The San Pedro River winds through Cochise County, Arizona. (Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management California)

Saving a Rare Plant and Rescuing a River

The fate of southern Arizona’s embattled San Pedro River could hinge on whether the government acts to protect the nearly extinct Arizona eryngo—and in doing so puts the brakes on groundwater pumping that’s draining the landscape.

A Leda Ministreak butterfly on an Arizona eryngo plant

Liz Makings via Flickr

A water pump draws groundwater in Tuscon.

Will Seberger/ZumaPress via Alamy Images

The San Pedro River near Palominas, Arizona

John Miller/Associated Press

Dried Arizona eryngo

Desert Botanical Garden Research and Conservation Center

Amid it all, the lovely Arizona eryngo lingers on the edge of extinction. Yue Li, a research scientist with the University of Arizona and the Arizona–Sonora Desert Museum, has studied the plant extensively. “The eryngo is unique in that it occupies only the toughest wetlands,” he says. “But it is also among the most vulnerable because the water tables are already on the margins. So the decline of the eryngo indicates that a certain type of wetland is disappearing. We know that’s happening over the entire Southwest because of what we’ve been doing—pumping water for our own needs.”

Still, Li isn’t convinced that listing the eryngo as endangered is the answer. He fears it might simply pit everyone with a stake in the river against one other, without ensuring the plant’s survival. “What we really need,” he says, “is the political will to restore this population.”

And the resolve to save its river home as well.

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