Federal water rights threaten local wells

by Eric Peterman, originally posted on December 6, 2016


If the federal water rights sought by the Bureau of Land Management for the San Pedro subwatershed are granted by an Arizona court, existing residential wells near the river could be shut down and real estate development would be stopped, Cochise County Supervisor Pat Call said in a Herald/Review interview.

Call traveled to Phoenix Nov. 14 to be deposed in a state court proceeding that will define the water rights for Fort Huachuca and the BLM in the San Pedro subwatershed — an area that stretches north from the Cochise County border with Mexico and spans parts of Palominas, Hereford, Sierra Vista, Huachuca City, Whetstone and Benson.

The case is part of the four-decades long Gila River water rights adjudication and has been “activated” for trial proceedings in a Maricopa Superior Court for three weeks in November, 2017. Lawyers from the Arizona Attorney General’s office — representing the State Land Department — and the federal Department of Justice are preparing to argue the case.

“If the DOJ is successful here, the BLM said four years ago at an Upper San Pedro Partnership meeting that if they get their federal reserved water rights they will begin shutting down any residential wells installed since 1988,” Call said.

Fort Huachuca will be the first federal agency to have its request for about 7,600 acre feet in the subwatershed decided by the state court, Call said.

“They have the seniority because they have records and claims that go back to 1877,” he said

The BLM case would be next in line, with the federal agency seeking more than 44,000 acre feet in water rights. An acre foot is defined by the volume of water needed to cover one acre of surface area to a depth of one foot, some 325,851 U.S. gallons.

Call estimated that more than 3,000 privately-owned wells have been installed since 1988 in the San Pedro watershed.

“This isn’t Fort Huachuca doing this, and it’s not the local BLM office. This is the Department of Justice,” Call said. “That means that any political influence we have, or contacts, don’t count any more. This is way up in DOJ.”

Fred Breedlove, director of the Natural Resources Division in the Arizona Land Department, said the agency is opposed to the BLM water rights request because of its impact on land values.

“The real impact will be on all the land that is outside of the SPRNCA (San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area),” Breedlove said. “Because of the volume of water rights being requested by the BLM, there may not be enough water available to sell and develop state-owned properties in the area.”

Call said the San Pedro case is the first that will be decided in the Gila River adjudication.

“We’re kind of the test case, but after us, this will move all over the state deciding water rights for federal agencies for other tributaries that are part of the Gila River,” Call said.

The prominence of being first has drawn the involvement of other organizations in the case. Mining companies in the state, including Freeport McMoRan, have joined the state case in opposing the BLM request. The Salt River Project — which provides water to most of the Phoenix area — supports the federal government rights request.

The SRP is a federal reclamation project, which awards federal water rights to the agency.

“The SRP wants the federal government to get the water rights it wants, because that decision would help them secure the water rights in the northern part of the state like the Verde area,” Call said.

Call said an attorney has been retained by the City of Sierra Vista, Pueblo del Sol and the Liberty Water Company to join in contesting the BLM’s water rights request. Call, who is the former Executive Director of the Cochise Water Project, said Cochise County Supervisors may consider sharing in the legal costs to oppose the federal agency’s request.

Call said a Superior Court decision favoring the BLM would have a significant economic impact on all of Cochise County.

“If the BLM is granted this request, then there can be no further development or building of new homes. Fort Huachuca can’t grow, and if that happens then the Army is going take it some place it can grow,” he said.

The supervisor also pointed to the irony of the BLM request, which he argued will someday, “dry up the river.

“We have the long-term solution that will save the San Pedro,” Call said. “Whether the BLM will consider that solution is another issue.”

He pointed to the network of aquifer recharge projects that county supervisors, The Nature Conservancy, The Hereford Natural Resource Conservation District, Sierra Vista, Walton Family Foundation and the Cochise Conservation and Recharge Network have developed along the San Pedro.

“When the cone of depression expands and flattens out, then it will be these aquifers that will be drawn down, not the river,” Call said.

Cochise County has earned national recognition for the first of four recharge projects to be completed. The Palominas Recharge Project has been in operation for two monsoon, and was completed in 2014.  The county also acquired the Mansker property as part of that project. Other recharge areas include the Horseshoe Draw project, Sierra Vista’s Environmental Operations Park, Bella Vista and the Riverstone property.

Learn More