Interior warns USDA of water impacts from major south rim development

By Phil Taylor | 05/22/2015 01:28 PM EDT

Plans to build major commercial and residential complexes on the south rim of the Grand Canyon could imperil the park’s springs and undermine the United States’ conservation commitments under an international treaty, a top Interior Department official warned this month in a letter to the Agriculture Department.

The letter urges the Kaibab National Forest to take a close look at plans by Stilo Development Group, an Italian company, to build upscale hotels, a conference center, a spa and an American Indian cultural complex in addition to new houses and townhouses in Tusayan, Ariz., within a few miles of the park.

The forest last month began taking public input on proposed road and utility upgrades that would connect Tusayan to two inholdings to the east and the west, where the bulk of Stilo’s development would occur (Greenwire, April 27). While the Forest Service will not be permitting Stilo’s development itself, the town’s proposed right-of-way expansion through the forest is a prerequisite to the project.


"We believe the Forest Service’s environmental analysis should consider impacts, including cumulative impacts, beyond the immediate footprint of the right-of-way," Michael Bean, Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, wrote in the May 11 letter to Robert Bonnie, who is the Agriculture Department’s top official in charge of the Forest Service. "In particular, if the development taps into groundwater sources, it could present irretrievable loss in water resources and attendant biota associated with seeps and springs in the park."

Moreover, since neither Tusayan nor Stilo has identified where they will get water for the project, "it may be premature to begin an environmental analysis," Bean wrote.

The letter is a sign that concern over the development has risen to Interior’s top ranks. Grand Canyon officials have long opposed the plan, which the park estimates would roughly quadruple Tusayan’s water use within a decade.

Bean said the United States pledged to the international community to protect the Grand Canyon under the World Heritage Convention.

"The commitments made by the United States in signing the treaty are the responsibility of the entire federal government and thus every federal agency," he wrote.

Interior has received inquiries about Tusayan’s plans from the secretariat of the World Heritage Committee, which administers the convention, Bean said.

Forest Supervisor Michael Williams last month said the Kaibab is tentatively planning to conduct an environmental assessment, a level of review reserved for projects not anticipated to cause significant environmental harm. The agency could opt for a lengthier environmental impact statement, depending on the scoping comments.

Tusayan’s development blueprint calls for up to 2,176 residential units on Stilo’s Kotzin and TenX properties, in addition to other cultural and commercial properties.

Tusayan officials say the project will offer much-needed affordable housing to Tusayan’s 558 residents, the majority of whom work in its hotels and rent company-owned apartments, dorms or trailers and have little opportunity to set down roots.