TUCSON (CN) - The Army's Fort Huachuca is sucking dry the Southwest's last major free-flowing river while government officials drag their feet, environmentalists claim in court.
The San Pedro River flows north from Mexico 140 miles to the Gila River, passing through southeastern Arizona. Though in some stretches the river is seasonally dry, it remains the last major free-flowing, undammed river in the desert region.
As such, it is an important stop for some 300 species of migrating birds, and provides a rare cottonwood-willow riparian habitat for at least two endangered species - a rare aquatic plant called the Huachuca water umbel, and the Southwestern willow flycatcher, a water-loving bird.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audubon Society sued the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Defense, the Army and Fort Huachuca, in Federal Court.
For years groundwater pumping at Fort Huachuca, an Army base 76 miles southeast of Tucson in the small town of Sierra Vista, has threatened the San Pedro's health, and it continues to do so despite a court order directing the government to do something about it, according to the lawsuit.
More than two years ago, a federal judge scrapped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's most recent biological opinion on the river and ordered the agency to consult with the Army on how the fort's groundwater pumping affects the river. So far, nothing has come of this order, the groups say.
"While the agencies drag their feet, the fort continues to pump more groundwater than is replenished to the aquifer," the complaint states. "This pumping depletes the San Pedro River's flows and destroys rich riparian habitat, violating the Army's obligation under the ESA [Endangered Species Act] to ensure that its actions do not jeopardize the umbel and flycatcher or destroy or adversely modify their critical habitat."
The Army and Fish and Wildlife have gone through three formal consultations under the ESA since 1999, but all have been "inadequate," the groups claim, with two of them tossed by the court and the third scrapped and restarted four years after it was completed.
Fort Huachuca is in Apache country, a hard day's ride on horseback from Cochise's Stronghold. It hosts U.S. Army Intelligence Center and is home to about 20,000 active-duty soldiers, family members and civilian workers, and has been pumping groundwater without a valid biological opinion in place since 2007.
"This pumping continues to intercept water that would otherwise feed the San Pedro River's flows, contributing to the drying of the river and destruction of riparian habitat," according to the complaint.
The environmental groups seek an injunction to compel the Army and Fish and Wildlife to "immediately complete formal consultation regarding the impacts that may result from the proposed, ongoing and future military operations and activities at Fort Huachuca on the endangered Huachuca water umbel, endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, and their respective designated critical habitats."
"Unless the fort reins in its unsustainable groundwater pumping and gives the aquifer the chance to recharge, the San Pedro will likely go completely dry except during major precipitation events," the complaint states. "If this occurs, the river would go the way of other overexploited Arizona rivers - dusty and bare, without the trees, plants and diversity of life that characterize the San Pedro today. At that point, the river's value as critical habitat for the Huachuca water umbel and Southwestern willow flycatcher will be forever lost."
While declining to comment on the lawsuit specifically, Fort Huachuca spokeswoman Tanja Linton told Courthouse News that Fort Huachuca is working with wildlife officials on the issue.
"Fort Huachuca is in formal consultations with the Fish and Wildlife Service as they prepare the biological opinion and we continue to aggressively pursue water conservation measures," Linton said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials did not respond to a request for comment.The plaintiffs are represented by Melanie Kay of Earthjustice in Denver