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PHOENIX — Arizona’s management of the San Pedro River, water rights and development went on trial here Monday.

But while attorneys for environmentalists, the federal government, a big development’s water company and the Arizona Department of Water Resources clashed over numerous legal points involving a 7,000-unit development in Sierra Vista, center stage went to the Superior Court judge hearing the case. Judge Crain McLennen of Maricopa County grilled the state and the attorney for the Pueblo del Sol Water Company, particularly, over key issues involving a 2012 state decision finding that the planned development has a legally adequate supply to serve its residents for the next 100 years.

The judge heard a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and environmentalists Robin Silver and Tricia Gerrodette challenging the water agency’s 2012 decision that if upheld would give the development its most crucial legal clearance.

At various times during the two-hour hearing, for instance, the judge pushed attorneys for the water company and the state over what would happen if the development were allowed to proceed, but then in 20 years its water supply was jeopardized if a separate court proceeding ruled that the river’s rights to water took priority over those of the development. At other times, he prodded the water company’s attorney to discuss the length of time it’s taking to settle that separate water rights case, which has been on the table since the late 1970s.

At stake in this potentially precedent-setting case is the future of the Tribute development, approved by Sierra Vista back in the middle 2000s at a location about four to six miles west of the San Pedro.

Environmentalists see this project’s pumping as a stake in the heart of the river, whose fate has been a public issue in the Sierra Vista area for 30 years. Homebuilders and local officials and residents, however, are concerned that an unfavorable ruling could not only jeopardize the future growth of Sierra Vista, but could threaten the state’s entire system for determining if there’s enough water for new development.

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