Sheltered in the shade of cottonwood trees flows the 150-mile-long San Pedro River, the last dam-free river in the American Southwest.
Yet, just a few miles away from the river’s edge lies another hub of life: Benson. The small city, with a population just over 5,000, is trying to build economic opportunities for residents.
Proposed development Villages at Vigneto could provide Benson just that, offering an expected residential community of 70,000 people.
Benson isn’t alone in its hopes to expand its business potential and population. Further down the river, the 7,000-home development Tribute has been proposed in Sierra Vista.
In the future, it may be easier for similar developments to be built in rural areas.
New legislation proposed by Arizona State Sen. Gail Griffin (R-Hereford) could loosen water requirements for new developments in rural counties.
But as new projects seek to break ground, environmentalists worry how the added population will affect the demand for the San Pedro River’s water in the future.
Biologically, the river is an irreplaceable riparian stronghold for the area with its finite water supply, according to Nicole Gillett, conservation advocate with the Tucson Audubon Society.
With more demand for water, what will happen to the river?
Since the Arizona Groundwater Management Code of 1980, certain areas of the state require new developments to demonstrate a sufficient water supply to sustain the development for at least 100 years. But, potential developments can’t always meet this mandatory adequacy requirement.
Griffin seeks to change this with her proposed legislation, which is currently being deliberated in the House after passing the Senate.
The bill, SB1515, aims to undo the mandatory adequacy requirement for some areas by allowing a county’s board of supervisors to vote to not readopt this provision. This could allow developers to build in these areas without having to prove future water adequacy.
According to Gillett, there has never been a comprehensive water quantity study done in Cochise County. She said the overall hydrologic knowledge of the San Pedro River is limited, and a study of this nature would require millions of dollars to conduct.
However, supporters say the bill would open up new economic opportunities for towns such as Benson and Sierra Vista.
Griffin declined to be interviewed for this story.
She proposed legislation similar to SB1515 two years ago, where it passed both the House and the Senate before it was vetoed by Gov. Doug Ducey.
Ducey based his 2016 decision stating he didn’t want to weaken the Groundwater Management Code.
“Many of us who were involved in that fight two years ago were very pleasantly surprised that the governor vetoed,” said Tricia Gerrodette, an environmental activist from Sierra Vista who been involved in San Pedro River-centered activism for nearly 15 years.
The likelihood of the bill’s passage may depend on other components of the bill, such as whether it includes some of the governor’s desired changes to water management. Gerrodette said she worries about “horse trading” boosting the bill’s chances for success.
If the bill does pass, it could change life for the river’s ecosystem.
Robert Weissler, president of Friends of the San Pedro River, said his main concern for the river’s future is how the water of the San Pedro will be replenished. He said it will become more challenging to compensate the net loss of water with unrestricted groundwater pumping.
“There is a deficit in water resources,” Weissler said. “This deficit adds up by pulling more water from the river.”
Weissler said the San Pedro River relies heavily on waterfront recharge from mountains and from washes. He said the overall natural recharge rate of the river is very slow and it is not replenishing the water at a steady enough pace.
Weissler said it could take decades for the effects of increased groundwater pumping to been seen at the surface level of the river.
“There are lots of threats to groundwater, and we need to use it very carefully,” Weissler said.
While Gerrodette said she doesn’t think the proposed legislation could affect the water supply for people in her lifetime, she does worry about the future of water for wildlife.
“If you’re only concerned with water for humans, there will be water for humans for quite some time, decades, maybe centuries: there’s a big aquifer, there’s a lot of water,” Gerrodette said. “Before you deplete an aquifer, the first thing you do is kill the river if there was one.”
And that’s where Gerrodette’s concern lies. Will the San Pedro River end up like the Santa Cruz River, which is now mostly dried up even though the aquifer around Tucson remains? The Santa Cruz now only flows occasionally, a fate Gerrodette fears for the San Pedro River.
Weissler said new developments must come up with a way to incorporate a renewable water supply. Places such as Sierra Vista are using reclaimed water to irrigate landscape and golf courses. Weissler said this could be a solution for replenishing the river’s water supply.
While Griffin’s bill could open up possibilities for new developments in rural areas, concerns over future water supply have dogged a major development already proposed in Benson.
Villages at Vigneto is created by Phoenix-based company El Dorado Holdings Inc. It’s set to add a “Tuscan territorial style” to Benson by creating “a new flavor of old-world styling,” according to the development’s website.
Vigneto’s master plan includes an 18-hole golf course, a fully equipped recreational center, nature parks and more, all at the foot of the Whetstone Mountains in the San Pedro River Valley, according to their final community master plan and development plan.
The plan states the development will use ground water wells for drinking water needs and will utilize reclaimed water for irrigation.
According to Gillett, there are already several unfinished developments in Benson. This has created empty parcels of land that El Dorado plans to use for Vigneto.
However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has suspended the water permit for the development, stating El Dorado needs to conduct further environmental studies before it can begin construction.
