A Tale Of Two Arizona Rivers: How Lawsuits Are Shaping The Verde And San Pedro
It's a tale of two rivers: The Verde, which flows south from near Flagstaff, Ariz. to metro Phoenix, and the San Pedro, which begins in Mexico and flows north to Winkelman, Ariz.
In some ways, the rivers differ drastically. The San Pedro is one of the last undammed rivers in the Southwest, while the Verde has many dams, including Horseshoe and Bartlett northeast of Phoenix. Parts of the Verde are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act — protections the San Pedro doesn't share.
But for all the differences, there are many similarities. Both have diverse ecosystems that are home to many endangered wildlife species, including the southwestern willow flycatcher and loach minnow. Both have felt the effects of increased groundwater pumping and cattle grazing. And, just recently, both have been at the center of lawsuits filed to protect each river.
"The story of Arizona rivers is that we have demonstrated many times that we can dry them up, but we haven't demonstrated that we can save them," said Sandy Bahr, the director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter.
Part 1: Cattle damage to the Verde River spurs legal action
At almost 60, Jon Fuller would rather be canoeing the Verde than sitting in a reclining chair. The author of "Verde River Elegy: A Paddling Journey to the River's End," Fuller has studied rivers for almost four decades. During his journey down the Verde in 2017, Fuller witnessed cattle grazing along the banks.
"The cows drop their droppings on the campsite, on the river," he said. He points out the irony of having to carry his own waste, in accordance with the law, while seeing far more waste from what he calls unregulated cattle. Cattle also erode river banks and sandbars, and eat large amounts of streamside vegetation.
"It turns out most wilderness areas have exemptions for cattle grazing, although they should not be in the river corridor themselves, according to the rules the federal government agreed to," Fuller said. "Yet there they were."
Although parts of the Verde are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Fuller reported that federally designated wilderness land was in the worst shape. According to the nonprofit Friends of the Verde River, 62% of the total area in the watershed is federal public land. Of that, the Verde passes through federally designated wilderness areas such as the area of Mazatzal, near Fossil Creek, and skirts the Sycamore Canyon and Cedar Bench federal wilderness areas.
"It just doesn't seem like wilderness," Fuller said. "Some of the areas that were non-federally designated wilderness were in much better shape than this wilderness area and that was just really surprising to me and disappointing."
That disappointment is shared by Joe Trudeau of the Center for Biological Diversity, with offices in Tucson and Flagstaff. The center, which filed an intent to sue the U.S. Forest Service in March, found cattle droppings on three-quarters of the river.
"Regular day-to-day advocacy just wasn't working," Trudeau said. "There's been multiple reports from the public and from us to the Forest Service that there's cows out on these protected rivers and the Forest Service just hasn't been doing enough to fix the problem."
To gather data on the issue, Trudeau and his team covered more than 140 miles of river over a period of several months in 2019. Their report , released in March, details the extent of damage from cattle.
"Approximately 44% of stream miles were ranked with moderate to significant grazing harm … 30% of stream miles had no signs of cattle at all," an excerpt from the report reads.
Since the initial surveying, Trudeau has gone back to specific sites deemed critical to the recovery of endangered species.
Trudeau said the loach minnow and another small fish, the spikedace, have critical habitat designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and he noted it's home to birds protected under the Endangered Species Act, including the yellow-billed cuckoo and the southwestern willow flycatcher.
"There isn't a foot of the Verde River where you wouldn't expect to be in some of the last remaining habitat for these species in Arizona," Trudeau said in a followup email.
Through the center's surveying work of the river, his team found some areas remained untouched.
"There were long stretches of the Verde that didn't have any grazing impacts, that weren't affected by cows," Trudeau said. "And so it was clear to us that the only way to really solve this problem of cows getting into these closed river areas is to end grazing in the uplands."
Yet, the Verde remains a critical resource for cattle ranchers.
"I feel that pain, you know," Fuller said. "I have no glee and I have no conviction against cattle ranchers. It's not that I'm anti-cow. I'm pro-river."
Some cattle owners, such as Jeni O'Callaghan, are pro-river, too. As a rancher, she relies on the Verde to water the grass she feeds her animals. As someone who grew up with fond memories of the river, O'Callaghan understands the importance of keeping it healthy.
"Please people, but also please the habitat," she said. "One doesn't have to cancel out the other."
Although she raises cattle, O'Callaghan also is a part of the nonprofit Friends of the Verde River. She's working to implement water-saving techniques on her land, putting in irrigation sprinklers rather than flood irrigation with help from the Nature Conservancy . O'Callaghan stresses the fact that cattle and conservation are not mutually exclusive.
"They both can be done. I think that's the really cool thing," she said. "Being a rancher, and I have friends that are farmers, and (we) collaborate with groups, thinking about how can we make this river (healthy)."
The Center for Biological Diversity is thinking of solutions, too — namely, regulations it thinks the Forest Service should enforce.
