‘Legal train wreck’ looms over water fight in Southern Arizona

Dead trees lie piled along the San Pedro River in Sierra Vista. /  Mike Christy | Arizona Daily Star
Dead trees lie piled along the San Pedro River in Sierra Vista. / Mike Christy | Arizona Daily Star

By Tony Davis | Arizona Daily Star

On the surface, new litigation over the San Pedro is pitting the Southwest’s last major free-flowing river against the future of Sierra Vista and its environs.

Looking deeper, the lawsuits pit two longstanding legal traditions about water in Arizona against one another. The issue is: Can Arizona control groundwater pumping that could damage a river when the federal government has rights to its flow?

Those differences are so acute that a former longtime state water official, Herb Guenther, sees the dispute as a legal train wreck waiting to happen.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and two environmental activists filed separate Superior Court lawsuits this month, seeking to overturn a state ruling that developers of Tribute, who would build 6,900 homes and apartments in Sierra Vista, have an adequate 100-year water supply. That ruling is needed for any new Cochise County housing development to break ground.

On the side of developer Castle & Cooke is the state’s legal tradition, dating back more than a century, of regulating groundwater and surface water separately, even though most hydrologists say they’re related.

On the side of those filing suit is the BLM’s water rights to the river, established by Congress in 1988 when it created the 40-mile-long San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. It stretches north from the Mexico border to just south of St. David. BLM wants the courts to rule that its water rights take precedence over the developer’s water rights.


Also: Lessons from Arizona’s water war

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