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.”