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House development challenges Benson, San Pedro River

This photo, from the Villages at Veneto Master Plan, shows where the proposed development would be built. Photo by: El Dorado Holdings, LLC.

BENSON — The future of the 70,000-person residential community Villages at Vigneto lives or dies on a single decision by the Army Corps of Engineers, potentially dooming the San Pedro River or reversing the fortunes of Benson. 

However, not a single person lives in the community, because it doesn’t exist just yet and the San Pedro and Benson are dependent on one big “if.”

That “if” reaches much farther than the just the city limits or banks of the river, as this development south of Benson would make it the largest city in Cochise County and transform the area from a sleepy, rural county to Arizona’s newest housing goldmine. For those who see a change in fortune, it is a huge boon. For those who appreciate the status quo, it’s a travesty.

The crux of the issue lies underground. The proposed community would add a not-inconsiderable number of water users to the current system in Benson. Environmentalists say that doing so will deprive the San Pedro River of water both above and below the ground, drying up Arizona’s last undammed river.

“If you start pulling out a whole lot of water up here, you’re intercepting water that would go under Benson and in the future, it’s going to diminish the water supply going to Benson,” Dr. Chris Eastoe, hydrologist at the University of Arizona said. “What we really can’t tell without doing some really good modeling studies is how long it might take for that to happen.”

 The Corps suspended the water permit for the Villages at Vigneto while deliberating on whether the developer, El Dorado Holdings, LLC., needs to undertake further environmental studies before it can break ground. Doing so would set the development back several years to reassess the impact of the development on habitats, water resources, and other factors.

“I can’t tell you if it would take 50 years or 100 years or a thousand, but there will be some effect,” Eastoe said. “If they run out of water, they run out of town, and that’s all there is to it.”

Those fighting against the Villages at Vigneto have rallied around the San Pedro River that snakes through Benson, stressing that the development would irreparably damage a waterway that is home to hundreds of species of migratory birds and other animals. Sierra Vista resident Tricia Gerrodette has been on the forefront of the fight to defend the river.

Cottonwood trees thrive in riparian zones like the San Pedro River. Groves of cottonwoods depend on annual flow that is easily disrupted. Photo by: Erik Kolsrud / Arizona Sonora News

“It’s a huge development and it wouldn’t be easy to put in that many people without some impact,” Gerrodette said. “It seems pretty certain that drying it up on the south side would have some impact on the lower flow. That just seems kind of obvious.”

The plan is for the construction to occur in phases over a 20-25 year period. Those 70,000 people are a projection for completion and would not all be coming at once. There will be 28,000 homes built, and the master plan calls for water-saving measures like efficient faucets, toilets, xeriscaping and water fields with effluent water.

Nobody is sure how long it will take for an effect to materialize, if it does – there’s no word on when the Army Corps of Engineers will reach a decision, either. For now, that “if” has left a town and a river in limbo.

Erik Kolsrud is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at ekolsrud@email.arizona.edu

Click here for high resolution photos.

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