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Arizona governor and water regulator sued for failing to protect San Pedro River

TUCSON, Arizona.― Conservationists today sued Governor Katie Hobbs and Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water for Resources, for failing to protect the endangered San Pedro River.

Governors Hobbs and Buschatzke have failed to respond to a September 2023 petition from the San Pedro Alliance calling for the creation of an active management area in the Upper San Pedro Basin.

“Governor Hobbs is making a mockery of Arizona's Groundwater Management Act by refusing to impose any restrictions on the deadly groundwater extraction from the San Pedro River,” said Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Her inaction is causing an existential crisis that will lead to the demise of the river and the plants and animals that depend on its flows for their existence.”

The San Pedro River is the last free-flowing desert river in the Southwest. Endangered species that depend on it include the southwestern willow flycatcher, huachuca watercress, desert killifish, loachfish, speartail, yellow-billed cuckoo, Arizona eryngo, and northern Mexican garter snake. Millions of neotropical songbirds depend on the San Pedro to complete their annual migrations. Pumping of groundwater from the overtaxed local aquifer is killing the San Pedro.

Arizona's Groundwater Management Act of 1980 requires the designation of an active management area “to maintain existing groundwater supplies for future needs” and requires the Department of Water Resources to certify that developments within management areas have sufficient water supplies for 100 years. The law also specifies that the Governor's Director of Water Resources “…[a]administer all laws relating to groundwater.”

Today's lawsuit includes a request for the court to correct Attorney General Kris Mayes' April 17, 2023, finding that Buschatzke violated the law when “ADWR twice studied the Upper San Pedro Basin… But two studies of a single basin over a forty-year period do not satisfy the statutory requirement to regularly 'review all areas not within an active management area,' as required by ARS § 45-412(C).”

The San Pedro Alliance had previously submitted an application for an active management area for San Pedro on October 10, 2005. In denying this application, the state water authority ignored the existence of the San Pedro River and its federally protected water rights. The agency also ignored the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's objection to a massive construction project in Benson. The EPA found that “the project could have significant and unacceptable impacts on aquatic resources of national importance. [the San Pedro River].”

Since the application was denied in 2005, numerous reports have documented or predicted the demise of the San Pedro River (MacNish et al. 2009, GeoSystems 2010, Lacher 2011, 2018, USGS 2010, 2014, 2019, Integrated Hydro 2016, 2019, Eastoe (2017, 2018, 2020 and Meixner 2018).

The federal water rights for the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area were finally quantified in 2023. Under this rule, nine monitoring wells must meet minimum water levels in order to satisfy federal water rights. This mandate is already being violated at the Cottonwood and Summers monitoring wells.

As a result of the quantification of federal water rights, the state must now also revise at least 67 watershed water adequacy certificates, including the 28,000-household Vigneto development in Benson, to prevent continued water theft from the San Pedro through wells.

“Under Buschatzke's leadership, the state has approved thousands of new wells in the Upper San Pedro Basin, despite numerous studies showing that the basin is severely overused and the San Pedro River is increasingly damaged,” said Tricia Gerrodette, president of San Pedro 100. “With the governor doing nothing, our opportunity to preserve the river for the future is being thwarted. We need active designation of management areas now.”

The San Pedro Alliance is a coalition of local, regional, Arizona, national and international member organizations committed to protecting the San Pedro by establishing an active management area.

Anna Harden

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