Tucson, Ariz. – The continued existence of the Southwest’s ecologically vital San Pedro River is under severe threat, environmental activists say, because of a rider to the FY 2004 Defense Authorization Act. The proposed new clause, the so-called “Renzi Rider,” would remove this vital wetland from federal protection and open the way for an explosion of military-industrial development in the San Pedro watershed. Unless decisive action is taken now, organizers say, North America stands to lose one of its most precious jewels.

The San Pedro is only about 140 miles long, originating just south of the U.S./Mexico border, near Cananea. It is one of just four rivers in North America that runs south to north.

Aside from this distinction, however, the San Pedro is of vital ecological importance to the entire continent. It is the last remaining wild, free-flowing river in the desert U.S. Its role as a wildlife corridor, particularly for bird migrations, cannot be overstated. Almost two-thirds of the bird diversity in the U.S. is supported by this river valley.

Around 100 species of birds breed in or near the San Pedro River, which provides a migratory and winter range corridor for an additional 250 species, annually hosting as many as 4 million migrating birds each year.

This little river is also home to more than 80 species of mammals, including the rare and elusive jaguar and coatimundi. It supports more than 65 species of reptiles and amphibians, and contains several fishes on the endangered list, including the spikedace and loach minnow.

The Renzi Rider to the FY 2004 Defense Authorization Act, named after Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), would effectively kill the San Pedro by removing the river from federal protection. The rider would also absolve the Fort Huachuca Army Base (located near Sierra Vista, Ariz.) of its current responsibility to limit all military-related water use of the San Pedro watershed to an agreed-upon maximum of 54 percent.

The rider has already passed the House, and the Defense Authorization Act is now being studied by the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, where differences between the two chambers’ appropriations bills are being worked out.

James Jordan can be reached at turnwind_az@yahoo.com