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Cochise County water conservation plan all wet, says UA prof

By Brett Erickson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
June 16, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Photo courtesy of Semi-Arid Land-Surface-Atmosphere's Web page The San Pedro River, seen from the Highway 92 bridge, looking upstream toward Palominas. A UA professor has accused Cochise County officials of not taking action to stop the river's destruction from overpumping.

Arizona Summer Wildcat

The San Pedro River is the only one of its kind in Arizona.

The 140-mile waterway is the main resource to two of North America's rarest forest types - the Mesquite bosque and the Southwest's largest remaining plot of cottonwood/willow riparian forest. The forest, named the world's best birding area by Birding Magazine, is the home of more than 400 bird species.

But a University of Arizona hydrologist is accusing Cochise County's elected officials of not taking action to prevent the river from drying up.

Robert MacNish, a UA adjunct professor, has been researching the San Pedro Basin through a series of projects funded by the Arizona Bureau of Land Management.

Based on his findings, MacNish is predicting that the river will cease to flow due to the overdevelopment of ground water resources.

"Unfortunately there is a feeling in the San Pedro Basin to reject the realities of living in a desert," MacNish said. "If you keep on pumping more water out of the system than nature is replenishing, someday you're going to run out of water."

The river receives the majority of its supply from excess water in the Sierra Vista sub-watershed regional aquifer - a reservoir of ground water in the area.

As the population in Sierra Vista and other San Pedro River-dependent cities has increased, so has the amount of water pumped out of the aquifer.

This will result in the northern stretch of the river becoming barren in five or six years, MacNish said.

But MacNish's assertions have drawn the verbal wrath of several water authorities.

At a recent Audubon Society conference in Sierra Vista, he angered several Cochise County officials with a computer model demonstrating his prediction of the river's demise.

He said the primary cause will be Cochise County and Sierra Vista officials' refusal to acknowledge the overpumping of the river. He dubbed the governing body the "Cochise County ostrich" for their inactivity.

"When confronted with a problem, they bury their heads in the sand," he said.

MacNish's comments prompted former Sierra Vista Mayor Richard Archer and Les Thompson, a member of the county board of supervisors, to write a letter to UA President Peter Likins. The document stated their opposition to any funding for future research projects in the basin because of MacNish's fieldwork.

In Likins' written response, sent Friday, he stated MacNish does not necessarily represent the viewpoint of the entire university.

"There is no way for anyone - you, me, or any organization or authority - to control either Dr. MacNish's views or the way he expresses them," Likins stated. "In the final analysis, his words will stand or fall on the basis of the scientific facts, and not on picturesque language."

Two weeks after writing his letter, Archer stood behind his objection.

"It has been proven by other hydrologists that there are a lot of fallacies (in MacNish's report)," said Archer, whose term as mayor ended last week.

"If there's anybody with their head buried in the sand, it may be Dr. MacNish," he said.

Archer said the city has several aggressive programs in the planning stages that will reduce the amount of water pumped from the aquifer. Serving water only by request in restaurants and encouraging residents to adopt a desert landscape are two steps the city has taken, he said.

Additionally the city is in the process of developing a water recharge program.

George Michael, Sierra Vista Public Works director, said the city is looking at the possibility of using storm water basins, check dams and infiltration galleries to maximize storm water recharge.

"Our objective is to increase the amount that is able to get into the ground, and thereby increase the amount that gets into the ground water system," said Michael, who added that the ground water problem "is not significant at all."

Even if the city and county officials were to immediately adopt an aggressive plan to save the river, it likely would be too late, MacNish said.

"The river probably can be saved, but it has to die first," he said.

MacNish said people will only act when they see that the river has already dried up.

"When the river goes dry, what are these people going to do?" he said.