Science and determination are paying off along the Upper San Pedro River through a regional collaboration between the U.S. Army, The Nature Conservancy, and Cochise County to protect groundwater supplies and put more water in one of the Southwest’s last flowing rivers. The river runs south to north from Sonora, Mexico, past the Sierra Vista area, to the confluence with Gila River, which is itself a tributary to the Colorado River.
Cochise County, Fort Huachuca and The Nature Conservancy have been working together for more than a decade to develop the vision for the innovative recharge effort. This project will enable more water to seep back into the ground renewing the underground aquifer which acts like a sponge to store water, then slowly releases it over time.
“We’re excited to see tangible results of this innovative partnership really begin to take shape” says Pat Call, Cochise County supervisor. “We’re committed to managing our water resources in a way that’s a win-win for all sides: to meet the water needs of our local communities, address the legal requirements for Fort Huachuca, our largest employer, and to ensure the river is healthy for generations to come.”
The work of hundreds of area volunteers who have participated in the annual citizen science San Pedro wet/dry mapping event – along with extensive water monitoring by agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey – have all played a major role over the past decade in identifying the sections of the river that could benefit the most from aquifer recharge.
With the recent acquisition of 2,984 acres located to the east of Sierra Vista’s Environmental Operations Park, the ongoing collaboration between the Army, Conservancy and County has now resulted in protection of three sites, along approximately 25 miles of the San Pedro River, that will be used to protect and enhance river flows where needed the most. The other two sites include 285 acres to the west and north of the Palominas School, and 1,811 acres that includes the confluence of Carr and Ramsey Washes adjacent to the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.
This is thought to be the first-ever aquifer protection and recharge effort of its kind implemented at a regional scale to protect flows of a desert river and its lush streamside habitat, as well as water supplies for people.
“This partnership has been unique in several ways,” said Holly Richter, The Nature Conservancy in Arizona’s director of conservation. “We’ve collaboratively developed the underlying science needed to inform our vision for the project, and carefully balanced the current and future water needs of local communities, including our largest employer in the region, with the needs of a flowing river. We believe this network of sites will make a lasting difference in terms of water availability for this region for decades to come by both preventing additional pumping where it potentially has the most negative impacts, and recharging the aquifer where it can help the most.”
With funding from the U.S. Army’s Compatible Use Buffer Program (ACUB), The Nature Conservancy purchased three tracts of land to prevent future pumping impacts in key areas, and to allow for additional opportunities to expand groundwater recharge facilities in the future. The tract in Palominas has already been transferred to Cochise County for the development of stormwater recharge facilities.
“The conservation easements established by the Army along with the potential for a recharge network clearly supports Fort Huachuca’s conservation efforts on the San Pedro River,” said Colonel Dan McFarland, Fort Huachuca Garrison Commander. “Sustaining the land we defend is critical to the overall Army mission and demonstrates the Fort’s position in preserving our natural resources.”
The lands included in the recharge network will continue to provide grazing leases for local ranchers. Future residential development will be permanently precluded in the areas closest to the river, where pumping has its greatest impacts on the river’s flows.
“It’s important that we all work together to ensure the river and lands along it stay healthy,” remarked Gary Thrasher, Cochise County rancher and veterinarian. “The recharge land I graze in Hereford, now owned by The Nature Conservancy, has a series of historic structures built 50 years ago to prevent erosion and slow flood waters in washes near the river. I’m impressed by what they did without the knowledge we have today. This recharge project will be a more modern version of what ranchers were starting to do decades ago: get more water back into the ground and slow it down during floods.”
Engineering studies are underway to guide the design of potential recharge facilities at each of the three sites. Construction for the first facility near Palominas is expected to begin in February of 2014.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.