Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why We Need You Now More Than Ever

Storytelling and Poetry on the San Pedro
Address by Karen Fogas, Executive Director
Singing Wind Bookshop, Benson, AZ | June 12, 2016

What do you think when you see this photo?

The first time I saw this sign, I did a double take. Attractive as it is, it reflects nothing I’ve encountered on the Santa Cruz. Was it someone’s wishful thinking? Someone’s idea of a bad joke? Delusion? A part of me grieves every single time I go by it.

Outside interests are working to turn the abundant, vibrant San Pedro River, the Southwest’s last major free-flowing river, into the same caricature that is illustrated here.

This is a description of the San Pedro River valley, as Coronado experienced it in 1540:

…At that time the climax grasses were so luxuriant as to hide a man on horseback; the now deep, shifting river channel and its affluents were an almost continuous, broad marsh; thousands of beavers saw to that. The relatively few mesquites and catclaws were confined to the first bench above the willows and baccharis, which is their normal habitat. ….the Sonora otter enjoyed its slide; antelope, black-tailed and white-tailed deer, elk, wild turkey, quails, and other game were abundant in this land of the Apache….During migration time great swarms of waterfowl, shorebirds and other transients winnowed the air along this flyway, while the gaudy Avocet and Black-necked Stilt remained to scream above their nests in the long valley where flowed the placid San Pedro.

                                                               ~ Herbert Brandt, Arizona and its Bird Life

Lower San Pedro River. Matt Griffiths

The lush river valley, with its tall grasses, the river work of thousands of beavers and its abundance of wildlife might well describe a foreign landscape when compared to the San Pedro we know today. A century or more of ranching, groundwater mining and development have significantly impacted this last major, free-flowing southwest river. And the potential to have a future description equally jarring in its contrast is occurring right now.

The pressures on the San Pedro are daunting. Major power lines, mining and development loom large. Literally. The Villages at Vigneto promises another 70,000 people added to Benson’s population of about 5,000. The Villages development is to be modeled after Tuscany, with its approximately 36” of rainfall per year, or 3” per month. How does that reconcile in an environment that receives less than 12” annually?

At stake is the future of what is arguably one of the single most important biological features in the arid Southwest. Unlike the highly degraded Santa Cruz River, which has been dewatered and deforested by decades of unsustainable groundwater withdrawal, there is currently enough surface flow to keep the San Pedro’s vital riparian forests alive. These forests are critical to the estimated four million birds that utilize them as a migration stopover; some traveling as many as 5,000 miles. Imagine traveling thousands of miles – you’re literally out of gas and you arrive to find nothing to eat or drink. Other species require healthy, abundant riparian forests to nest and reproduce.

That the San Pedro River serves as such a valuable resource is due in large part to its remarkably intact riparian system that supports extensive stands of cottonwood, willow and large mesquite bosques. These increasingly rare riparian forests rely upon the maintenance of surface and subsurface flows of water. As the Santa Cruz River’s history warns us, these crucial flows and the forests they support are readily put at risk by developments that cannot be sustained in such an arid environment. However, major new development and an increasingly hotter and drier climate threaten to rob the San Pedro of its most crucial ingredient: water.

De-watered and unvegetated Santa Cruz River

The nearby Santa Cruz River stands as a cautionary tale, a tale actually captured in a book called “A Requiem for the Santa Cruz.”— The Santa Cruz has been sucked dry by decades of unsustainable groundwater mining, resulting in the significant loss of nesting and migratory habitats. Unless we write a different story for the San Pedro River, it will join the list of dry riverbeds, with little to offer birds and wildlife.

And yet, as alarming as the future of the San Pedro may well be, it is emblematic of an even bigger problem. The public does not understand the history of water in this state, and as a result naively accepts actions that will irrevocably – and significantly – change this area for humans, birds and wildlife. There is not an inexhaustible supply of water, as those who would exploit it for short term gain would have us believe. History reveals this over and over in documented, dramatic changes to the landscape.

We must change the conversation about water to rewrite the story for precious resources like the San Pedro. A little more than a year ago the Tucson Audubon Society changed the conversation regarding the Villages at Vigneto, by intervening to ask that the Army Corp of Engineers consult with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, consider new hydrological information and evaluate the significantly larger plan for development. Having called attention to this impending development debacle, numerous entities joined in the fight, including our friends from Earth Justice, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Cascabel Conservation Association, Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance, Maricopa Audubon Society.

Tucson Audubon intends to change the conversation about water in our region not only by acting to intervene, as we did with the Villages at Vigneto and on numerous other conservation issues threatening birds and bird habitat, but also by endeavoring to shape policy and conduct broad public education. We must change how people view our fragile riparian systems. Only by doing so can we change the outcome for precious resources like the San Pedro. With the investment of supporters, we can change how people value what remains of our fragile, incredibly biologically diverse and important riparian areas, 95% of which have vanished.

Author, poet, activist, landowner, book lover, parent, grandparent, whomever….You came today because you care about the beautiful, fragile, last free-flowing desert river called the San Pedro. I hope you will leave with a new awareness of the region’s water challenges, as evidenced by what is happening here, today, with the San Pedro under more threat that she can bear.

I ask you to support us. Work with us. In whatever capacity you can – member, donor, volunteer – or all three! We are connected to this river, and its wealth of wildlife, including birds. We cannot allow the story that is written to be “A Requiem for the San Pedro.”

Donate today to support Tucson Audubon's work on behalf of the San Pedro River

San Pedro rainbow. Ariana La Porte

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