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Critical wildlife habitat in peril

This article in the Arizona Republic demonstrates why restoration is so important.

Groundwater pumping is threatening to destroy one of our national treasures, southeastern Arizona’s San Pedro River.

One of the last undammed large rivers in the Southwest, the San Pedro flows north out of Mexico, tracing a 140-mile ribbon of green to the Gila River at Winkelman. A rare remnant of what was once a network of desert rivers, the San Pedro is one of the most significant bird habitats in the United States.

Twice yearly, millions of songbirds migrate between their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America and their summer breeding areas in the U.S. and Canada. The San Pedro provides one of the few remaining north-south corridors where these birds can find food, water and shelter as they cross over the arid Chihuahuan and Sonoran desert landscapes.

Three million to 5 million birds representing more than 250 species depend on the river during their migrations. An additional 140 bird species breed along the river.

The San Pedro is also home to 84 mammal species, 14 fish species and more than 40 species of reptiles and amphibians.

In 1988, in recognition of the San Pedro’s significance, Congress created the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, setting aside 57,000 acres covering 40 miles of the river. SPRNCA’s creation was the product of a bipartisan effort, co-sponsored by Sens. Dennis DeConcini and John McCain, explicitly intended “to protect the riparian area and the aquatic, wildlife, archeological, paleontological, scientific, cultural, educational, and recreational resources” of the area. When it put the land in conservation, Congress also made sure to reserve “a quantity of water sufficient to fulfill the purposes” of SPRNCA.

In the intervening quarter-century, southeastern Arizona has experienced explosive growth. Today, the Sierra Vista-Douglas “micropolitan area” boasts a population of about 130,000, a 35 percent increase since 1990.

Demand for water has grown, too. Now, 8,778 wells pump water out of the Upper San Pedro basin, a 74 percent increase since 1990.

The water table is in severe overdraft. This groundwater depletion has reduced the San Pedro so much that parts of the river no longer flow perennially, and the critical habitats that the river supports are threatened.

This month, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) will consider a request to permit the pumping of an additional 3,350 acre-feet annually of groundwater out of the Upper San Pedro Basin to serve a future planned community of almost 7,000 homes — an increased draw of more than billion gallons per year!

Audubon Arizona and other organizations have spoken against the request. Additional pumping will draw more water from the river, jeopardizing both habitat and adequate water supplies for the people already there.

The ADWR should refuse to allow this dramatic increase in groundwater pumping.

The residents of the Sierra Vista-Douglas community should oppose it, too. The San Pedro is one of the reasons people move to southeastern Arizona. Let’s not allow real-estate development to suck this river dry.

Sarah Porter is executive director of Audobon Arizona.

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