Oasis in the desert (copy)

The Center for Biological Diversity is suing Fort Huachuca to release documents related to groundwater pumping and its effects on the San Pedro River.

PHOENIX — An environmental group is going to court to force Fort Huachuca to release documents it says shows the base is hiding reports showing how its groundwater pumping is damaging the San Pedro River.

Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said it took legal action to get federal agencies to let loose reports that pumping attributable to the fort was harming the levels of the river as early as 2003. He said they also showed how ongoing pumping already had contributed to a deficit in water to keep the river free flowing.

But he said requests for public records going back 10 months have failed to provide all the documents which show the ongoing effects of the fort’s activities on the river as well as endangered species that occupy the area. And that failure to respond promptly, he said, violates the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Silver said all that is necessary to show the harm the fort’s continued operations are having on the river.

“This is about the cover-up of the report that basically shows the fort is already damaging the river,” Silver told Capitol Media Services.

More to the point, he said the reports will show that things are not getting better and that the pumping will continue to damage the San Pedro, the last free-flowing desert river in the Southwest, until 2050.

Silver said the military is dragging its feet because it fears that a true analysis of how much its operations are damaging the river will force it to curtail operations.

“They just don’t care,” he said of military officials about the effect on the river. “All they’re interested in is maintaining the base staffing levels.”

The lawsuit, Silver said, is designed to get access to documents his organization says will show that the fort has attempted to “thwart” newly proposed protections for imperiled species. That includes species that have been added to the endangered list since the last biological report was prepared, the Northern Mexico garter snake and the yellow-billed cuckoo.

More specifically, Silver said the military publicizes the efforts it has made to reduce on-base water use. Yet at the same time, he said, there has been no effort to “control devastating amounts of groundwater pumping from the fort’s off-post activities.”

“Their campaign of deceit must stop,” Silver said.

The request for documents is closely linked to a lawsuit filed earlier this year by environmental groups.

They charge the fort was supposed to reduce the off-poast groundwater used by its troops and contractors. They also say the city of Sierra Vista and Cochise County promised to help the fort by balancing their water-use budget by 2011 but both have failed to do so.

Silver said the quickest way to get the documents to prove all that is through a federal public records request. He said the failure of the military to respond promptly is itself a violation of the law, which is why this new lawsuit was filed.

A spokeswoman for Fort Huachuca said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Hanging in the balance of all this legal action are the continued operations of the fort — and, by extension, much of the future of Sierra Vista.

The legal fight traces its roots to a 1999 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate portions of the river as critical habitat. The area is home to at least two endangered species: the water umbel, a semi-aquatic plant, and the southwestern willow flycatcher.

At issue is how the operations of the fort and the groundwater it pumps reduce water to sustain the river.

A 2002 biological opinion found no adverse effects, a conclusion rejected by a federal judge.

Another opinion issued after the first one was rejected conceded that decreased flows in the river would affect the water umbel. That resulted in promises by the fort to conserve water — and a new determination by Fish and Wildlife there would be no adverse impact on endangered species or destruction of critical habitat.

But in 2011 a different federal judge found the latest biological opinion flawed as not supported by the record or the best available science. Judge Wallace Tashima also said the report “fails to articulate a rational connection between the facts found and the conclusion made.”

All that, Tashima ruled, meant the Army violated the law requiring that it ensure that ongoing and proposed future operations do not jeopardize the existence or habitat of the two species.

Yet Fish and Wildlife decided in 2014 to authorize groundwater pumping connected to the San Pedro to serve military operations at the fort through 2024.