For Immediate Release, April 5, 2022

Contact:

Robin Silver, Center for Biological Diversity, (602) 799-3275, rsilver@biologicaldiversity.org
Charles Babbitt, Maricopa Audubon Society, (602) 617-1990, charlesjbabbitt@gmail.com

Federal Court Rejects Fort Huachuca’s Groundwater Pumping Plan for Fourth Time

Judge Says Army Plan Fails to Protect San Pedro River, Endangered Species

TUCSON, Ariz.— A federal judge has rejected the latest plan by the U.S. Army and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aimed at preventing damage to the San Pedro River and its endangered species from groundwater pumping to serve Fort Huachuca and the Fort’s population in surrounding areas.

Friday’s ruling, by U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins, means that the Army and the Fish and Wildlife Service will have to produce a new environmental plan to protect the river from the Fort's groundwater pumping. The judge also ruled that officials relied on accounting that overstated water credits claimed by the Army base and failed to adequately consider the effects of climate change on the river and the endangered plants and animals that depend on it.

This is the fourth time in 20 years that the courts have rejected Fort Huachuca’s environmental plan, including its groundwater pumping, which had been approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The groundwater pumping of the Fort’s off-post population is killing the San Pedro River and the endangered species that depend on it,” said Robin Silver, a cofounder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Instead of doing something about it and downsizing the Fort, the Army has chosen to fabricate environmental clearance studies and manipulate federal wildlife officials. Now that it’s been handed yet another defeat, maybe the Fort will finally take action to protect the last free-flowing desert river in the Southwest.”

The court found that Fort Huachuca ignored a hydrological study on the effects of Fort-attributable groundwater pumping on local groundwater levels, which showed a decline of more than 60 feet in some areas.

The court also said the Fort overestimated groundwater credits from fallow farmland near Hereford. In memos obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Fort Huachuca officials have said they convinced Fish and Wildlife Service officials to give the Fort water retirement credit by “posturing the post water credits,” where they “leveraged creative solutions to achieve ‘net-zero’ in water usage.”

However, the ruling will allow Fort Huachuca to claim water credit for future water conservation — even though that won’t prevent the river from drying up completely — and avoid the Service declaring that the San Pedro and its wildlife are in jeopardy. The law and legal precedent require that a jeopardy determination can be avoided only by concrete, contemporaneous actions, not hypothetical future ones. The Center and Maricopa Audubon plan to appeal.

In other memos obtained under the public records law, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist said “groundwater pumping at Fort Huachuca alone… results in jeopardy.” The same biologist summarized why the agency continues to produce biological opinions that are then rejected by the court: “It is clear that the Fort does not take us (FWS) seriously…they believe they have enough political inroads with our Washington and Regional offices that we the Field Office will roll over.”

“It’s absurd that we’ve had to go to court four times to overturn the Defense Department’s lies and defend Arizona’s last free-flowing river," says Maricopa Audubon President Charles Babbitt. “Fish and Wildlife officials must stand firm and defend this spectacular birding mecca for future generations. The river can’t tolerate any more delay in receiving the protection it so desperately needs.”

The Army has been told by the courts that its Fort Huachuca-related activities are killing the San Pedro since at least 1995, when a federal judge said, “The Army must not turn a blind eye to this problem… where unrestrained draining of the aquifer represents a real threat to the Riparian Area.”

Based on a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department has known for more than 50 years that large staffing numbers at Fort Huachuca are not sustainable because of depleted groundwater supply and effects on the San Pedro River.

The San Pedro River is the last free-flowing desert river in the Southwest. Endangered species that depend on it include southwestern willow flycatchers, Huachuca water umbels, desert pupfish, loach minnows, spikedace, yellow-billed cuckoos, Arizona eryngo and northern Mexican garter snakes.

Friday’s ruling stems from a lawsuit filed in March 2020 by the Center and the Maricopa Audubon Society. The organizations are represented by EarthJustice.

San Pedro River
San Pedro River. Photo credit: Robin Silver Images are available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.