A wind energy transfer project slated for the San Pedro River Valley is on hold for now

By Alisa Reznick
Published: Tuesday, November 14, 2023 - 6:11pm

A wind energy project that dates back to the Obama administration is on hold now along a roughly 50-mile stretch in southern Arizona where a group of tribes and local communities oppose it. 

The SunZia Southwest Transmission Project is a 3,500-megawatt wind energy power line slated for 550 miles of public, federal and state land in New Mexico and Arizona. It began under former President Obama's administration and has been pushed forward by President Joe Biden's administration.

Peter Else, chairperson of the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance, says it would cut through delicate southern Arizona wilderness. 

"We’ve been mostly focused on the ecological impacts to 33 miles of the most remote and ecologically sensitive portions of the San Pedro Valley," he said. 

Conservationists hail the San Pedro as the last free-flowing river in the Southwest and a biological goldmine for birds and other wildlife. It begins across the border in Sonora and flows north through Arizona. Else's group and others are trying to get SunZia project to reroute away from the river valley.

San Pedro riparian area
Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management
The San Pedro Riparian Area, which contains about 40 miles of the upper San Pedro River.

This year, he filed suit against the Arizona Corporation Commission, or ACC, one of the regulatory bodies responsible for green-lighting the project. His suit argues the its scope and details have changed since getting ACC approval in 2016.

"The only reason it got that approval is that SunZia at the time claimed there were going to be grid benefits for the state of Arizona," he said. "We're going to have this very expensive form of renewable energy being imported into our state, with the primary market not even being in our state, it being in California, where the average retail price of electricity is twice what it currently is in Arizona."

The Bureau of Land Management has put a temporary hold on a 50-mile stretch of construction that encompasses the river valley this month at the request of Tohono O’odham Chairman Verlon Jose, who says the plan would cut through sensitive cultural areas and burial sites. The San Carlos Apache, Zuni and Hopi tribes have expressed similar concerns over construction there. Tribal leaders are meeting with Department of Interior personnel this week to discuss what's next.