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Opening arguments begin in highly anticipated SPRNCA water rights trial

More water issues in Southern Arizona. This trail has been decades in the making. The wheels of justice grind slowly as you all know. At stake is an adequate supply of water for the last free flowing river in the Southwest. The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is home to more than 400 species of birds, counless prehistoric and historic sites (including a National Historic Landmark), and provides habitat for native Arizona fish. The outcome of this trial will in all likelihood determine the very existance of the San Pedro River.

"PHOENIX – The long-awaited water rights adjudication finally got underway Monday with both sides taking a stand on the amount of water needed to sustain and enhance the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA).David Gehlert, an attorney for the U.S.

Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, began opening statements representing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and said, “The biodiversity of the SPRNCA is astounding. We need to ensure there is a sufficient supply of water to protect it.”The BLM is under a 1988 congressional directive to protect, conserve and enhance the SPRNCA and is seeking to establish a set amount of groundwater and surface water to move ahead with its proposed resource management plan and fulfill that legislative mandate. The agency is asking for 44,000 acre feet a year.

Pueblo Del Sol and Liberty Water companies, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold, Inc., Sierra Vista, Cochise County and others are contesting the BLM’s request. They represent concerns for the future of company wells and even private wells, believing it would take far less water to fulfill the SPRNCA directive to provide its needs.

As Gehlert pointed out, the SPRNCA’s “biodiversity rivals anything in the United States.” It provides an environment where wildlife flourishes – 600 species of plants, 80 species of mammals, 41 species of reptiles and 5 million birds of 350 species. The American Bird Conservancy has declared it a global birding site. The fish population, meanwhile, has plummeted over the years from 13 species to two.

The cottonwood and willow stands are also tied in to the SPRNCA’s health and provide an important environment in which all these animals and plants live, added Gehlert. There needs to be enough water available for them to survive during the summer months until the monsoon brings the rain. He suggested “the ecosystem could collapse” if groundwater pumping continues.

Mike Foy, with the Salt River Project, said it was a “complex case.” The vegetation in the SPRNCA is also “unique and vulnerable. When the underground sources get too low, the cottonwoods and willows will be lost and tamarisk will take over,” he said. Tamarisk is an invasive tree which can take over native streamside plants when the ecosystem is disrupted, as in the case of declining water levels.

By ensuring the SPRNCA has all of its water needs met, it also ensures its continued existence and that of all the flora and fauna which call it home.

San Carlos Apache Tribe attorney Joe Sparks told Special Master Mark Brain, who is presiding over the trial, “The tribe cares about the adjudication. At the end of all this, there will be enforceable decrees for the water needed for the SPRNCA. We are an ancient people and the San Pedro River is part of its ancestry. Congress was doing the right thing for the right reason.”

Sparks added floodwaters are important to the sustainability of the cottonwood trees, as the seeds are disbursed in spring, but germinate in the summer floods.

There are some 8,000 exhibits entered into the court record.

Sparks said, “That’s cruel and unusual punishment for the court. We’ll pare them down to just the exhibits necessary.”

Freeport attorneys Brian Heiserman and Sean Hood objected to a government plan to pump water from old Tenneco wells to the river. The mining company determined the riparian vegetation is taking up too much groundwater. BLM has managed SPRNCA to the benefit of the vegetation, which consumes water which would flow into the river. The question was raised, “Is it pumping or is it trees?” impacting the river.

Representing Cochise County, which owns 122 acres within the SPRNCA, Deputy County Attorney Sarah Ransom stated, “Cochise County is passionate about protecting the river. The government needs to prove the water is needed.”

She explained to Brain the efforts made by the county with water conservation development requirements and its recharge projects. She suggested the BLM failed to evaluate how the recharge projects will help the river.

“The BLM needs to work with its partners,” Ransom continued. “The BLM’s claims exceed the use of the whole watershed. Their claim is one of gluttony.”

Speaking for PDS, attorney William Sullivan offered his full support for the preservation of the SPRNCA. He said the BLM should be required to demonstrate how a lesser amount of water would hurt it.

“A lesser quantity would satisfy their needs,” he stated.The trial will continue through Thursday for the first week of testimony, with five more weeks to go. The judge estimated he would have a ruling sometime in 2020."

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