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Hydrologist Holly Richter explains local water issues

Back to Southern Arizona water related issues.....I saw this interview in the Sierra Vista Herald Tribune. It is reprinted in its entirety with a link to the article at the end. Holly Richter is a well-respected hydrologist and, much like I have found the rest of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to be, pretty apolitical. Thus, I think she deals in facts and reality as opposed to trying to advance a particular agenda as it pertains to water and related issues. Worth the read. I sincerely hope everyone has a great holiday!

PALOMINAS — A red–tailed hawk slowly glides across an open field, while a light breeze tickles the tall, dry grass and the San Pedro River babbles its way downstream – the perfect setting to talk about water.

Holly Richter, hydrologist with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), explained one of the big recharge projects in the works and one of the most expensive will be the project to carry Bisbee’s treated effluent to the river in the area where the San Pedro River crosses the international boundary with Mexico.

Cochise County, TNC, Fort Huachuca, Upper San Pedro Partnership (USPP), federal agencies and Sierra Vista and surrounding towns in the Sierra Vista Subwatershed have been working diligently to not only reduce underground water use, but to add water back into the aquifer through recharge.

“The reality is the reach that starts at the border with Mexico is declining the fastest. There’s no other major source of water we could use for recharge there. Thankfully the city and the county have reached this agreement which allows for that source of water to be available,” Richter noted. “It was the first bottleneck to the whole thing.”

The problem which concerns her is cobbling together the financial resources necessary to see the project through to the end within the five-year agreement the city has with the county. It will require a mix of federal funds, including the Department of the Interior, and local government and public and private sectors.

The existing recharge projects have already gathered attention from other counties and the state. Richter said a group from the Verde River area are particularly interested because of the similarities of their water challenges. One thing they do not have is the data, the groundwater modeling, the extensive and long-term studies of the river and aquifer.

“The people who live here, sometimes don’t really understand how unique our situation is here,” she said. “We have decades of information. The USPP has been here for 20 years and cranking out really cool science.”

Herald/Review: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Holly Richter: I started working for TNC in 1987, as a Preserve Manager at the Hassayampa River Preserve in central Arizona. Living and working there I fell in love with desert rivers, and it inspired me to return to grad school to complete a PhD at Colorado State University. My research focused on hydrology — how rivers flow, and how they create and sustain streamside habitats for wildlife. After grad school, I returned to work for TNC along rivers in western Colorado, but soon migrated back to southern Arizona, finding the winters high in the Rockies a bit brisk for someone who loves to be outside all year! We’re so spoiled here in terms of sunny, warm days-like today! In mid–December!

Cochise County’s awesome landscapes are also an inspiration for me-including the amazing diversity of our sprawling deserts, grasslands and forested mountains, in addition to the lush, shady river. I horseback ride and the options for beautiful trails here are almost endless all year long.

HR: When did you become involved with the water issues in the Sierra Vista Subwatershed?

Richter: When I moved here in 1998 (to defrost from Colorado), and started working for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) along the San Pedro.

HR: What were your initial thoughts on the circumstances then?

Richter: My first realization here was how many different perspectives there were about the San Pedro. Some folks told me it hadn’t changed in many decades, others told me it was dying or already dead, since it rarely flowed in many areas. Given my focus on hydrology and water, I wanted to better understand the facts.

So, I organized a volunteer event to go out and map where the river actually flows and where it doesn’t, during the driest time of year, which is typically the third week in June.

We began this effort in 1999, and mapped the 43 miles of river within Bureau of Land Management’s San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) with about 25 people.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this effort was that it engaged a wide variety of folks who had very different views: City Councilmen, scientists, realtors, birders, BLM staff.

At the end of that first mapping event, everyone completely agreed about how much water was actually out there that day.

We’ve grown the event to include over 100 miles of the river in both the U.S. and Mexico, and over 100 volunteers participate each year.

Last June marked the 21st year we mapped the river, and the maps are publicly available at It’s amazing how dedicated the volunteers are, and most importantly, how we can agree about water when we all participate in collaborative learning and discussions.

HR: How successful do you think the Fort’s, the USPP’s and the county’s efforts have been in reducing water use?

Richter: While more work still remains, we’ve come an incredibly long way since 1995 when efforts began to improve groundwater supplies along the Upper San Pedro. Fort Huachuca has provided tremendous leadership during this time, not only through the extensive water conservation measures they’ve implemented on post, but also in terms of their long term partnership with TNC, Cochise County, the City of Sierra Vista and others here locally to implement measures off post as well.

