A new U.S. Fish and Wildlife policy could open the door for more water stations on border public lands to aid illegal immigrants, but humanitarian groups will have to follow stringent rules.
A final compatibility determination released by the federal agency allows groups to request permits for stationary, 55-gallon water drums located near roads in already disturbed areas.
The regulations basically endorse the methods used for the last 10 years by Tucson-based Humane Borders, which has had three water tanks on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge but has been denied requests to put more on several occasions, including in October 2009.
Humane Borders founder Robin Hoover applauded the agency's decision.
"People ought to be applying for water stations across Southern Arizona right now," Hoover said. "You have a blueprint to do it."
Humanitarian groups put out water in an effort to save lives. Nearly 2,000 illegal borders crossers have been found dead in Arizona since 2001, and this year has been one of the worst yet.
The ruling didn't go over well with all Southern Arizona humanitarian aid groups, though. It prohibits the methods used by No More Deaths and Samaritans. They put out water in one-gallon jugs along trails.
"We are not pleased," said Gene Lefebvre, a retired minister and co-founder of No More Deaths. "We are not going to take any big action, but we are not pleased."
No More Deaths officials are upset because they reached a compromise with Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and Fish and Wildlife officials earlier this year that said they would be able to put 1-gallon waters jugs at specified locations as long as they were tethered to trees.
The deal culminated a nearly two-year standoff between the two sides that included 15 volunteers being issued littering tickets for putting out the jugs. After the compromise was reached, a federal prosecutor asked the court to dismiss charges against 13 people who had been cited.
In the Fish and Wildlife draft compatibility determination issued in April, the agency said it was "evaluating" allowing more water stations, from 1-gallon to 55 gallons. It said the stations could be placed "strategically" on or near existing trails.
But following an agency review and public comment period where they received more than 1,100 comments from 811 people, Fish and Wildlife officials concluded the 1-gallon jugs were not the best approach, said agency spokesman Jose Viramontes.
One reason was concern about litter.
"If an illegal immigrant is not carrying his or her own container, there is a possibility that tethered containers could be cut from the tether, carried along the trail and later discarded on the refuge," the document says. "Hundreds of unpermitted 1-gallon containers previously deposited (not tethered) on illegal immigrant trails have been found discarded throughout the refuge."
Another concern was that putting out water on existing smuggling trails could promote more illegal traffic through the refuge, Viramontes said.
"It may actually promote passage through the refuge," Viramontes said.
Lefebvre and fellow No More Deaths volunteer Dan Millis scoffed at that contention. Millis called it "ridiculous to say our water lures people anywhere." Millis had his 2008 littering conviction overturned by a federal appeals court.
"Our water is not what's causing people to come through the desert," said Millis, who works for the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club. "The failed U.S. border policy of militarizing the border is what has caused people to come through the desert."
Lefebvre declined to say whether No More Deaths volunteers will continue to put out 1-gallon water jugs on the refuge, only saying, "We are just going ahead of with our work. We've got to stand by our commitment to give humanitarian aid to migrants."
Fish and Wildlife officials say they will continue to issue citations to people they observe not complying with the new guidelines. But Viramontes said the agency is hopeful there will be no more issues with No More Deaths volunteers.
"Our hope is that No More Deaths will come forward with some requests similar to this, so we can permit this activity," Viramontes said. "We are open to more water stations on the refuge."
But while No More Deaths is pleased that Humane Borders may be able to set up more stationary water stations they still believe the 1-gallon jugs are the best tool in remote terrain, Lefebvre said.
Humane Borders' new executive director, Sofia Gomez, said the organization is currently re-assessing the locations of all of its 38 water stations in Arizona to make sure they are in locations being used by illegal immigrants. They are looking at their own data of water usage and other data from No More Deaths, the Border Patrol and the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office, she said.
"We are working to assess our water distribution," Gomez said. "Where we need to be now versus where we were when we started out 10 years ago."
It's possible they'll ask for additional water stations on the Buenos Aires refuge but they haven't made that decision yet, she said. They may also ask to put their blue flags on existing water wells, Gomez said. The organization is pleased with the rules, and said they just need to clarify a few of the stipulations.
Hoover said No More Deaths should put their energies toward fighting to get permission to put out water stations on the Tohono O'odham Reservation and other dangerous lands.
"They are fighting a good battle to put water in the desert, but they are fighting the wrong battle when they are fighting over the size of the water container," Hoover said.
Humane Borders restarted conversations with Tohono O'odham Nation officials this summer about putting water stations out there but nothing has changed yet, Gomez said.
More bodies are found along the 75 miles of international border the Tohono O'odham Nation shares with Mexico than any other stretch of Arizona's border. But the nation has never allowed humanitarian groups to put out water stations.
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@.com.