Lawsuit against Army, Fort moves forward

The San Pedro River sustains a unique and rare ecosystem for 44 miles within the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in Cochise County.

TUCSON — Though negotiations were attempted by two environmental groups to discuss Fort Huachuca’s water use, the U.S. Army and Department of Defense’s decision makers’ decision to pass on a discussion led to a lawsuit being filed Friday in federal court against Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Maricopa Audubon Society are suing the Secretary of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Army and the senior commander at Fort Huachuca to prevent what they claim is further harm to the San Pedro River and its endangered species from excessive groundwater pumping in the Fort Huachuca area, including nearby Sierra Vista.

The suit stems from a 2014 FWS biological opinion (BiOp) which authorized groundwater pumping connected to the San Pedro River to serve military operations at Fort Huachuca through 2024.

According to the suit, “A previously undisclosed 2010 report commissioned by the U.S. Army showed that groundwater pumping attributable to Fort Huachuca — including water use on and off the military base — was already causing harm to the river and its endangered wildlife in 2003. The FWS failed to consider the key findings of this report before it decided in 2014 to approve the base’s groundwater pumping for another decade.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson, states the post’s “future is imperiled primarily by the failure to reduce the off-post groundwater used by its troops and contractors.”

In 2010, Fort Huachuca commissioned a study with GeoSystems Analysis, Inc., which the suit claimed was not passed on to FWS for review in the 2014 BiOp. It found that Fort Huachuca-attributable groundwater pumping was already causing harm to the San Pedro River by 2003 and simulated peak impacts to the baseflow of the river would occur in 2050.

“The Fort’s unchecked groundwater pumping harms threatened and endangered species that depend on the San Pedro and its lush riparian habitat, including the southwestern willow flycatcher, Huachuca water umbel, desert pupfish, loach minnow, spikedace, yellow-billed cuckoo and northern Mexican garter snake,” the lawsuit states.

CBD claimed FWS did not receive the classified 2010 report for inclusion in its decision–making process prior to the issuance of the 2014 BiOp authorizing groundwater pumping to support base operations through 2024. Since the report indicated the decline of the river was evident in 2003, CBD requested the downsizing of the Fort’s missions.

Previously, Fort Huachuca officials responding to questions by the Herald/Review stated the report was provided to the FWS and it was not suppressed. FWS officials stated they did not receive the report and declined to comment further.

The lawsuit also “challenges the biological opinion’s reliance on illusory water savings and credits, as well as its failure to account for lower-than-anticipated water recharge. In addition, the notice challenges the Service’s failure to account for a nearly 62 percent increase in groundwater pumping attributable to the base, as well as its failure to account for the state approving 369 new wells in the Fort Huachuca area.”

However, Fort Huachuca has been a leader in water conservation and has been recognized for its efforts to become as close to a “net-zero water usage” installation as possible through groundwater recharge projects.

The University of Arizona Extension Office WaterWise states on its website that Fort Huachuca has used a four-pronged strategy to reduce water use which includes reduction, reuse, recharge and education.

The post reduced its pumping of groundwater from the regional aquifer by over 65 percent through aggressive water-conservation measures, with withdrawals in decline from 1993 to 2014.

The environmental groups want the U.S. Army to downsize the post’s missions and reduce the population to prevent further degradation of the San Pedro River and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

Robin Silver, cofounder and board member of the CBD, explained in a phone interview, “We wanted to make arrangements to sit down with the decision makers,” not the post’s high command. “They said we could only talk with their attorneys. They treat us like the enemy and forget we are taxpayers.

“It’s discouraging. The fort holds responsibility for the people living off-base. The fort, Sierra Vista and Cochise County promised to balance the water budget by 2011 and they have not kept that promise.”

Silver stated in a press release announcing the forward motion of the suit: “Arizona’s last free–flowing river is being sucked dry because the Army refuses to downsize Fort Huachuca and ignores all the evidence showing that it must. ... They’re willfully killing this beautiful river.”

Mark Larson, president of the Maricopa Audubon Society, added to the press release, “ Every year millions of birds migrate through this region, which is critical to the long-term survival and recovery of endangered species. This fragile river will be lost forever if the Fort doesn’t act quickly to reduce groundwater use.”

This is the ninth court challenge since 1994 to Fort Huachuca and its alleged threat to the San Pedro River the conservations groups claim is in violation of environmental laws.

Fort Huachuca officials said they were reviewing the lawsuit.

”Fort Huachuca is currently reviewing the lawsuit filed Friday morning. It is our policy not to comment on pending litigation,” said Angela Camara, public affairs officer for the post.

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