"They need to monitor fences and fix them when they're broken," Trudeau said. "They need to hold ranchers accountable when ranchers are operating outside of the terms of their lease agreements. And if ranchers are chronically, continuously violating the terms, the Forest Service needs to take their permit back and kick them off."
Officials with the U.S. Forest Service's Southwestern Region said they are taking steps to prevent degradation of aquatic and riparian areas due to livestock grazing. When asked about solutions to cattle in the Verde River, they said the service has "preventive management options," such as "fencing to control livestock access, managing upland habitats, developing alternative water sources and designated water lanes to manage cattle access, manage and restrict public access to riparian areas to reduce recreational impacts." They also noted programs to plant riparian vegetation and place timber, boulders and gravel. Anyone interested in such projects is urged to volunteer.
Fuller and the Center for Biological Diversity emphasize that damage from cattle is a solvable problem. One example of proper management comes from the Bureau of Land Management's work on the Lower Box Canyon of the Gila River.
"In the early '90s, the BLM, which manages that area, managed to exclude cows," Fuller said. "If you look at aerial photographs, the return and vegetative cover density and diversity is stunning."
Fuller said these photographs offer a glimpse of what happens when cattle are managed correctly.
"You look at one, look at the other, you think, 'This is bleak, this is verdant,'" Fuller said. "So you do it, and the rivers respond and you have a much more healthy environment."
Part 2: The San Pedro River, squeezed by growing population, is subject of multiple lawsuits
The first time Sandy Bahr saw the San Pedro River, she thought someone had gotten the name wrong.
"I thought, 'Well, that's not a river,'" said Bahr, who came to Arizona from Michigan about 30 years ago. "That's like more of a little creek."
It didn't take long for Bahr to realize the importance this desert stream holds for the state.
"For me, personally, it represents just how precious water is in a dry place like Arizona, and just how much life it supports," she said.
Now, in her capacity as director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter, she's fighting to save it. The Sierra Club announced March 30 it is joining the Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation groups in two lawsuits to protect the river, which flows 140 miles north from Mexico before emptying into the Gila River near Winkelman.
One suit, against the Army and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service , challenges a 2014 decision authorizing groundwater pumping to serve military operations near Fort Huachuca, which lies west of the river. The other, against the Bureau of Land Management , challenges livestock grazing along the river, which supports habitat that's vital to migratory birds and other animals.
According to the Audubon Society , nearly 45% of the 900 species of birds in North America use the San Pedro at some point in their lives. The American Bird Conservancy in 1995 recognized the San Pedro as its first "globally important bird area" in the United States, dubbing it the "largest and best example of riparian woodland remaining" in the Southwest. In addition, the Nature Conservancy says, the river basin is home to 84 species of mammals — including Mexican gray wolves, jaguars and black bears — 14 species of fish and 41 species of reptiles and amphibians.
A teacher's salary usually isn't enough to buy a ranch, but the land Mike Hayhurst found in Cochise County was special.
"A school teacher could buy it because it was so destroyed. This place was just totally overgrazed, rundown, destroyed," said Hayhurst, who was a high school science teacher and football coach in Benson, Marana and Tombstone. "I bought it, and it's taken us forever to bring it back to a reasonable condition."
At 78, Hayhurst has done a great deal to improve his Brookline Ranch in the 35 years he's lived on the land — and one of the biggest improvements has been the use of rotational grazing techniques.
"I graze the riparian only when it's cool because cows are like people," said Hayhurst, whose 15,000-acre ranch is bisected by the Babocomari River, a tributary of the San Pedro. "When it gets hot, they go down and sit under the trees and stream. When it's cool down there, they'll chop a lot of things down and they'll eat everything that's right there. But when it's cold here, they'll go up on the hills, and they won't go down to the stream."
Hayhurst's techniques exemplify responsible cattle management, something the Center for Biological Diversity says is lacking in the area. That's why the organization, in a bid to safeguard the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area , is challenging the Bureau of Land Management's handling of livestock grazing.
"The Bureau of Land Management's 2019 plan for the conservation area sanctioned destructive levels of livestock grazing on protected lands, putting the area's remarkable ecosystem at risk," the center stated in a press release.
The San Pedro has bounced back from threats before. Bahr described how the area recovered after livestock grazing was prohibited in the conservation area under the 1989 San Pedro River Riparian Management Plan.
"Once the livestock were out of the river, the riparian vegetation just took off," Bahr said. "We saw cottonwoods and willows and, you know, these very lush mesquite scales."
The riparian plan was in effect for 15 years. Since 2004, the BLM has increased the amount of grazing allowed, mainly citing the growing population of Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca as a reason for the change.
In July 2019, the BLM approved the most recent management plan, which now is at the center of the lawsuit.
"The approved (plan) allowed for grazing to occur on the four existing grazing allotments (7,030 acres) and established a process to ensure that the BLM manages livestock grazing in a manner consistent with the resource objectives to ensure that it is compatible with the protection of the conservation values for which the area was designated," the BLM wrote as part of an email.
