The San Pedro River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest and an oasis for hundreds of species of migratory birds, could be seriously depleted if Congress agrees to exempt a nearby military installation from water restrictions.
Pushing for the exemption at Ft. Huachuca is Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), whose father is an executive at a firm with contracts worth more than $450 million at the post.
Renzi's measure, in the form of an amendment to the defense authorization bill, would exempt Ft. Huachuca from responsibility for maintaining water levels in the San Pedro River as called for in an agreement made last year with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The House recently approved the exemption despite opposition from Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat. The state's senior senator, Republican John McCain, said last week that he too opposes the exemption.
The bill with the amendment attached is in a House-Senate conference.
The proposed exemption would allow the post 70 miles southeast of Tucson to use more water and to expand. Critics say that would benefit private sector contractors.
Renzi's father is retired Maj. Gen. Eugene Renzi, executive vice president with ManTech, a Virginia-based defense contractor that provides communications and information technology networks to Ft. Huachuca.
The company, which has an office in Sierra Vista, Ariz., was also the largest contributor to Renzi's 2002 congressional campaign. The company has more than $1 billion in pending contracts at the base.
Gary Ruskin of the nonprofit Congressional Accountability Project said Rep. Renzi's provision needlessly opened him to ethical questions.
"This isn't rocket science. It is a clear conflict of interest," Ruskin said. "It is utterly mystifying why he would not have some other Arizona member pick this up."
The freshman congressman championed the amendment at the behest of Rep. Jim Kolbe, (R-Ariz.), who represents the district and who himself unsuccessfully introduced the measure last year.
Renzi scoffed at the conflict-of-interest claims, saying: "ManTech will do fine. They don't need a congressman helping them."
Phone calls to ManTech's headquarters were not returned.
The San Pedro River, which flows north from Mexico for 140 miles, is a rarity in the arid Southwest -- an undammed river that supports an array of plants and animals, particularly birds. Scientists estimate that at least half the bird species in North America use the San Pedro area at some point. A portion of the river has been set aside as a National Conservation Area.
In an accord reached last year with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army agreed that its presence as the second-largest employer in the region made it responsible for 54% of the area's water use. The rationale for the agreement is that, although the post itself doesn't use all of the water, many nearby businesses that consume water would not be operating if not for Ft. Huachuca.
"We certainly have a concern that if our agreement with Ft. Huachuca is not in place, the San Pedro could dry up," said Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Arizona.
Renzi, who calls his amendment the Fort Huachuca Preservation Act, said that the agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service is onerous and that regardless of the post's role in the region, it should not be held responsible for water used by others. He called the biological opinion that was the basis for the agreement between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army "faulty science," and said "the guy who wrote it pulled it out of thin air."
The document's author, Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Doug Duncan, said all of the scientific information contained in the opinion was provided by Ft. Huachuca.
"They proposed all their conservation measures," Duncan said. "It's not something we forced on the fort."
The fort, which has not taken a position on Renzi's amendment, has been praised for its management of sensitive bird habitat and has won awards for its efforts to curb water use.
The proposed amendment comes amid efforts by the Department of Defense to weaken numerous environmental regulations at military bases around the country on the grounds that the regulations impede military readiness.
However, Renzi has not said that military preparedness is an issue at Ft. Huachuca.
Lori Faeth, Gov. Napolitano's policy advisor for natural resources and the environment, said the state opposes the amendment because local groups are already working to lessen water use.
"The problem with Congressman Renzi's approach is that it puts people in the position that they feel they have to choose either the fort or the river," Faeth said.
To conservationists in the area, the amendment presents a more dire threat to the San Pedro River than the state's six-year drought.
"The effects of Renzi's actions are not debatable," said Robin Silver of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. "If his efforts are successful, we lose the San Pedro River. It's that simple."