The Corps requires a Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 404 permit because the development will cross several washes, and this permit is the primary reason why the project has been put on hold, according to Weissler.
Gillett said all of the assessments could take up to several years to complete.
Benson will need to obtain another 100-year water adequacy report under current rules with the Arizona Department of Water Resource’s mandatory adequacy requirements. If Griffin’s bill passes, the county board of supervisors can vote to not renew these requirements.
“If they are not able to prove at least 100 years of water, the developers are not guaranteeing the future of the San Pedro River,” Gillett said.
She said the development does not account for the needed supply of groundwater for a city with thousands of new homes.
Weissler said El Dorado plans to pump groundwater from the San Pedro Watershed, which could affect water resources by depleting them.
This could ultimately impact the future of Benson’s economy, because both residents and businesses may become trapped in an area without water, according to Gillett.
But on the economic side, some local business owners see the potential for new customers from the development’s residents.
Benson resident Margaret Rose, who owns Magaly’s Mexican Restaurant and Pablo’s Steaks & More, is excited for new developments. Rose thinks retirees who may live in future developments could bring money to the town’s struggling economy.
“The only way this town is going to grow is to bring in people with money because there are no jobs,” said Rose, who has lived in Benson for over 20 years.
As for environmental concerns, Rose doesn’t think new developments will affect much and there is still plenty of wild land in the surrounding areas.
“This [development] is going to give us some life, that’s what I think,” Rose said.
Sharon Quarles, Benson local and co-owner of Quarles Art Gallery, said she is 100 percent behind new developments coming to the city.
Quarles, who is also the head ambassador of Benson’s Chamber of Commerce, sees the development as a positive way to improve and expand the local area.
“I’m always positive to improvement and expansion, and especially in small communities,” Quarles said.
One local business owner declined to be interviewed for this story in fear of possibly damaging her business’s reputation. She mentioned she was against the development because she had concerns of how it would impact Benson’s water resources in the future.
In Sierra Vista, the search for balance between development and water conservation continues through a lawsuit hinging on the development Tribute, which has been on hold since 2012.
For the past seven years, Gerrodette has been involved in a lawsuit with the Bureau of Land Management against the developers of Tribute, claiming that the state did not look at whether the development would impact the rights of the river.
Congress created a “federal reserved water right” for the San Pedro River to “fulfill its many purposes,” according to the case summary for Gerrodette’s lawsuit.
She said the federal government insists the state should include the water rights of the river when determining the availability of water, while the state does not do so, which creates a discrepancy as to what constitutes an adequate availability of water.
Gerrodette, Dr. Robin Silver and the Bureau of Land Management objected to the developer’s water application, which was then approved in 2013 by the ADWR.
Gerrodette, Silver and BLM then successfully filed a complaint against that decision, which was heard in Maricopa County Superior Court. The developers appealed that decision and the Arizona Court of Appeals vacated it, holding that the developers had “sufficiently established the legal availability of water,” but stating the ADWR did not take the river’s water rights into consideration, according to the case summary.
All parties of the lawsuit have filed a petition for review, which is now being heard in the Arizona State Supreme Court.
While Gerrodette’s case awaits a judge’s decision in Arizona Supreme Court and the future of Tribute is decided, Gerrodette sees a way Griffin’s proposed legislation could affect future disputes over other developments.
“As long as there’s a question about whether or not there’s adequate water, until that’s resolved by the court, they can’t build,” Gerrodette said. “But if we didn’t have mandatory adequacy, they could build while we were fighting in court.”
Over the past 23 years she has lived in Sierra Vista, Gerrodette said she has seen the town change the way it regards the San Pedro River.
She said the town is no longer “as openly hostile to the river as they were 20 years ago.” Still, she said, there is more work to be done.
“Sierra Vista still thinks it can solve the water issue and protect the river,” Gerrodette said. “I don’t think they’ve shown that, but they talk about it as though they have.”
Not all communities along the San Pedro are itching to grow. Further along the river lies the rural community of Cascabel, where residents of the area have voiced displeasure over potential developments like Villages at Vigneto.
Cascabel Conservation Association President Chris Eastoe said he is personally against Griffin’s proposed legislation, saying he doesn’t think the San Pedro River Valley has the water resources to support “a vastly growing population.”
However, he said it would take decades to see the effects in Cascabel if the bill is passed.
Already, Eastoe said, more water is leaving the aquifer that supplies water to Cascabel than is coming in. The base flow of the river from Benson to Cascabel is already too low to pass over the hard rock barrier in the river separating the two communities.
Adding more demands for groundwater upstream will drop the level of the water in the basin near Benson but may not affect Cascabel as much, Eastoe said.
In the meantime…
Activists continue to fight for the San Pedro River while the legislation is still under debate.
“The people who live on the San Pedro, almost any stretch of it, tend to be pretty protective of it,” Gerrodette said. “I think everybody along the river cares about the whole river because it is such important habitat. We all kind of band together whenever we can.”
Katie Caldwell and Ava Garcia are reporters for Arizona Sonora News Service, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.
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