Greens Fight Huge Development in Arizona

     TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — Environmental groups claim that a planned 28,000-home development in the small town of Benson, Arizona, will destroy the San Pedro River and the endangered species that rely on its rare habitat.
     One of the few wild and undammed rivers in Southwest, the San Pedro flows north from Mexico and passes Benson, a town with some 5,000 residents about an hour southeast of Tucson, before meeting up with the Gila River.
     The San Pedro supports a riparian forest of cottonwood and willow trees that provides a shady contrast to the surrounding desert scrub and grasslands. It is a haven for more than 80 species of mammals and 40 species of reptiles and amphibians, including a host of endangered species such as the jaguar, ocelot, Mexican garter snake and various migratory birds.
     Developer El Dorado Benson LLC is currently planning to build a large community near the river called The Villages at Vigneto, a 12,000-acre, 28,000-home development with golf courses, vineyards, resorts and a commercial corridor.
     While plans for the development are moving ahead, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Maricopa Audubon Society, Tucson Audubon, Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance, and the Cascabel Conservation Association challenged El Dorado’s Clean Water Act fill permit in Tucson Federal Court on Wednesday.
     The groups claim that the permit is out-of-date and want the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take a fresh look at how the project could violate the Endangered Species Act.
     The permit, issued by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2006, would allow the developer to fill in desert washes that feed and protect the San Pedro and its riparian habitat. But the environmental groups say that much has changed in the last decade, and that the current permit was issued to a different company that had planned a much smaller development.
     “Since the Corps issued the section 404 permit in 2006, Fish and Wildlife has listed new species and proposed and designated new critical habitats in the San Pedro watershed under the Endangered Species Act that may be affected by the activities the permit authorizes,” the groups say in their complaint. “Moreover, new scientific studies and observations of ESA-listed species reveal that actions taken under the permit may affect listed species and critical habitats in ways not previously considered. And the substantial increase in the development’s size may affect listed species or critical habitats in ways not previously considered.”
     El Dorado Benson’s Mike Reinbold said that the company is “complying with all local, state, and federal laws.”
     “We are not a party to the lawsuit,” he said. “We are proceeding with our development as planned.”
     As an important flyway for many migratory birds, the San Pedro is world-renowned for its birding opportunities.
     “It’s incredibly important,” Tucson Audubon Society executive director Karen Fogas said in an interview. “Of the roughly 900 species of North American birds, 45 percent of them will utilize the San Pedro riparian area in their lifetime. That’s huge, and has tremendous implications in terms of birds not just in our area, but throughout South, Central and North America.”
     Fogas said that the threats to the river are particularly acute because 95 percent of Arizona’s riparian habitat has disappeared.
     “We are talking about implications for the San Pedro that could create areas that without some artificial additive are just dry riverbeds, and wildlife cannot exist in that.”
     Many of Arizona’s rivers have been damaged over the years by groundwater pumping, dams and irrigation diversions.
     The Santa Cruz River, which runs through Tucson, is a dry scar of sand in which water flows only during the rainy season, and only for a short time.
     Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, said that her group wants to stop the San Pedro from suffering a similar fate.
     “In recent years we’ve seen more and more development along the San Pedro, and we know that the groundwater is connected to the surface water,” Bahr said in an interview. “It’s particularly important in sustaining the river during the driest part of year. We need that base flow and something like this development can rob the river of that precious base flow.”
     Also, the river in its current form draws tourists and their dollars to the area, Bahr said.
     “That’s one of the things we think that some of the policymakers missed,” she said. “They tend to always look at development — we need to have more and more and bigger and bigger development for economic reasons — and they don’t consider one of our biggest industries in Arizona is tourism. People come from all over the world to do wildlife viewing, particularly birding, along the San Pedro. It is a big part of the economic engine for the area.”
     The groups want the Corps and Fish and Wildlife to “complete the required consultation to evaluate the effects the development may have on the jaguar, ocelot, Western yellowbilled cuckoo, Southwestern willow flycatcher, lesser long-nosed bat, and Northern Mexican garter snake’s critical habitats, before any actions under the permit may be taken,” the lawsuit states.
     They claim that the development could swell Benson’s population to around 75,000 residents, which could increase pumping of the aquifer that feeds the San Pedro from about 800 acre-feet per year to some 13,000 acre-feet per year, possibly destroying the river’s natural flow.
     A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers says the Corps does not comment on pending litigation.
     Represented by Heidi McIntosh and Christopher Eaton of Earthjustice, the plaintiffs sued the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Corps commander of the Los Angeles district Col. Kirk E. Gibbs, and Benjamin Tuggle, regional director of the Southwest region of the Fish & Wildlife Service.
     The groups seek an injunction requiring the Corps and Fish and Wildlife to “reinitiate consultation on the section 404 permit.”

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