BILL HESS

Wick News Service

Bill Branan, who is the National Audubon Society's representative on the Upper San Pedro Partnership, believes the organization "took a bold step into the future" last week by pledging to save the San Pedro River.

That pledge was made in a resolution of fewer than 50 words that was adopted by the partnership on Wednesday.

In the resolution, the group, which is a consortium of federal, state and local agencies, businesses and environmental groups, says its members will balance the area's water deficit by 2011 and will commit itself to conservation needs that may come about due to future biological opinions involving Fort Huachuca.

"I think it's a positive step, but it's going to require a lot of behavioral changes," he said.

Branan isn't the only person who feels that way. Three other partnership members - Bob Strain, Judy Gignac and Holly Richter - also feel the resolution will help to solve the area's water issues.

The object of the resolution is to ensure the fort has the support it needs to survive the next Base Realignment and Closure round. Strain, the chairman of the partnership's Advisory Commission, said that can only be done with a commitment by the off-post communities to be part of the water use solution.

But Shane Jimerfield, a program manager for the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization that has been a longtime critic of what is happening in the Upper San Pedro Basin, said "the resolution seems to be political and not genuine."

Branan, who heads the National Audubon Society's research ranch in Elgin, said he believes the partnership is moving away from talking and toward action.

"The words have to be put into action," he said Friday.

The members of the partnership will have to build on the resolution, Branan said.

The current biological opinion between the Army and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service commits Fort Huachuca to assume responsibility for 54 percent of the water deficit off the post.

The fort's presence and the population it serves spills over into the civilian communities, according to the agreement and post officials have to help find ways to conserve water and recharge the aquifer off the fort to ensure the San Pedro River and its riparian area are protected.

The river and its land corridor are part of the congressionally established San Pedro National Riparian Conservation Area under the responsibility of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The area was established more than a decade ago. U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., lead the effort. Kolbe represents people who live in the Sierra Vista subwatershed, a region that includes the fort, the incorporated communities of Sierra Vista, Bisbee, Tombstone and Huachuca City and the unincorporated Cochise County areas of Hereford, Naco, Palominas and Whetstone.

The biological opinion also states the off-post communities in the subwatershed have to take responsibility to bring their portion of water use into balance, which elected leaders in the cities, towns and county have agreed to do.

When Branan became a partnership member, he had his doubts the organization would do anything besides talk about the issues. But his view has changed.

"I now know they are sincere about saving the river," he said.

But the partnership's members will have to keep true to their words and make sure the water deficit in the watershed is balanced, Branan said. This is especially needed, he said, in light of an amendment offered by U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi Jr., R-Ariz., to eliminate the fort from being responsible for water use off the installation.

"It's going to be a challenge for all of us," he said.

In the future, those people running for office in the area will need to state they support the resolution, Branan added.

Jimerfield, however, said the partnership's resolution is "just a meaningless resolution without any binding teeth." He said the resolution is a veiled attempt to support the Renzi rider, and once that is done, the partnership will back off from saving the river.

The Renzi rider, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in its 2004 Defense Appropriations Bill, "pulls the teeth from the biological opinion," Jimerfield said.

If Renzi's amendment is adopted during the Senate and House conference committee, there will be no need for the partnership to remain committed to the resolution, he said.

The Senate's version of the appropriations bill does not have similar language to what is included in the Renzi rider.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is being pushed by proponents of the Renzi proposal to make sure it is part or the Senate version of the 2004 Defense Appropriations Bill, and opponents seek to have it fail in the conference committee. If the amendment fails, it will not appear in the Senate or House bills.

According to news reports, McCain has said he does not favor the wording in the Renzi amendment and is seeking new language he can support.

Kolbe put forth an amendment similar to Renzi's proposal in a House bill last year. But that amendment failed to gain approval in the Senate and House conference committee report.

Strain, who is Sierra Vista mayor pro tem, said the resolution approved by the partnership and similar resolutions recently passed by the Cochise County Board of Supervisors and the Sierra Vista City Council commit the elected leadership in the subwatershed to water conservation and to bring the water deficit into balance. The resolutions would ensure the river continues to flow, regardless the outcome of the Renzi rider.

The partnership has done more than talking, Strain said. The group has helped to find money to support recharge projects and has funded research studies that will lead to more water conservation and recharge projects throughout the subwatershed.

"But we can never declare victory, we have to continue to fight the battle to save water," Strain said.

The area can't depend on rain to help solve the problem since there is a long-term drought occurring, he added.

Agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are trying to find other sources of water, Strain said. It is not clear where those sources will be able to be drawn from, but the partnership must widen its outlook beyond the new wastewater systems that will put treated effluent back into the aquifer, such as those on the fort and in Sierra Vista, and the systems planned in Bisbee and Huachuca City, he added.

Smaller projects, such as Sierra Vista's and the county's toilet rebate program that replaces toilets that use large amounts of water for those that use less, also are ongoing.

"But the toilet rebate program, while needed, is a drop in the bucket of the amount of water we have to save," Strain said.

Private well-drilling also needs to be reviewed, he said.

"Right now the drilling of wells is out of control," Strain said.

The Center for Biological Diversity will never agree the partnership has the environmental interest of the subwatershed as its main reason for existing, Strain said.

But, he said, the partnership will continue to ensure the water deficit balance is taken care of, which can be best accomplished by the partnership.

Gignac, who heads the Bella Vista Water Co., said the partnership's resolution is a strong commitment.

"It tells the community we will step up and do it (bring the area's water deficit into balance)," she said.

The area's economy and environmental health are based on ensuring the fort and the river are saved, Gignac said. To consider the resolution a short-term commitment is short-sighted, she added.

Even though she heads the county's largest private water company, Gignac said it is unreasonable to think that Bella Vista Water Co. wants to kill the river.

If the fort closes because some decide it will harm the river, Gignac said her business and other water companies will be economically impacted.

Although Gignac said the resolution may not be legally binding on future leaders in the subwatershed, "It is a moral contract, it is good for the basin."

Richter, the Upper San Pedro program manager for The Nature Conservancy, said the resolution "is committing the partnership to taking care of the groundwater deficit in a concrete way."

Richter said the collective efforts by the group's members have shown solutions are available. As an example, she said The Nature Conservancy has provided funds to purchase water conservation easements off the post, banking the water savings as part of reducing the Army's part of the deficit.

"I'm a team player and we have the best shot of getting things done by working together and the resolution is just part of doing that," she said.

But Richter said she believes dealing with the area's water problems will be long and, at times, difficult.

"We have to keep our eyes on the prize (water deficit balance) and the resolution is our commitment to do that," she said.

(Editor's note: Bill Hess is senior reporter at the Sierra Vista Herald/Bisbee Daily Review.)

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