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River Recharge Holds Promise for Water-Stressed Arizona

January 15, 2019
Along the San Pedro River, communities unite to restore flow and dwindling groundwater

The San Pedro River is among the last free-flowing rivers in the West, a 140-mile waterway that runs north from Mexico into the Sierra Vista region of southern Arizona.

The river has tremendous ecological significance.

It supports abundant wildlife and is one of the few remaining corridors for migratory birds as they move between wintering grounds in Southern Mexico and Central America and summer breeding areas in the United States and Canada.

A sweeping bend in the San Pedro River near Fairbank, Arizona, a ghost town in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

The San Pedro also plays a critical role in the health of the regional economy. Municipalities, miners, ranchers and the U.S. army base at Fort Huachuca are all heavily dependent on groundwater in the river basin.

But today, the San Pedro is a river at risk.

In recent years, we have seen stretches of the river run dry. Legal battles over water also threaten the existing economy, future growth and environmental health of the Sierra Vista.

Fortunately, we’ve also seen encouraging progress towards improving the health of the Upper San Pedro River through a first-of-its-kind strategy in Arizona to construct several groundwater recharge projects to support the environment and economy.

In what may be the first application of recharge infrastructure to improve the health of a flowing river, recent findings show that efforts to save the Upper San Pedro are having a positive impact. They also indicate that when these efforts are scaled up they can help mitigate environmental challenges while supporting community needs and further economic development.

The Cochise Conservation and Recharge Network (CCRN) is a key part of this work.

The CCRN is a collaborative partnership implementing a regional network of groundwater replenishment projects to sustain both a vibrant local economy and a flowing river. The network consists of seven sites along 25 miles of the river.

Instead of losing the extra storm water runoff that is generated in developed areas, or losing treated wastewater to evaporation, CCRN projects use these sources of water, almost one billion gallons each year, to replenish groundwater supplies.

The San Pedro River meanders through the Arizona high desert from its headwaters in Sonora, Mexico.

This is of enormous importance to the regional economy. The San Pedro River’s watershed spans over 4,700 square miles across several counties, making it an important source of water in Southeast Arizona.

Development in the Upper San Pedro River Basin has historically been almost entirely dependent upon access to groundwater. As a result, with few sources of available surface water, almost all water use in the Basin is groundwater-dependent.

The CCRN is noteworthy not only for its ability to replenish the groundwater, but also because it demonstrates that the best solutions to water challenges start within local communities.

The San Pedro River basin is home to abundant desert flora including blooming ocotillo cactus, growing in a field of golden grass.

The CCRN is an idea developed by locals for locals. Its members include Cochise County, Hereford Natural Resource Conservation District, the Cities of Sierra Vista and Bisbee, and The Nature Conservancy.

But in order for the CCRN to be scaled up, another important stakeholder will need to come to the table: The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which will hold the soon-to-be-quantified federal reserved water rights on the Upper San Pedro River.

The CCRN could potentially provide the framework for a broader agreement among local stakeholders and BLM that would both protect the river and address ongoing legal uncertainties around the use and development of groundwater in the Sierra Vista region. At full build out, the the CCRN projects could be a key component that ensures federal water rights are addressed while also meeting the needs of existing residents and future economic growth in the Sierra Vista region.

The San Pedro River provides habitat for abundant species, including the beaver who built this dam.

Groundwater is a precious limited resource that must be managed to meet environmental and economic needs – both today and 100 years from now. The Walton Family Foundation has supported the development and growth of the CCRN because of its locally led, solution-oriented approach.

We think that the most durable environmental wins are those that align with the economic interests of the local community. The CCRN presents an opportunity for the region.

The Palominas Flood Control and Recharge Project is one of several projects that recharge and protect groundwater near the San Pedro to protect and enhance its flows.

We look forward to seeing BLM more actively engage in this effort by working with CCRN members and local communities toward a solution that provides long-term certainty and security for communities, a growing local economy, and the river.

It’s time for BLM to be part of this innovative solution.

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