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Lawsuit targets federal permit for development near San Pedro River

Another issue strongly related to the topic of the State's Drought Contingency Plan and the lawsuit related to the San Pedro River. I've yet to understand who the 28,000 people are that the developer thinks will move to Benson or where they will work. Sierra Vista? The Rita Ranch area? I just don't see it. It certainly would be devastating to the San Pedro River and would likely affect water availability for Fort Huachuca, Sierra Vista, and Cochise County farmers and ranchers. A link to the article is below as is the story in is entirety.

Environmental groups are challenging the federal government’s decision to grant a permit for a new development that would bring 28,000 homes and four golf courses to the Arizona desert near Benson.

The groups filed a lawsuit Thursday in federal District Court in Tucson, arguing the Army Corps of Engineers failed to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the environmental impacts of the development.

The conservation groups say groundwater pumping by the planned development threatens the San Pedro River and the wildlife that depends on it, and that the Corps violated federal law by refusing to analyze the effects of drawing down the water table.

“We really want to protect this area. It’s the last of its kind that’s left,” said Peter Else, who leads the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance. “This is something we need to do for future generations and not just allow developers to come in to turn a quick buck without studying the impacts.”

His group is suing along with others, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, the Tucson and Maricopa Audubon Society and the Cascabel Conservation Association.

Else said the river must be protected because it’s the last remaining intact river ecosystem in southern Arizona, and an oasis that supports millions of migratory birds.

“They want to build instant cities in the desert based on groundwater withdrawals, and we’re already pretty familiar with what happens to rivers when you do that,” Else said. “They’re attempting to bypass full analysis of the full development on a technicality, and so we’re taking them to court.”

Jay Field, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Los Angeles, said that as a matter of policy, the Corps doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

A representative of the Scottsdale-based developer, El Dorado Holdings, did not respond to a call and an email from The Arizona Republic requesting comment.

The development, called Villages at Vigneto, is proposed to cover about 12,000 acres. It is slated to include homes, a resort, commercial space and four golf courses.

Opponents say the project would deplete the aquifer, diminish the amount of water flowing in the San Pedro River, and suck marshes dry at St. David Cienega.

The groups are asking the court to invalidate the permit issued by the Corps and require the government to complete a more extensive environmental review.

“We are very concerned about the plight of Arizona rivers,” said Sandy Bahr, who leads the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“Our rivers and streams are threatened in so many ways, and river after river has been dried up through groundwater pumping, diversions, big developments," she said. "And our desert washes have been filled in and flattened, and they no longer can contribute to providing corridors for wildlife.”

When Bahr moved to Arizona years ago from Michigan and first saw the San Pedro River, she said she thought, “It’s a little stream.” But she soon learned it forms a vital oasis for birds and other wildlife.

“I just really feel like we have to do everything we can to protect it,” Bahr said. “You don’t always win in these efforts, but it is important to stand up and fight.”

The planned development would be large enough for about 70,000 new residents. It would rely entirely on groundwater, which also feeds the San Pedro.

Opponents of the development point out that when Congress created the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in 1988, it reserved federal water rights to protect the ecosystem.

The Corps of Engineers issued a dredge-and-fill permit that enables builders to fill in desert washes during construction. It’s known as a Section 404 permit, referring to a provision of the Clean Water Act that regulates the discharge of dredged or fill material into rivers, streams or wetlands.

The groups argue in the lawsuit that President Donald Trump’s administration should have analyzed the potential harm to the river and the conservation area as part of its analysis. They said the Corps should not have limited the review to a 1,919-acre portion of the proposed development.

Stu Gillespie, a lawyer with Earthjustice who is representing the groups, said the Corps didn’t look at what effects the pumping of 8,400 acre-feet of water per year would have on the river and the marshes.

“There is no rational basis for the Corps’ refusal to consider the full impacts of the Vigneto development,” Gillespie said in a statement. “This is a clear example of the Trump administration trying to game the system and shirk its duty to consider and disclose the impacts of its decisions.”

The San Pedro River is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest. It nourishes a rich variety of wildlife along its tree-shaded banks, from migratory birds to salamanders to bobcats.

Arizona’s groundwater law regulates pumping in parts of the state, including Phoenix and Tucson, to manage aquifers and prevent over-exploitation. But Benson and surrounding areas aren’t included in the nearest “active management area” under the state law.

In the lawsuit, the groups argue the proposed groundwater pumping “threatens the San Pedro River’s surface and subsurface flows, irreversibly degrading the River’s riparian habitat.”

The groups say in the suit that the Environmental Protection Agency “repeatedly directed the Corps to prepare a comprehensive analysis of the entire Vigneto development” but that instead the Corps’ officials prepared an incomplete assessment that ignored the effects on groundwater, the river and the wildlife habitat it supports.

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