Corps grants Vigneto permit again

Some parts of the San Pedro River experience low flow or no flow depending on the time of the year. A recently-issued permit allows El Dorado Holdings, LLC, to disturb 51 acres of washes and discharge dredged and fill material into the river.

BISBEE — U.S Fish and Wildlife (FWS) determined there will be no significant impact on endangered species, so the Army Corps of Engineers (COE) reissued a 404 permit allowing El Dorado Holdings, LLC, to proceed on the planned 12,167-acre development, Villages at Vigneto in Benson.

The permit allows El Dorado Holdings, LLC, to disturb 51 acres of washes and discharge dredged and fill material into rivers, streams and wetlands, in this instance the San Pedro River.

The 404 permit was revoked and reissued by the COE a number of times as conservation organizations sought a ruling to order an environmental impact study be done due to its proximity to the San Pedro River, expected groundwater pumping and the possible disruption to endangered and threatened species, like yellow-billed cuckoo and Southwestern willow flycatcher.

The decision was made after a recent review by a California–based FWS staff member Dave Humphry, supervisor of FWS Arizona Ecological Services Office, who said the development would have “no significant impact” on the river or the endangered or threatened species.

He informed David Castanon, COE chief of the regulatory division, of the finding and gave Castanon permission to reissue the 404-permit.

Stu Gillespie, attorney for EarthJustice, is representing Cascabel Conservation Association, Tucson and Maricopa Audubon Societies, Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club. He argued the FWS and COE failed to analyze the impact on the aquifer and the drawdown potential of 70,000 residents living in Villages at Vigneto, over the 20–year build out plan.

“The Corps had an opportunity to fix the fatal flaws in its decision,” Gillespie said. “Yet, it refused to do so. Instead, it hastily reissued the permit by evading public review, burying its head in the sand, and ignoring the devastating impacts of the Vigneto development on the San Pedro River.”

Changing the opinion

Intensity mounted when now-retired FWS supervisor Steve Spangle claimed he was asked to change his original opinion.

Back in 2016 he noted, “On the information provided, and a site visit with you, your staff and representatives from WestLand Resources, Inc., we do not concur with your determination that the proposed action may affect, but not likely to affect, these species and their respective proposed critical habitat.”

Spangle alleged a Department of the Interior (DOI) attorney strongly recommended he change his opinion and he did. Later, after he retired, he came forward as a whistleblower.

In an interview in July, Spangle questioned the logic of the FWS and COE. He could not understand why anyone would believe a development with 70,000 people would not affect the aquifer and the San Pedro River.

“Such a displacement of groundwater from the aquifer is likely to reduce flow in the San Pedro River in reaches designated as critical habitat of the southwestern willow flycatcher, the yellow-billed cuckoo and the northern Mexican gartersnake,” he said.

When U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, heard about Spangle’s revelations and of the contact made between El Dorado’s CEO Mike Ingram and the now-head of the DOI David Bernhardt, he decided to investigate the meeting and Ingram’s contribution to Republican campaigns.

Tucson Audubon Society stated the development “causes serious concern over the project’s potential to negatively impact a bird migration corridor of hemispheric importance, habitat for numerous sensitive species, vital conservation mitigation lands, the wet cave system of Kartchner Caverns State Park, and the sustainability of human communities in the San Pedro River Valley. And significantly, water from this fragile desert river, already tenuous due to groundwater pumping, long-term drought and climate change, supports the San Pedro River Global Important Bird Area and the first-ever designated Riparian National Conservation Area.”

A larger footprint

Tucson Audubon rationalized its request for review since the development as proposed calls for a 50 percent larger footprint than was originally permitted for Whetstone Ranch.

“We have asked the Corps to consider new information that has become available since the permit was issued in 2006. We have also requested that a full environmental impact study be conducted and for the Corps to initiate consultation with FWS regarding potential impacts to threatened and endangered species and migratory birds,” Tucson Audubon concluded.

Robin Silver, one of the founders of the Center for Biodiversity, responded to the ruling with a statement. “The effects of Vigneto will be occurring off Vigneto lands. Impacts will occur because Vigneto’s groundwater pumping will lower the water levels to a degree that will contribute to the drying up of the St. David Cienega. Cienega habitat is very rare in the arid Southwest. The drawdown of the aquifer will likely lead to significant, irreparable harm to the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.”

Audubon member Tricia Gerrodette remembered there was a jaguar sighting and documentation in the Whetstones near the development.

“I doubt if there could be proof of it having set foot on Vigneto lands, since there are no trail cameras and little possibility for capturing footprints. But, Yellow-billed Cuckoos have been documented,” she said.

She definitely sees a problem for the St. David Cienega. “As long as a wetland is created by groundwater upwelling, dropping the groundwater level will put them at risk and they will eventually dry up.”

Gillespie said he will continue to fight the permit on behalf of his clients.

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