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Park Service to Tusayan: Where is the water?

Park Service to Tusayan: Where is the water?

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This week, Grand Canyon National Park officials again weighed in on the tiny town of Tusayan’s near-complete general plan.

Their main question: Where will the water come from?

An Italian mega-developer wants to build thousands of homes in the Grand Canyon gateway community. Town officials see the development as necessary to provide housing and home-buying opportunities to its mostly seasonal workers.

The town plan includes 142 acres of commercial development, 1,874 multi-family dwellings, 534 single-family dwellings and 300 dorm units. They also want a water park and a cultural center, among other things.

As the public comment period closed, the Park Service told town officials they should be upfront with where the water for such development will come from. Stilo has been tight-lipped about where they might get the water to fuel their project and the general plan doesn’t address it either.

Tusayan Town Manager Will Wright says that staff is now taking the time to review and consider the lengthy materials and remarks submitted by the Park Service. They will again delay a final vote on the long-debated plan. But, Wright says his town can’t predict what sources of water might be available to developers, so they shouldn’t constrain themselves.

“I told them that the general plan, especially for a community our size, doesn’t require a water element at all,” Wright said. “There is discussion about water, but any actual development when it’s submitted will have to provide that info, which will be part of the approval process.”

The Park Service ran the math for Tusayan, which the planners didn’t do in their general plan. Tusayan is currently using 175 acre-feet of water per year. Based on the projected development in their 2024 plan, the Park Service says Tusayan’s water use will skyrocket to 681-acre feet in the coming decade. That kind of water use hasn’t been included in long-term regional water availability forecasts.

“SIGNIFICANT CONCERNS”

In his letter, Park Superintendent David Uberuaga said Tusayan’s planned water usage “poses significant regional impact concerns and raises questions around the realistic nature of meeting and sustaining the planned development goals.”

“We have stated several times throughout the comment process that the increase in residents and visitation will have tremendous negative and possibly irreversible impacts on the park infrastructure and resources for which the park was established, including the fragile seeps and springs that represent some of the least altered water resources in the Southwest.”

A study done more than 10 years ago by the Bureau of Reclamation showed that Tusayan’s first well, which was drilled in the 1980s, had already diminished the spring flow at Indian Gardens by 10 percent. The impact of additional wells in the area could have a major impact to the park’s seeps and springs.

“There will need to be resources provided and the biggest one is water,” said Grand Canyon Chief of Resource Management Martha Hahn. “You increase visitation, employment, infrastructure — it’s going to take water. Our biggest question and concern is around where that water is coming from.”

And things could be even worse at Havasu Creek — the water supply for the Havsupai people living in Supai Village.

The Arizona Department of Transportation also just finished a study looking at drilling a well for major upgrades planned at the Grand Canyon Airport, which the Park Service also doesn’t favor.

The Park Service included examples of how much water the City of Flagstaff uses per home to show town planners how aggressive restrictions can help a municipality in the long run. Flagstaff has the lowest water usage in Arizona, she said.

They hope Tusayan will enact a water budget similar to Flagstaff’s that they can use like a bank account to doll out how much development can occur.

WATER FROM ANOTHER SOURCE

But Wright says there’s also the possibility of bringing in water from another area, so he doesn’t think the town should pre-emptively limit development just because they don’t know where the water will come from now.

Wright said that the developer has considered making use of a retired coal slurry pipe, which once ran from the reservation to the now decomissioned Mojave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev., on the Colorado River.

“There’s the possibility of using the old slurry line,” Wright said. “If they were able to put that together and bring that to our region, why would we automatically put a limitation in there?”

Another possibility is tapping into Lake Powell as part of a northern Arizona-wide system of pipes already under consideration that would bring water to Flagstaff, among other towns.

But a water source isn’t the park’s only concern. In order to justify growth in Tusayan, they’d need to bring more visitors and employees to the town and that means more people visiting Grand Canyon National Park. The park is already struggling to deal with hundreds of millions of dollars in crumbling infrastructure. A massive influx in visitors is not what they want.

“Their whole existence is because it’s the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park,” Hahn said. “They provide services that help in terms of accommodating visitors and so we wanted to make sure that any future plans and developments didn’t get beyond that purpose.”

The plan will go back before the Tusayan Planning and Zoning Commission on March 14; it will likely be passed on to the Town Council for potential approval by late March.

Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or ebetz@azdailysun.com.

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