Government witness: Humans affecting river flows

Expert witness Matt Lindburg, chief engineer with Brown and Caldwell, an environmental engineering and consulting firm, answers questions about the water claims the U.S. is seeking for the SPRNCA during the adjudication proceedings Thursday in Phoenix.

PHOENIX — It is a valid conclusion that the effects of human development are affecting groundwater and river flow, particularly at Charleston.

At least David Romero, hydrologist and expert witness for the U.S., thinks so. He said as much in the adjudication of the government’s water rights claim for the preservation of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) during Thursday’s court proceedings.

His second day of testimony under questioning by the defense attorneys for Freeport Minerals, Inc., the city of Sierra Vista, Cochise County and the Arizona State Land Department, resulted in an affirmation of results of his modeling. He included recharge data from Sierra Vista’s Environmental Operations Park (EOP), which does help somewhat with river flows in the Charleston area and does help recharge the regional aquifer.

“There will be continued depletion of river flow, even with the EOP recharge,” he stated.

However, he did not calculate the county’s recharge efforts with the Palominas Recharge Project or the Horseshoe Draw erosion control and infiltration project. When questioned by Deputy County Attorney Sarah Ransom, Romero said he might have driven by the Palominas project, but he did not include any data. She also took issue with his inclusion of 16,800 acre-feet of water used for mining in Bisbee and in Cananea, Mexico. Mining in Bisbee has ceased, and the Cananea mining operation allegedly takes water from another aquifer.

All in all, according to Romero, the EOP and continued pumping of groundwater has affected the river by reducing water levels in the river.

Freeport attorney Sean Hood asked why the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency tasked by congressional mandate to protect and preserve the SPRNCA, did not decide to add flow to the river, via pumping of groundwater, at the intermittent reaches at Palominas or Tombstone.

Water there would help the river, he posed.

Romero said Charleston was considered due to the population of the desert sucker fish. The added emergency flow would boost and help maintain the population.

Hood did get Romero to agree to the uncertainty and inherent error in modeling particularly with determining the regional aquifer could drop more than the 1.5 foot predicted in the model if 300 acre feet were pumped.

Hood also said Romero’s modeling was flawed since he did not include any precipitation and flood flows.

Expert witness Matt Lindburg, chief engineer with Brown and Caldwell, an environmental engineering and consulting firm, was tasked with researching the U.S. stream flow claims for Freeport, et al. He did not visit the SPRNCA, but did review reports by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Arizona Department of Water Adequacy, the National Riparian Service Team report conducted in 2012, and other reports.

Vegetation’s role

Lindburg said there was decline in streamflow at the Palominas, Charleston and Tombstone gauges, where depth to water is measured, since the establishment of the SPRNCA in 1988. He found it interesting that the streamflow decline seemed to occur as the riparian vegetation boomed.

In the National Riparian Service Team, hired by the BLM to rate the health of the SPRNCA, noted in its 2012 report vegetation was healthy and most of the river was found to be in proper functioning condition.

“The BLM’s basis for its streamflow claims do not correlate to the riparian ecosystem’s needs,” he said. “In fact, the function and ecological health of the SPRNCA has improved since its establishment, while the streamflows have declined.”

Lindburg also said the BLM’s water rights claim is more than needed to maintain the SPRNCA. Further, streamflow permanence can be achieved with different volumes of water.

“There’s a disconnect between need and claims,” he added. “The NRST report supports my analysis,” he continued. “The claim should be for the needs of the SPRNCA and no more.”

Under questioning by the U.S., he said though he is not an expert in riparian vegetation or a biologist, he would stand by his review of the information and the recommendation that the claim for water rights should be reduced.

Water rights trial extended

With the four-day testimony of Rich Burtell, Plateau Resources, Inc., called by Freeport et al, last week, some witnesses had to be shifted to other dates.

Delay of the trial was already in motion due to the U.S. losing its hydrological witness, David Goodrich, due to health concerns. Special Master Judge Mark Brain agreed to allow the U.S. to find another hydrologist to rebut the testimony of Burtell.

Jim Fogg, who has been acting as a consultant to the U.S., will be the rebuttal witness.

Fogg is familiar with SPRNCA, and was part of the National Riparian Service Team the BLM hired back in 2012 to study the San Pedro River and the riparian area. The team walked the 40-mile length of the SPRNCA, and visited the St. David Ciénega to determine the health of the riverine system.

Matching up dates to fit into busy schedules was not an easy task, but the attorneys and Brain reached agreement to proceed with the trial and on April 29-30 and May 13-16.

The U.S. has avian expert Arianna Brand and Justin Huntington, research professor at the Desert Research Institute and principle of Huntington Hydrologic.

Sierra Vista and Pueblo Del Sol Water Company will call Sierra Vista City Manager Chuck Potucek.

John Bodenchuk will address land issues within the SPRNCA boundary for the Arizona State Land Department.

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