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Killing the San Pedro: Arizona's last free-flowing river at risk

On a bright spring day, the shimmering water of a river flows steadily through a clearing of cottonwood trees and tall green grasses.

Birds sing sweet melodies to each other in the trees but their songs are overpowered by the laughing and playful sounds of children along the bank of the river.

Teachers Timothy Kearney and Kathryn Herrin’s fifth grade class from Palominas Elementary School in Sierra Vista are holding their annual field trip to the San Pedro River.

Kids spend the day learning about and appreciating nature in this desert oasis. They learn to run various tests on the water quality, examine the unique patterns of the leaves and spend time writing haikus and poetry about the lush environment around them.

It’s a day of fun and appreciation for the last free flowing river in the American Southwest – the San Pedro.

Southern Arizona residents and hydrologists alike, question how long it will remain that way though. Located 46 miles downstream, a colossal housing development has been proposed that could cause the river and the groundwater that feeds the area to run dry.

The proposed Villages at Vigneto development is a huge “Tuscan-style” complex of 28,000 homes spanning 12,324 acres along the San Pedro River. Complete with an 18-hole golf course, recreation center, neighborhood parks, splash pads and nature trails, the development looks to reinvent the desert community of Benson.

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El Dorado Holdings Inc., the builder, intends for the Villages at Vigneto to be “inspired and influenced by its surroundings,” and “create a lifestyle made possible only by the unique characteristics of the local natural environment.” They intend to, “demonstrate how a properly designed community and the natural environment can coexist and benefit one another,” according to their submitted development plan.

A number of conservation groups, however, are concerned that this “lifestyle” will need more water than the “unique” natural environment can provide.

As listed in the Phoenix-based company’s final development plan, the group will pump groundwater from the San Pedro Watershed, a large aquifer that supplies water to the nearby towns such as Sierra Vista, Tombstone, Benson, Cascabel, Pomerene and St. David. Withdrawing groundwater for a new city of some 70,000 people could have significant long-term consequences.

Learning the land

The San Pedro River Valley is of great significance to Southern Arizona. Seen as a fertile and green oasis compared to the sea of Sonoran desert that surrounds it, it is home to countless wildlife species.

Unique wildlife and greenery is the result of the water that runs through the valley and what is stored in the aquifer beneath it.

The grandiose mountain ranges that flank the valley are crucial for the recharging of the aquifer’s water supply. Mostly coming from water runoff and melting snow in the spring, water can seep through the soil and sediment to replace water drawn out in local towns. The process takes time for water to make its way down to the lower aquifers hundreds of feet below.

“One way to look at an aquifer is as a storage mechanism, like a bank account,” said Jim Leenhouts, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. “The recharge to the aquifer, that’s what’s coming in from the rivers and mountains, is like your income. The withdrawals you take out, either from wells you pump or natural ground water flowing out of the basin, are all expenditures of your bank account. You don’t want your bank account going to zero. There tends to be huge consequences.”

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A member of the Cascabel Conservation Association explained in a recent letter to the Benson City Council that withdrawing from the nearby aquifer is normal, but it’s the execution that concerns nearby communities.

“The planned pumping will significantly increase the rate of depletion of the deeper aquifer beneath Benson and potentially other locations along the San Pedro River as well,” said Norm Meader, co-president of the Cascabel association. “Withdrawals from the deeper aquifer would more than double the current withdrawal.”

At that rate, the aquifer could see a groundwater decline of 200 feet – or more – within 100 years. Any recharge that could occur would be slow and restore only a fraction of what was lost.

A development with history

For years, developers have dreamed of building up the small town of Benson, Arizona, located a mere 49 miles southeast of Tucson.

In early 2004, the Whetstone Ranch development was preparing to break ground. The 8,200-acre complex consisted of 20,000 houses and was originally proposed for part of the property The Villages at Vigneto are set on now.

The owner, Whetstone Partners LLP, applied for a Section 404 permit that would allow them to alter the landscape near local water sources. The Clean Water Act requires the 404 permit if no other solutions are available for construction.

Issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, the land was evaluated back then and Whetstone Ranch was granted permission to change the contours of the land and fill in natural washes with excess dirt from the building.

The area might be more prone to flooding and polluted runoff into nearby water sources including the San Pedro as a result of the grading and contouring. The land was assessed in detail and done so with sustainability in mind for those 8,200 original acres.

In addition to that, the developer completed an environmental assessment and evaluated any threats that the project may have had on nearby animal species.

Everything was going smoothly until the 2008 economic depression hit. The Whetstone Ranch project and the land were sold off to El Dorado Holdings.

When the Villages at Vigneto was proposed by the new owner to the city of Benson in early 2015, the developer planned to operate off of the original Whetstone permits and environmental evaluations.

But those permits reflect a landscape much different than what is seen today.

Karen Fogas, director of the Tucson Audubon Society points out that the additional proposed acreage, “…were not evaluated by, nor included in, the 2006 Section 404 permit for Whetstone Ranch.”

The original Whetstone Ranch project covered 8,200 acres, which is 4,124 acres less than what the Villages at Vigneto plans to develop. As reflected in several of her letters to the City of Benson, the permits are more than 10 years old and do not accurately show the conditions of the land with the additional acreage.

The additional land, included in the Villages project, not only provides habitats and water resources for bountiful animal species, but it’s also home to the only wild jaguar in the U.S.

So far, El Dorado has shown no interest in taking the time to reevaluate the environmental impact on the land and make sure their building methods are healthy for the area, including the nearby San Pedro River.

Down the river

Flying over the desert landscape, the Yellow Billed Cuckoo, with its bright yellow beak and dark gray feathers looks down on the San Pedro River. Winding north, snake-like through the desert landscape, the river leaves a 140-mile trail of greenery and fertile soil, ideal for the cuckoo and the thousands of other North American birds that stop during their migrations.

Since the cuckoo was placed on the endangered species list, the river and the surrounding mesquite trees have provided a refuge for them.

Conservationists in the surrounding cities of Tucson, Cascabel, Fort Huachuca, and Sierra Vista are advocating for the birds and several other endangered species in the area.

“We’ve got one of the largest North American flyways for neotropical migratory birds,” said Mark Apel, a hydrologist at the University of Arizona.

“Nearly two-thirds of all North American bird species have been seen in the San Pedro River corridor. If you don’t have the water to support that riparian habitat, then you don’t have the birds.”

If the Villages are built with the proposed water pumping permissions, residents downstream ­– that is, north of Benson – believe it could have devastating results.

The Upper San Pedro Basin aquifer contains 19.2 billion gallons. The Villages at Vigneto wants to pump an additional 3.9 billion gallons a year on top of the estimated 7.1 billion gallons Benson already uses.

That’s the sum of an estimated 11 billion gallons taken annually from the aquifer. But, each year, seasonal rains and mountain runoffs recharge only 5.2 billion gallons.

The annual draw of water from the Benson subarea already exceeds its recharge rate by about 2.2 billion, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The proposed development could more than double that loss.

Leenhouts, the hydrologist with the Geological Survey, explains that the aquifer doesn’t have to be empty for the water to be inaccessible. Drops in water quality and availability will be felt long before the aquifer is completely dry.

Worst-case scenario, the aquifer could be depleted five years after the housing is developed.

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Additionally, in the last five years, Arizona has seen its’ drought worsen and finally declared an official shortage of water in early 2016.

In a letter to the U.S. Army Engineer District, Arizona Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva urged the team to reevaluate the project and consider the sensitivity of the area and its water supply.

“The San Pedro River Valley is perhaps one of the most environmentally sensitive landscapes in all of Arizona,” the Congressman’s letter said, “and should be treated as such through a thorough and detailed environmental analysis and inter-agency consultation to disclose, analyze, avoid, minimize and adequately mitigate for Vigneto’s environmental impacts.”

Members of the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance are afraid that history could repeat itself with the Benson development on the San Pedro.

