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Judge rules against Sierra Vista development

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A judge delivered a setback Tuesday to a giant development in Sierra Vista, siding with conservationists who say the project lacks a sustainable water supply.

The ruling by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Crane McClennen reversed a 2013 decision by the Arizona Department of Water Resources that found there is enough ground water from the San Pedro River basin to sustain 7,000 new homes and offices in Sierra Vista for at least 100 years.

Conservationists said Tuesday's ruling is an important victory in their fight to preserve the San Pedro River, a crucial front in the battle over water in southern Arizona.

"It is a victory for the San Pedro River because the court recognized the importance of protecting the Bureau of Land Management's rights in the San Pedro River. It's one of the last free-flowing rivers in the American West. It's a real biological hotspot in the country," said Heidi McIntosh, an attorney for Earthjustice.

Earthjustice appealed the Department of Water Resources' April 2013 finding, saying it did not take into account a decades-old legal battle over San Pedro River water rights and also failed to acknowledge that groundwater pumping could affect the flow of the waterway.

Water conservationists argued that groundwater pumping proposed by Pueblo Del Sol Water Co. for the planned development, called Tribute, would capture groundwater that otherwise would flow to the San Pedro.

A spokeswoman for the water agency said attorneys were reviewing the ruling and could not yet comment.

Rick Coffman, of Castle & Cook, the project's developer, did not return calls seeking comment. He has said in the past that the project's wells will run very deep and will tap water unrelated to the river.

The Department of Water Resources argued it was not legally required to consider whether the development's proposed groundwater pumping could have adverse effect on the river.

"The problem is that the Department of Water Resources wouldn't consider the issue at all and ruled as if the groundwater use had no impact on the San Pedro River. And the ruling found that's not true. The ADWR has to take that in consideration," McIntosh said.

If developed, Tribute would consume 4,900 acre-feet annually, which would increase the basin's pumping by 30 percent. One acre-foot is about what two households use in a year.

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