PHOENIX — Testimony from lay witnesses as to the efforts of Sierra Vista, the county and local developers to reduce water consumption, recharge the aquifer and slow flood flows before reaching the river were determined by Special Master Judge Mark Brain to be inadmissible during two days of testimony on Wednesday and Thursday.
Brain stated, “I don’t see how the city has much to do with what Congress set aside for the needs of the SPRNCA. But, it will be subject to my review.”
He acknowledged the continual objection of the attorneys representing the U.S. even though Sarah Ransom, county attorney; Sean Hood, Freeport Minerals, Inc. attorney; and Carrie Brennan argued the U.S opened the door for such testimony when it claimed groundwater pumping was impacting the river.
They also noted the U.S. attorneys did not object to the statements of Castle & Cooke vice president Rick Coffman, who had been dismissed the day before, and Pat Call, former member of the county board of supervisors during their depositions. The two were testing as lay witnesses, which are people who base their statement on experience and personal knowledge.
Dave Gehlert, attorney for the U.S., objected to testimony from Call, who has been deeply involved with recharge projects aimed at helping the river.
Call was explaining the various completed projects for recharge and sediment control and those still in the study phases, which drew numerous objections from Gehlert, Salt River Project attorneys Jeff Heilman and Michael Foy and San Carlos Apache Tribe attorney Joe Sparks. They had objected the day before to statements made by Castle & Cooke, Inc., vice president Rick Coffman and he was excused from the proceedings.
Gehlert said, “I understand your desire to give them some leeway … in regards to testimony. But, I think the conservation efforts in terms of the reservation are clearly distinct. They don’t have any regard to the water needs of the SPRNCA.”
However, Brain, who was interested in the subject, allowed Call to speak on the projects due to his decades of experience on water issues which included the establishment of the Babocomari and Sierra Vista Subwatershed Overlay Districts.
“The river is critical habitat and we want to protect it,” said Call. “The river used to be our river before it was the Bureau of Land Management’s. I and others were probably conceived along that river.”
Call talked about the first, award-winning recharge project off Palominas Road constructed in 2014. The Palominas Recharge Project collects monsoon sheetflow from the Huachuca Mountains in a 10-acre basin and slows the flows through a channel of 13 concrete check dams which allows for some recharge into the aquifer before it travels on to the San Pedro River.
The completed Horseshoe Draw project and the future Riverstone and Bella Vista projects were also discussed, as was the efforts to water a golf course with treated effluent from the future Tribute residential development in Sierra Vista.
Call went on to talk about the water conservation requirements of new construction, the success of Sierra Vista’s Environmental Park (EOP), a host of similar subjects in the city’s and county’s pursuit of protecting the river and dealing with the expansion of the cone of depression.
He, too, told the court of the increase in vegetation along the river which made it impossible to walk trails he once walked as child and the increased wildland fire risk which goes along with the increase scrub vegetation on the terraces.
However, Gehlert, in his questioning of Call, got him to say the recharge water was not “new water,” but water that came from the ground originally in the case of the EOP. Though the EOP provides some recharge through treated effluent and does daylight just above the river, the basis of its origination is the aquifer.
When Gehlert asked Call where effluent comes from, he quipped, “How graphic do you want me to be?”
Stormwater as well may end up in the river, with some possible recharge, said Gehlert and Call agreed.
In other testimony, county right-of-way agent Teresa Murphy answered questions on the county property in and easements through the SPRNCA, equaling 122.25 acres, and how she researched the ownership back to the early 1900s. Hereford Road, for instance, became county property in 1905.
Rancher Lincoln Dahl, who owns land and leases public land around St. David for his cow/calf operations, told of his experience with the river flow. The member of the St. David Irrigation District uses river water for irrigation and explained the district’s dam is built in November and then removed in May prior to the monsoons. The removal is necessary so the dirt to build it is not lost during the seasonal floods.
“The water stops flowing when the trees begin to leaf out,” he explained. “There has been a definite increase in mesquite in the uplands.”
Dahl, who has been operating the ranch for over 10 years, flies over his land to check on cattle because of the dense vegetation along the river.
Bayless-Carlink Ranch owner Andrew Smallhouse, who operates a cow/calf and a feed grain operation, provided a glimpse of the river farther downstream in Reddington and gave his take on the increase in vegetation on his trips to Sierra Vista, the Hereford Natural Resource Conservation District, the San Pedro Natural Resource Conservation District as a member of the Reddington natural Resource Conservation District. He said his parents used to drag him to the meetings when he was a child.
He continues the ranching operation his ancestors started in Cochise County in 1884 and still uses river water to irrigate fields and water stock.
“We want to make the ranch sustainable for future generations. I hope my kids will continue it,” he added.
He related a statement made by his father, who said, “We’ll get our water back when the mesquites lose their leaves.”
Smallhouse indicated he has also seen an increase of mesquite on the terraces above the river.
“I don’t think (the BLM) manages the SPRNCA at all,” he added.
The trial continues Monday with a decision about a delay for the U.S. to find an expert hydrologist to testify in the place of David Goodrich, who has fallen ill.
Once the issue is settled, the defense plans to call its expert hydrologist, Rich Burtell of Plateau Resources, Inc., who may rebut Goodrich’s deposition and studies.