Developing the Desert

Arizona activists oppose new 12,000-acre Benson development

The San Pedro River in Arizona, the "last undammed desert river in the American Southwest." (Bureau of Land Management/Flickr)

The town of Benson in southeastern Arizona is set to acquire another Tuscan-style housing development, golf courses and all, made possible in the wake of the Trump administration’s repeal of the 2015 “Waters of the U.S” act. The new development would be within arm’s reach of the San Pedro River, a body of water vital to the state’s desert ecosystem, and currently threatened by rising temperatures and a lowering water table. 

Mike Reinbold is the man behind this master plan, a lead developer at El Dorado Benson LLC. While he insists that the 12,000-acre, 28,000-home development will have no effect on the region’s water supply, environmental groups are poised to sue. Benson currently has a population of about 5,000 people, sprinkled around a landscape of open, rolling hills and brush on the banks of the San Pedro. The proposed development, called Villages at Vigneto, promises to “dredge-and-fill” the site to reach a population target of 70,000. 

Yet the most potentially effective piece of legislation to block construction is set to be obsolete as early as January 2020. Reinbold is optimistic about the repeal, telling The Arizona Republic that, “If there’s no ‘Waters of the U.S.,’ by default, you don’t need a permit. Thereby, the permit is no longer needed and is no longer valid. It gets put on a shelf.”

El Dorado Benson has amassed a coalition to fight for his interests, a politically connected group that includes Vice Mayor Joe Konrad, who spoke at a news conference for the newly organized Southwestern Communities Coalition.

“We’re here to join together as a united force, to push back against the outsiders, who will pretty much stop at nothing to impose their agenda upon us. We will stand against the evil that masquerades as environmental activism.” 

However, local environmentalists are ready for a fight, as they have been working to block development in this particular community since 2006 when a permit was first acquired by a previous developer. Robin Silver, cofounder of Tucson’s Center for Biological Diversity, commented on the loosening of the Clean Water Act, saying, “Under the guise of private property rights, they think that they can go ahead and destroy public treasure. We’re losing the San Pedro, and there’s no federal advocacy to help us.”

Called ‘The Center’ for short, it is just one group involved in the battle. Other organizations including the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance, the Sierra Club, the Tucson and Maricopa Audubon Society, and the Cascabel Conservation Association have pledged their support to conserve the public lands and groundwater supply. While these organizations have been labeled “fearmonger activists” by Konrad, the resounding voice is simply summed up by Silver: “When you’ve got a gigantic development, you have to look at all of the effects.” 

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