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County Yanks Letter Seeking Santa Cruz River Designation

August 5, 2008

By Tony Davis, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

Aug. 5–Pima County’s top public works official has retracted a letter he sent to a federal agency about protection of the Santa Cruz River after learning that he hadn’t had permission from the County Board of Supervisors to send it.

The letter — and the retraction — came less than a week after the supervisors ordered an audit of county staff for trying to oppose the feds on river protection issues without the board’s knowledge.

John Bernal sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers on July 23 asking it to approve a special designation that the Santa Cruz is an “interstate water,” making it eligible for federal protection under the Clean Water Act from the effects of developments and government road and flood control projects.

This designation would mean that the corps’ previous designation of the Santa Cruz as a navigable stream would be unnecessary, Bernal wrote. It would also be less likely to be overturned by a court challenge, wrote Bernal, deputy county administrator for public works.

But the next day, Board Chairman Richard Elias told the staff this letter needed rescinding because the supervisors hadn’t approved a resolution calling for this special designation as an interstate water, Elias said. County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry had asked the board to approve that resolution at its July 18 meeting, but the vote was postponed until today.

At that July 18 meeting, the board ordered an audit of county staff after internal county memos showed Bernal and his staff were arguing against the corps’ declaration of the Santa Cruz as navigable, without telling the board. The navigable declaration — which the corps has suspended for a 60-day review — would require that local governments and private developers get federal permits to build projects near any major tributary to the Santa Cruz.

Environmentalists are concerned that for legal reasons, the interstate water declaration could offer less protection against discharges of pollutants into river tributaries than a navigable designation.

At today’s meeting, the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection will ask the board to ask the Environmental Protection Agency to step in and declare the entire Santa Cruz navigable, from the Mexican border to where it drains into the Gila River in Pinal County.

“The EPA is the authority on the Clean Water Act,” said Carolyn Campbell, the coalition’s director. “Let’s cut to the chase and ask EPA to make a determination.”

Bernal said Monday he had thought that the board had approved Huckelberry’s recommendation to push for the special interstate water designation for the river and that when he checked with Huckelberry, the administrator agreed with Bernal.

–Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or tdavis@azstarnet.com

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