The final days of Arizona's final free-flowing river

Jul. 16, 2006

Robin Silver is in the business of saving lives, which, as legacies go, is better than most. But it isn't enough. Not for him.

He also wants to save the planet, or at least one or two of its most beautiful spots, which happen to exist here in Arizona.

So when he isn't working as a physician, Silver heads up the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. I first spoke to him last July about a catastrophic event in our state that none of us noticed, and which we wouldn't have cared about even if we had.

For the first time in 75 years, stream flow in southern Arizona's San Pedro River had shrunk to zero. The 140-mile river flows north from Mexico into Arizona, passing east of Tucson and meandering to Sierra Vista.

It's the last free-flowing river in the Southwest and has been a source of life in the desert for thousands of years. The cottonwood, willow and mesquite trees along the riverbank provide shelter for 400 species of birds and other animals, as well as over 100 species of butterflies.

Imagine that. One hundred different kinds of butterflies.

The Nature Conservancy has called the San Pedro one of the "last great places" on Earth, but on July 5, 2005, the most sensitive stream flow gauge on the river registered zero. For a short stretch downstream of Sierra Vista, the river dried up.

At the time, Silver was hoping that the no-flow event would be a wake-up call for the politicians whom he says are allowing unchecked development to slowly kill one of the most lovely places on the planet.

Naturally, he was wrong.

Birds and butterflies rarely appear on the campaign contribution lists of political candidates. Unlike developers.

"I've been in this business a long time," he told me last week. "But our group (the center has 25,000 members) is not going away. We owe it to our children that rivers like the San Pedro be protected. It isn't just about preserving a beautiful spot, it's also about being wise not to squander the desert's most valuable resource: water."

Last week, Silver sent out a lengthy e-mail pointing out yet another catastrophic event in Arizona that none of us noticed, and which we wouldn't have cared about even if we had.

On June 29, a portion of the San Pedro dried up - again. It was the second time that such a thing had occurred in 75 years, and less than a year from the first time.

"We have had multiple 'proclamations' from different governors about how important the rivers are," he said. "But when it comes down to it, we just go along with the flow of development and don't protect the public trust."

Right now, he said the biggest threats to the San Pedro are new housing around Sierra Vista and the drain on resources from nearby Fort Huachuca.

"There are laws in place that, if they were enforced, would do much to solve this problem," Silver said. "It's all about restricting development based on water."

As with every other scientific debate, however, there are experts who will side with developers and with elected officials looking to expand their political base. They'll say the river is fine.

Still, Silver again is hoping that when a no-flow event that hasn't happened in 75 years happens again, that it will be a wake-up call. Again.

"To us, it seems like a slow process," he said. "It isn't. And shame on us if in a few decades the river is dry and someone has to tell people living in these developments to turn off their spigots."

Reach Montini at (602) 444-8978 or Read his blog at .


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