San Pedro River
The San Pedro snakes its way through the desert east of Sierra Vista.

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

The San Pedro River has swelled with all the recent rains, its life-giving waters flowing from Northern Mexico all the way into Arizona’s Gila River. I’ve raised crops and protected wildlife habitat on my land at the river’s edge since 1991, and once again I’m marking the turn of the seasons as the first of our cottonwoods turn golden-hued, waiting for a few truly cold nights before they’ll suddenly switch in a snap.

Drought and depletion have made the San Pedro muddier than usual over the last few years, but those flows are still sufficient to support what has now unfortunately become unique: The San Pedro Valley is the last intact natural river ecosystem in the desert portion of this state, and it sustains incredible biodiversity for Arizona.

The organization I represent, the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance, is a group of 94 property owners and over 100 supporters. The alliance actively collaborates with groups and agencies who recognize that we have to work together to protect the river.

Over the years we’ve taken on key projects like monitoring conservation easements that compensate for impacts caused by the Central Arizona Project. Our membership base holds over 9,000 acres in private holdings and 70,000 acres in leased lands in three different counties of the San Pedro watershed, including Cochise County. Despite all our efforts, we’re more concerned about the fate of the San Pedro River than ever. Groundwater pumping poses an existential threat because it lowers the water table and reduces stream flows. Excessive groundwater pumping has already begun to dry up the San Pedro River and its riparian vegetation and springs, leaving our last free-flowing river with little or no water to spare.

In this increasingly arid environment, a Scottsdale developer plans to develop 28,000 homes, relying solely on groundwater to support 70,000 new residents and replicate a verdant Italian village in the Sonoran Desert, including golf courses, resorts, fountains, lakes, and a town center, known as the Villages at Vigneto. Despite granting a critical permit for the project, the federal government refused to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the impacts of the proposed development on the San Pedro River. Instead, the government turned a blind eye on the devastating impacts of the development on the San Pedro River, as documented by expert hydrologists and biologists.

Accordingly, several years ago, the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance became the first of six plaintiff groups to pursue a lawsuit urging the federal government to comprehensively analyze the impacts of granting a permit to El Dorado for the Villages at Vigneto development, as required by the law.

Arizona has a history of rapidly drying up rivers and destroying wildlife habitat with ever-expanding suburban sprawl. In just over a single century since achieving statehood, we’ve now gotten to the point that the San Pedro River is the last natural and intact river ecosystem left in the desert region of the state.

Because the San Pedro now occupies this rare position of retaining its ecological value, it has become the go-to region for offsetting the impacts of rapid growth along rivers of Arizona that have already been dried up and radically modified for large-scale development purposes.

Thousands of acres of land in the San Pedro Valley have been designated to compensate for ecological impacts in the growth areas of Arizona. Yet, these efforts would be at risk if El Dorado were to proceed with its mega development.

What sort of quality of life will be left when all of our natural desert river ecosystems are gone?

Large-scale development is not the only option for economic development in rural Arizona. We must move beyond the economic models of Arizona’s early territory days. In addition to compiling facts about ecological impacts, a comprehensive analysis would also include information and public comments on the economic benefits and costs of the proposed development project.

In this situation and at this point in Arizona history, we must look before we leap. If you also support following federal law and applying this sensible approach to vetting this mega-development proposal for the San Pedro River, there are ways you can support our volunteer conservation staff in this effort. Feel free to contact me at lowersanpedro@gmail.com for more information.

Peter Else is chair of the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance, an all-volunteer landowner-based conservation organization. He’s owned property in the San Pedro River Valley since 1991.