The bureau also said it's developing ways to establish monitoring plots to gather data and evaluating land health in individual allotments.
Holly Richter, a hydrologist with the Nature Conservancy, attributes the difficulties of proper management to the dimensions of the conservation area, which protects 47 miles of the San Pedro starting at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"I think the trespass-cattle use within the National Conservation Area has been very challenging for BLM to manage because the intrinsic shape of the conservation area is very long and skinny," Richter said. "You have to have fences that go across all of these tributaries along this river corridor that are frequently washed out."
Hayhurst has his own theories concerning cattle mismanagement. There are two kinds of ranchers in the world, he said.
"There's the kind that's sustainable, and there's the takers. The takers give us all a bad name," Hayhurst said. "Most of the ranchers today have gotten smart enough to know that they have got to look at sustainability. And if you look at sustainability and start doing the things that you have to do to sustain the environment that you depend on, then there's no conflict."
Groundwater pumping in the area began over half a century ago to meet agricultural needs. Groundwater continues to be drawn, although the main reason now is to accommodate population growth.
"One of the biggest threats to it (the river) is groundwater pumping," Bahr said. "Sections of the river that were once perennial, meaning they flowed year-round, are no longer flowing year-round. They're drying up during some parts of the year, and we started to see that trend about 10 years ago."
Richter warns that the full impact from groundwater pumping has yet to be felt. In addition to current and future water use, she said, groundwater pumping of the past must be considered.
"Every single gallon that we've pumped since the 1940s is one less gallon that remains in the (San Pedro) aquifer and its storage, and that's a cumulative removal from storage over time," Richter said. "Many of those impacts haven't even reached the river yet."
Mark Larson, the president of the Maricopa Audubon Society, is one of the organizations partnering with the Center for Biological Diversity in the groundwater lawsuit. He points to the extreme diversity of the region, including the mountains, the desert and the river area, making the area a key habitat for birds.
"It's a remarkable part of the country where we get some species of birds from Mexico because they don't respect political boundaries like the U.S.-Mexico border," Larson said. "So that part of Arizona is a real key environmentally important and sensitive part of Arizona."
Larson said the key to protecting the San Pedro River is to stop overdrafting the aquifer.
"If you draw down the water table too much, everything growing on the surface of your river dies. That's what's happening in the San Pedro," he said.
Larson also points to housing developments being approved in the area, such as in the nearby city of Sierra Vista.
"One of the reasons it's happening is because of Sierra Vista, but even more so because of Fort Huachuca," Larson said. "So these two entities … keep approving massive housing developments that will use groundwater and contribute to the decline of the water table and and contribute to the eventual loss of all the vegetation."
In a press release, the Center for Biological Diversity wrote it's challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's failure to account for a nearly 62% increase in groundwater pumping attributable to the fort, which was established in 1877.
A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency works with partners to deliver the best conservation practices on critical waters that provide habitat and resources to threatened and endangered species.
"Our partners' conservation actions, like protecting water quantity and quality in the Upper San Pedro River watershed, reducing new well drilling and promoting efficient water technologies on agricultural lands, will help current and future wildlife populations," Amy Lueders, regional director for Fish and Wildlife, said in a statement.
Richter, in her capacity with the Nature Conservancy, is one representative currently working on conservation projects. She said the smartest course of action is to implement near stream-recharge projects, which put water directly back into the ecosystem. Fort Huachuca has helped the Nature Conservancy with conservation efforts by helping to acquire land for the conservancy to use for such projects.
"That will enable the health of the river to be the best that it can by the year 2075," Richter said. "If we can get the funding and the resources and capacity to actually build the additional projects that are needed, and that's what we're trying to do today."
Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute, said it's unlikely the conflict can be solved through conservation alone.
"You're always going to have more you can conserve, but there's going to be someone else who will come in and say, 'I want to use that water,'" she said. "The way to solve these problems is to look at who has the right to the water and then work to develop management plans that work for the various (groups) to satisfy people's rights to water, but also hopefully satisfy other desires that people have."
Porter said the legal process will help to solve disputes over who has what rights to water.
"A huge problem in Arizona is that we haven't finally adjudicated," Porter said. "We're still in this highly complex legal process to figure out who has the rights to what water and how much. Who's senior, who's junior … the key to clarity and victory is completing the adjudication without question."
Although steps are being taken, Robin Silver, the co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said it all comes down to population.
"The only way to save the San Pedro from ground pumping is to limit the number of people at Fort Huachuca," he said, where up to 18,000 people work during peak operations.
For Silver and his conservation partners, this means living within the allotted water budget , one that includes water for the river.
One thing Richter and Silver agree on is the need for this river to be saved for generations to come.
"We have no choice but to save the San Pedro," Richter said. "I mean, this is the last best example, this kind of a desert river. If there's any place that can make it happen in terms of a successful long term water management vision, I have to think it's the San Pedro, and I'm going to keep thinking that."
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by Cronkite News, and distributed by KUNC in Colorado.