnership's work and paved the way for increased funding for the partnership.

Participants also cite the relationship among members as an important achievement. The partners have been able to overcome initial suspicions of one another and build a strong bond of trust that underlies and supports all of their work. Before the partnership was formed, various entities would hire "dueling hydrologists," who would contradict one another and confuse the debate. Now, those same interests have found enough common ground to join forces in finding solutions that benefit everyone, partnership members say. And working together allows the various entities involved to pool their resources, enabling the partnership to accomplish a great deal more than the various interests could achieve separately.

Challenges/constraints: Although no representative citizen's group has formed, the partnership has conducted polls and organized "connector" meetings with local residents to increase the partnership's profile among the public and to solicit feedback on the partnership's work. These outreach efforts have revealed that many folks are still unfamiliar with the partnership's work. In response, the Outreach Committee is making a concerted effort to get the word out, and is considering hiring a public relations firm to help communicate the partnership's complex work to the local citizenry. As a result, public attendance at meetings has been slowly increasing, and the partnership is getting more input from the public.

The outreach work has also shown that there is a wide spectrum of opinion among residents. Some are impatient and don't understand why it has taken so long to come up with solutions, while others don't think the groundwater pumping deficit is a big deal and see the partnership as a waste of resources. These varying opinions reinforce the need for more public education and input.

While participants say the partnership has accomplished a great deal over the past few years, they recognize that, collectively, their efforts so far amount to a drop in the 5,100 acre-foot bucket the partnership is trying to fill. Many more projects will have to be implemented to achieve that objective by 2011, they say.

Another challenge has been making decisions in the absence of complete information. While the San Pedro basin has been well studied, there are still many scientific unknowns about the area's hydrology that have made it difficult for the partnership to make policy decisions. The partnership has sponsored several studies to improve scientific understanding of the area, but those studies are likely to take several years. That work is being carried out by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Agricultural Research Service, and universities.

But even though the science on the hydrology of the Upper San Pedro region is incomplete, the partnership decided to forge ahead with projects using the best science currently available. This "adaptive management" approach allows the partnership to make progress toward shrinking the area's water deficit while allowing the partnership to change course when new information surfaces.

Setting aside water for the long-term benefit of flora and fauna while people in the basin are asked to limit their current water use has not gone over well among some residents. While the needs of Fort Huachuca, the area's main employer, are well understood, participants say that the needs of the river, several miles away, are less prominent in the minds of many. Nevertheless, an ongoing educational campaign informing people about the region's water challenges and soliciting feedback and ideas has increased awareness and support among residents.

For more information see:

Upper San Pedro Partnership

Arizona Department of Water Resources

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

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