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Arizona Sides With Developer In River Water Use Dispute

AP Photo/Matt York, File

A proposed housing development that opponents say will dry out one of the Southwest's only free-flowing rivers can take shape after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the developer has proved it has sufficient long-term water supply.

But plaintiffs in the long-standing lawsuit against the Pueblo Del Sol Water Company over its proposed 7,000-home development plan to take the case to federal court.

The project is planned on roughly 2,000 acres (809 hectares) in Sierra Vista, about 5 miles (8 miles) from the San Pedro River, which flows north from Sonora, Mexico, for 130 miles (209 kilometers) to the Gila River. The water resources department approved a permit for the Pueblo Del Sol Water Company in 2013.

The ruling by the state's highest court means that project and other developments can go forward.

"I'm delighted for us and for Sierra Vista. We're not the enemy. We care about the river, we've been working for many years to make sure we do the right thing," said Rick Coffman, senior vice president of Castle and Cook, the development company, which shares an owner with the water company.

Robin Silver, one of the environmentalists who sued, predicted that the ruling would mean the depletion of the river, which is a critical habitat for millions of birds and is home to over 80 species of animals. The San Pedro riparian area, which includes about 40 miles (64 kilometers) of the upper part of the river, is a designated national conservation area.

"It says that the Arizona Supreme Court doesn't care about federal water and now the state of Arizona can just do what it does which is work through developers without impediment," Silver said.

Silver argued that groundwater pumping near the river will deplete it, and that doing so would violate the federal government's unquantified water rights. The Bureau of Land Management was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

But Pueblo del Sol met its burden in proving that water would be "continuously, legally, and physically available," the court ruled.

"From the perspective of state control over water resources, this opinion has the potential of being enormously damaging," said Robert Glennon, a water rights expert and professor at the University of Arizona who filed a brief supporting the plaintiffs.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement that it was reviewing the decision "to determine appropriate next steps."

Tom Buschatzke, the director of the state water resources department, said he was pleased with the court's decision and that it gives him confidence in his analysis of the water supply.