water trial Jeff Heilman

alt River Project counsel Jeff Heilman questioned a defense witness in the federal SPRNCA water rights claim case in Phoenix Wednesday.

PHOENIX – The San Pedro River and its surrounding riparian area relies on water from the regional aquifer, the alluvial aquifer and monsoonal flood events. Everyone agrees on that, but that’s where the agreement ends.

The debate continues on just how much water the San Pedro National Riparian Conservation Area (SPRNCA) needs and both sides in the adjudication for the federal water rights claim have their own ideas on how much or how little is actually needed.

Wednesday, the trial to determine those water rights resumed and defense expert hydrologist/geologist Rich Burtell, of Plateau Resources, Inc., found himself back in the hot seat again facing San Carlos Apache Tribe attorney Joe Sparks.

Sparks continued to question Burtell’s determination reagrding the quantity of water needed to continue allowing the riparian area to thrive with its diversity of wildlife.

Burtell’s studies covered many years of his own research and that of dozens of others. In his scientific opinion, the river does not need the amount of water the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wants to claim. He blames any change in streamflow on the proliferation of cottonwood and willow stands, one of the most unique aspects of the SPRNCA, and other greenery living on the riverbanks, floodplain and terraces.

Whatever documents or assertions Sparks could throw at him, Burtell would not say pumping groundwater from the aquifer was to blame for any decline in streamflow. His point was the riparian area is a victim of its own success and climate change.

Burtell and the federal attorneys also disagree on the period of record – the length of time of continuous, reliable observations of the effect of weather elements pertaining to a certain location.

The U.S. Department of Justice, Salt River Project and San Carlos Apache Tribe attorneys want Special Master Judge Mark Brain to rule in their favor on the timeline prior to the establishment of the SPRNCA, from 1954 to 1988, the year the SPRNCA was established. By evidence submitted, the 34-year span was wetter and, therefore, their determination of groundwater, storm runoff and water levels in monitoring wells should be what is granted, they argue.

The defendants – Freeport Minerals, Pueblo Del Sol Water Company, Liberty Utilities, Cochise County, Sierra Vista and the Arizona State Land Department— say the period of record should be set from 1981 to 2015 based on their experts’ studies. Their evidence shows a more varied climatic record which includes times of drought and times of more precipitation, and therefore they claim it is not necessary to subsidize water which finds its way into the SPRNCA.

Burtell spent the entire day answering questions posed by Sparks, Salt River Project attorney Jeff Heilman and, at the end of the day, U.S. Department of Justice attorney Lee Leininger. They picked away at his deposition and studies, but he did not change his position.

Heilman said in regard to climate change and drought, “All the conditions on the SPRNCA could change, so the river could change. Right?”

Burtell replied, “There would still be sufficient water to meet the purpose of the reservation.”

The hydrologist noted water consumption has declined in the Sierra Vista Subwatershed and Sierra Vista’s Environmental Operations Park and other recharge projects helped make up for groundwater pumping to the extent that the deficit would be overcome.

In questioning on the various wells the BLM wants in the claim, the very real, very necessary use of water from those wells to fight wildland fires was also touched upon by Heilman, and Burtell agreed the use of water for that purpose was important to the SPRNCA.

It is not known who will follow Burtell to finish out the last day of the week. The weeks-long trial is scheduled to end next week.

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