Arizona Water Pumping Decision Threatens Millions of Birds, Group Charges

Southwestern Willow Flycatcher by Joe Fuhrman
The San Pedro area is extremely important to many bird species including the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Photo by Joe Fuhrman.

(Washington, D.C., May 3, 2013) American Bird Conservancy (ABC), one of the nation's leading bird conservation groups, has called on Arizona Governor Janice Brewer to overturn the decision by the Arizona Department of Water Resources that approved a groundwater pumping plan that runs the risk of drying a southern Arizona river, the San Pedro, part of which was formally designated in 1995 as the nation's first Globally Important Bird Area and remains today a critical stopover point for millions of migrating birds.

The May 3, 2013 letter from ABC Vice President for Conservation Advocacy Darin Schroeder asked Gov. Brewer to “…exercise your gubernatorial authority and reverse this ill-considered approval by your administration's Department of Water Resources to effectively drain the San Pedro River in order to support the unsustainable growth of Sierra Vista.”

The letter conveyed that ABC had thoroughly reviewed the Pueblo Del Sol Water Company's groundwater pumping plan and “concluded it poses a serious and substantial threat to millions of migratory birds, many of which are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. We are particularly concerned that the groundwater pumping would negatively impact the designated Critical Habitat for the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.”

The San Pedro is one of the last major undammed rivers in the American Southwest, Schroeder said, and exhibits a remarkably intact riparian ecosystem. An approximately 40-mile reach of the upper San Pedro River between the international boundary and St. David is encompassed by the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA), one of only two RNCAs in the United States. The BLM has also opposed the water-pumping plan.

“The lower San Pedro River remains unprotected, but is just as resource-rich as the upper river, supporting over 100 species of breeding birds and another 250 migrant and wintering species,” he said. The SPRNCA was the first site to be designated by ABC as a Globally Important Bird Area in a seminal book, The American Bird Conservancy Guide to the 500 Most Important Bird Areas in the United States.

The ABC letter describes the San Pedro corridor as an enormously important migratory bird conduit providing stopover and feeding habitat for nearly five million songbirds each spring. In addition to Wilson's and Yellow Warblers, this area supports an important breeding population of rare Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo and is nationally important for breeding Gray Hawks and Green Kingfishers.

Two driving forces behind the two designations for the area vigorously oppose the pumping plan: ABC President Dr. George Fenwick, in regard to the IBA designation, and retired former Arizona BLM Director Dean Bibles, in regard to the RNCA designation.

“Birds won't get the memo on this. Their migration paths won't change in the months and years to come. As a result, instead of finding water, shelter, and nourishment in the San Pedro to sustain them through their difficult migrations, the birds will find that their journeys have now been made far more dangerous. Many may perish as a result,” Dr. Fenwick said.

According to Bibles, “There was a massive effort to create the SPRNCA. It took a Congressional delegation, the Governor, the Secretary of the Interior, and many other groups all pulling together to make it happen. Those making decisions about water do not seem to have grasped the absurdity of having a Riparian National Conservation Area that has no water. This is shocking and seriously undermines the efforts of the many who had the best interests of the nation, the state, and wildlife in mind when this designation was made. When the area was designated an RNCA, the community understood the potential economic benefits they might derive from birders around the world visiting the San Pedro to see the spectacular migrating birds that use the area. I was even presented a key to the city. So, I am concerned for the community if this pumping plan goes forward because I do not think the economic losses have been fully considered.”

A federal government study reports that over 20 percent of the U.S. population – 48 million people – participates in bird watching. Of that total, about 42 percent (20 million people) actually travel to see birds. Birders spend about $36 billion annually in pursuit of their pastime.

In addition to ABC and BLM, other groups that have voiced strong opposition to the pumping plan include Arizona Audubon, Earthjustice, and the Center for Biological Diversity.