Through the U.S. Army’s Compatible Buffer Use Program, (ACUB) conservation easements on private lands have been established, as well as the purchase of lands along the river that were best suited for aquifer recharge projects. Since 1995, over 11,000 acres were protected by conservation easements and land acquisition in the Hereford-Palominas area.

The conservation easements left lands in private ownership, but permanently preclude future high density development and/or high volume pumping. Land acquisition included three proposed subdivisions along the San Pedro that fell into bankruptcy status during the recession, were purchased by TNC with ACUB funding and subsequently transferred to Cochise County for long term management as aquifer recharge sites. TNC continues to hold the conservation easements on those properties. As a result, approximately 8,000 acre-feet of historic pumping annually was permanently retired through these easements and acquisitions, and additional pumping in the future for the most sensitive areas will be avoided.

It’s also important to note that when the SPRNCA was established by Congress in 1988, approximately 20,000 acre-feet of irrigation annually was retired after the federal land exchange with Tenneco was completed. So taken all together, a total of approximately 28,000 acre feet of annual pumping has been retired in this area. Those efforts help to make our current water use much more sustainable going forward.

It’s nice to just take a step back and look at what’s been done. It’s always what’s the next thing, and the next thing. We’re always building on what’s already been done, but it’s good to take stock of what actually has been done.

HR: Could you explain how the Army’s funding platform has benefited the aquifer/community?

Richter: The ACUB program is a nationwide funding program for the U.S. Army that has been of tremendous benefit to our area. The program is meant to limit incompatible development that may hinder a military installation’s ability to successfully complete its mission.

Given our unique landscape, many of the mission-critical buffer lands around Fort Huachuca are also ecologically critical lands for the San Pedro River. As a result, we have been able to leverage ACUB funds to both protect Fort Huachuca’s operations and the River.

However, we could have never accomplished as many projects as we have using ACUB funds without the long term support of Fort Huachuca as a close conservation partner here.

HR: Do you think homes/developments with low water use fixtures, xeriscape planting and rainwater harvesting have a significant benefit to the Aquifer?

Richter: Absolutely, in fact, it’s essential. Every one of us has a role to play in conserving water and managing it wisely.

HR: How reasonable is it to try to reach net zero in the desert with climate change affecting monsoon weather patterns? How could it be accomplished?

Richter: Unfortunately, there is no one silver bullet to ensure that we will have sustainable water supplies for both future generations, as well as the San Pedro River. But, continuing to foster additional water conservation measures is essential, as is aquifer replenishment.

We are very fortunate that we have well-developed hydrologic science in our area that can be used to guide future practices and projects to make them as effective as possible. We are also fortunate to have collaborative efforts in developing this science through the Upper San Pedro Partnership, and local entities implementing water recharge projects through the Cochise Conservation and Recharge Network (CCRN). Both of these groups have worked hard to reach agreement about water issues.

It hasn’t always been easy to meet the needs of both local communities and the river, but I can’t think of many other places that have collaborated with such diverse partners and made such a significant and tangible difference in terms of enhancing water supplies over the many years of these sustained efforts.

HR: What do you do to try to conserve water?

Richter: While most indoor water use actually returns the water we’ve used back to sewer or septic systems, and subsequently may return back to the underground aquifer, outdoor water use is typically how most water is “lost” from our groundwater system through evaporation and use by plants.

I’ve planted mostly native plants in my yard that don’t require much if any irrigation, and I also use low flow water fixtures in my house.

HR: Do you have a rainwater harvesting system?

Richter: Unlike most folks, my main outdoor water use is for my horses, not my landscaping. I’m developing a rainwater harvesting system that will help provide drinking water for my horses, and I also channel the runoff from my horse corral (where the dirt is compacted and water doesn’t soak in) to help irrigate a small grass pasture for my horses during the summer, so I don’t have to pump any groundwater to give them at least a little green grass during the summer.

HR: Is conserving water something anyone can do without costing anything?

Richter: Actually, saving water can also save money. You can learn how to conserve water through free programs in our area provided by the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension Waterwise Program. Just changing some of our day to day habits can have a big impact over time. How we save water will be different for everyone, given how we live, where we live and work, and what we do in life. But it all starts with the awareness and recognition that water supplies are not limitless, and that we all have a role to play.

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