Italian group’s upscale proposal raises water worries

Controversy has also greeted plans for a different proposed commercial development, just south of the Grand Canyon.

That development, slated for the Grand Canyon gateway community of Tusayan, Ariz., is a project of the Italian Stilo Development Group. It includes 3 million square feet of commercial space – featuring highend stores, fancy hotels, condos, a concert pavilion, spa, a Western dude ranch and Native American cultural fair – along with hundreds of homes at a mix of prices, meant partly for local workers.

Some of the strongest opposition has come from a highly active contingent of Tusayan-based activists. A March 13 recall election was directed against the Tusayan mayor and a city-council member accused of improper ties with the Italian company that’s behind it; they both kept their seats. Attorneys for a Tusayan citizens’ group fought unsuccessfully to keep a referendum on the ballot in May that could have reversed the city-council zoning approvals that paved the way for the development.

Officials at Grand Canyon National Park have also gone public with their wariness about potential impacts to Grand Canyon’s South Rim, just six miles away. And members of the Havasupai Tribe living in the bottom of the Grand Canyon – and downstream of the proposed development – say they’re opposed because of potential impacts to their water supply.

Havasupai water comes from the Colorado River, wells sunk into the Redwall-Muav aquifer, and seeps and springs that also flow out of the aquifer. It’s a huge aquifer, which supplies wells in Tusayan and other communities bordering the South Rim, as well as several uranium mines.

A 2004 USGS study of seeps and springs emanating from the Redwall-Muav aquifer suggests that any groundwater withdrawals at Tusayan will diminish spring and seep flows at some level and at some time, but it couldn’t nail down specifics due to the aquifer’s complexity.

For Havasupai Tribal Chairman Don E. Watahomigie, any threat to springs is unacceptable. He worries that the development will “deplete the springs that wildlife need. It would deplete the water that flows through the village down here.”

Matthew Putesoy Sr., the tribal vice chairman, added that water flowing from springs is used ceremoniously for purification during sweat lodges, as well as traditionally for irrigation.

And tribal council member Eva Kissoon pointed out that water from the Redwall aquifer helps feed the five picturesque waterfalls are the mainstay of tourism in Havasupai Canyon.

“This is our main economic force for our survival down here,” she said.

Tom DePaolo, director of North American operations for the Stilo Group, says the process to place a development in Tusayan actually began in 1991, with the original concept of Canyon Forest Village. “All through the 1990s, there was an amazingly comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement with the Forest Service, the park, the county and other stakeholders. There were nine environmental groups.”

At the time, the Stilo group had arranged for contracts to withdraw water from the Central Arizona Project – a pipeline that carries Colorado River Water to southern Arizona – and transport it by train from Phoenix to Tusayan.

“We spent nine years working with the environmental community, agencies and tribes,” he said. “We had letters of support from 21 chapters on the Navajo Nation. I probably hiked down to Supai 25 times, and we had a letter from them endorsing the project.”

Regardless, when a handful of Tusayan residents and business owners rallied to defeat the proposal – and won – everything stopped, DePaolo said. Without local approval, approximately $10 million spent on outreach and partnership-building went down the tubes.

So this time around, the Stilo Group has held off on public relations until later in the game.

Earlier this year, the Stilo group sued to keep the referendum off the ballot; they argued that the referenda were flawed because opponents did not properly register their political committee. A Coconino County Superior Court Judge agreed with them. The opponents appealed, but the appeals court sided with Stilo in late March.

Only now, following the judge’s March decision, is DePaolo restarting talks with his former allies.

In May, he said, his group held a meeting with the Forest Service to kick off environmental review. They’re interviewing environmental consultants. And they’re within days of forming a limited liability corporation with a company that specializes in water-resource development.

“We’re still working on the pipeline alternative,” DePaolo said. “I don’t think we’re near where we need to be to say we’re absolutely gong to be able to do it. We are committed to an alternative that doesn’t involve groundwater.”

From June 2012.