The Santa Cruz River Basin has been heavily impacted by growth and development around Fort Huachuca. The water table there decreased by 1.4 feet every year between 1968 and 1986 because of severe pumping, which created a large cone of depression in the area, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

“The Lower San Pedro watershed is inextricably linked and affected by upstream activities,” said Anna Lands, director of the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance. “This important and unique desert river and its supporting watershed have earned international recognition for its significant biodiversity.”

In a letter addressed to the City of Benson, Lands implored that the areas downstream, that is, north of Benson, depend on the aquifer and river.

Planning at the watershed level and focusing on conservation is more important than building up the land, she wrote. In addition, we should all, “recognize that this endangered landscape offers future generations far more than another land and water base for exploitation of resources.”

Conservationists and bird watchers fear that if the development takes place in Benson, this could be the last generation to see the Yellow Billed Cuckoo and the thousands of other birds that fly over what was once a crucial desert water source.

Fighting for the future

On March 8, 2016, conservationists had grown tired of waiting for El Dorado to address environmental concerns.

Earthjustice, an environmental law group based in San Francisco, along with the Tucson Audubon Society, Maricopa Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Cascabel Conservation Association and the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance announced that they would sue to delay the plan until the water issue is resolved.

“This is a bigger development than the ones we’ve dealt with in the past, so it has the potential for much greater impacts on stream flows,” said Chris Eaton, an associate attorney for Earthjustice.

“If steps are not taken to protect the river from excessive human water use and ground pumping, we are going to lose a really impressive ecosystem.”

Included in the lawsuit are the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S Department of Fish and Wildlife for failing to consult with each other and for violations of the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

With the Army Corps of Engineers being one of only two permitting agencies, and because a Section 404 permit is required for the development to break ground, that permit is essentially the only federal link; meaning that government has jurisdiction and involvement said Matt Clark, a conservation analyst for the Tucson Audubon Society.

“Technically, laws should have required them to consult Fish and Wildlife; they shouldn’t have to be forced to. Those things should have already happened.”

Other Southern Arizona residents and groups are calling for another examination of the land and sub-terrain to be completed.

In a packed auditorium in Benson in September 2015, Hydrologists from the U.S Geological Survey answered the questions from a frustrated crowd.

When the project was first proposed, scientists and hydrologists spent years creating a report that reflected the sub-terrain of the property and another that showed how water flowed in the valley.

When the 2008 economic collapse happened and the Whetstone Ranch project was cancelled, federal budget cuts prevented a third report from being made which would have shown the relationship between the water and the terrain around it.

That relationship between water and terrain would allow developers and conservationists to fully understand how the area will be impacted by such a large project.

After receiving several vague explanations from the hydrologists, a frustrated audience member shouted, “I don’t know why you can’t answer these questions and agree that we are making decisions without knowing all of the information.”

To which lecturer Leenhouts had an honest reply that, “The work [reports] that was done, we did for the purpose of building a tool that would help with making decisions. Until that’s done, all the information I presented has usefulness to it but it’s not as useful as it could be.”

The issue has attracted increasing attention over the past 16 months, and residents along with various Arizona government officials seem to be divided.

In what Earthjustice is calling “one of the biggest and most impactful threats to stream flows,” they’ve seen, it’s unclear who will win in the coming months.

The wet and shady San Pedro River valley that Kearney uses to teach students to appreciate nature could turn into a history lesson on what once was.

In a final statement, Audubon’s Matt Clark echoes the thoughts of the opposition to the Villages at Vigneto project. “If we are going to have development, then it needs to be done very cautiously and carefully, especially in proximity to the San Pedro River since it’s a very sensitive area.

“If we treat the San Pedro River like we treated the Santa Cruz River, then there’s going to be a sad ending to this story.”

Correction: This story was originally published with an incorrect byline.


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1 comment on this story

1
10 comments
May 19, 2016, 5:52 pm
-0 +3

Once again common sense and the desire to preserve southern Arizona’s only running river are trampled under the feet of GREED.  The impact of 70,000 people will be devastating to the environment, on wildlife, and to the source of drinking water by so many towns. You can bet that these homes are high end, and their wealthy owners have no qualms about ruining one of Arizona’s most scenic places while they play golf.  Please get this stopped.

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