The artificial lake near ASU has always been controversial. Some say it shouldn’t exist in the desert, others say it is an economic engine for Tempe. Swimming is prohibited, except during occasional sanctioned events. The water quality can be a problem. But despite all the controversy, the ASU alum who tests the lake every week sees it as his “baby.”
Rick Amalfi’s thick white hair moves slightly in the wind as he looks through sunglasses at the emptiness of Tempe Town Lake. He’s sitting on the bow of an old Sun Tracker Signature Series motor boat, which has seen better days. It has cobwebs near the motor on the back, the grey deck is sun-bleached and the driving console is rotting.
Amalfi, 63, is vice president of Aquatic Consulting and Testing Inc, which contracts with the city of Tempe to test the water quality and pick up the trash in Tempe Town Lake. The boat’s pilot, Jenohn Wrieden, is a field biologist who works for Amalfi. Today, they’re collecting water samples.
Tempe Town Lake is a 2-mile stretch of calm blue water that gently reflects the hot sun above it – a welcome sight in the desert – and is as much of a defining feature of Tempe as Arizona State University is. But, the 14-year-old lake, created by dammed water in the dry bed of the Salt River, has long been the center of controversy. Its water quality is not always healthy and recreational swimming is generally prohibited. Some officials see it as a hazard to public safety and the environment.
Amalfi loves the lake that some others deride. He has tested its waters since it was created, and wants to be remembered as the man who has taken care of Tempe Town Lake. He’s observed all the controversy, but distances himself from it. For him, “it’s more than just a lake. It’s unique. It’s like our little baby.”
He became interested in lakes and biology after going fishing with his grandfather and father as a child while growing up in upstate New York. He earned his undergraduate degree at New York’s St. John Fisher College, majoring in biology and chemistry. He continued his education at the University of Arizona and after earning his graduate degree in biology, started working in Pima County and then Yuma at a desalination testing facility. When the facility finished testing, Amalfi worked at a commercial lab and then moved on to finish his education by earning his Ph.D. at ASU.
After graduating from ASU, Amalfi and his business partner, Beth Atkinson, founded Aquatic Consulting & Testing Inc. in 1988. The company now has 13 employees, as well as a state licensed laboratory. The company conducts drinking water testing, wastewater testing and lake management for homeowners associations, the Arizona Department Environmental Quality, the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, and cities with lake parks. Starting the company was the riskiest decision in his life, he says.
Today, Amalfi sits silently while cars drive over the bridges. South of the lake, hammers hit steel near a swinging crane at a construction site for new condominiums. From the boat, he can see the sidewalk trial wrapping around the lake. Here, residents sometimes run, bike and fish. The trail slopes over grass hills, passes office spaces on the south bank, as well as the Red Mountain Freeway and apartment complexes on the north bank.
Wrieden, dressed in a maroon ASU jacket, black rolled-up pants and a faded Adidas hat slows the boat down as she approaches the buoys that block off the west edge of Tempe Town Lake and throws an anchor overboard. Amalfi grabs a gray dissolved-oxygen meter. An airplane roars toward nearby Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Amalfi barely rocks the boat as he sits down on its edge. He watches the book-sized meter next to him and prepares to jot down measurements in his notebook while he holds the meter’s long, black cord and bobs the sensor up and down in the water.
Wrieden pulls empty bottles out of a green cooler. She kneels and grabs a grey cylinder next to the cooler, then holds the rope tied to the cylinder’s top, lowering the cylinder in the water until it reaches mid-depth. Seconds later, she pulls up the cylinder, opens the top and fills up an empty plastic bottle from the cooler that is marked with the date. She then places another dissolved-oxygen meter’s sensor in the mouth of the bottle and waits for a couple of seconds.
“It’s not a bad way to start the week,” Amalfi says a couple of minutes later as the boat speeds east towards Tempe Town Lake’s Marina.
Water quality issues
The measurement of mid-depth pH this day, according to Amalfi and Wrieden, is 8.4.
That’s just barely inside the state’s 6.5 to 9.0 pH scale for safe swimming. Elevated pH levels, a sign of the lake’s oxygen content, have always been a problem for Tempe Town Lake. That’s because nutrient-rich storm runoff and water from a Mesa water treatment plant flow over the lake’s east dam. This water becomes a breeding ground for algae, which deprives the lake of oxygen results in a higher pH level. The lake’s alkaline pH isn’t deadly for humans, according to Linda Taunt, deputy director of ADEQ’s water quality division.
“It can bother your eyes, your ears, you nose, mucus membrane,” Taunt says. “So it’s not like it’s going to kill you, but it can be very uncomfortable.”
In July 2010 the west dam burst and released almost a billion gallons of water, according to Tempe’s website. The city repaired it three months later, according to its website, and a new $40 million steel gate dam will soon be constructed as a more permanent solution.
Before the dam broke in 2010, the water quality of the lake improved, but when the dam broke, it “reset the clock” biologically, Taunt says. Tempe Town Lake gained more nutrient-rich water, which fueled algae growth. Higher algae levels killed off fish.
So what’s the economic benefit of an artificial lake in the desert?
Tempe estimates that Tempe Town Lake has grossed more than $825 million in revenue from 1997 to 2012. The city says that it reaped more than $21 million from taxes, interest and miscellaneous charges, more than $8 million in costs from capital assessments, permits and boat storage, more than $166 million from special events, more than $32 million from the economic impact of Tempe Center for the Arts on the southwest bank, more than $355 million from development, and $241 million from development in progress by June 30, 2012. All these returns add up to an estimated more than $825 million return.
That revenue is offset by costs.
Tempe estimates it paid about $268 million out of a total $350 million. That figure covers the time period from July 1, 1985, during the planning stages of the lake, to June 30, 2012. It includes Tempe Town Lake and its surrounding amenities, like Tempe Beach Park, Town Lake Marina, road construction, pathways and signage. The additional $81 million is covered by “other funding sources,” the city says.
Boosters say the calculated $557 million in net revenue means more jobs, business and events in Tempe.
State Farm announced in May that it would be part of a $600 million Marina Heights project on the banks of Tempe Town Lake. It will be joining businesses like Microsoft, the Salt River Project and DHL Worldwide Express that are already on the lake shore.
“I think that the infrastructure is such that it is an iconic part of Tempe and has delivered a great deal of benefit to Tempe with regards to visitation, new construction and new jobs for the city,” Michael Martin, vice president for the Tempe Tourism Office, says.
“I cannot imagine Tempe without the lake. It is part of Tempe,” Martin says.
The place that is now Tempe Town Lake has been inhabited for centuries, according to the City of Tempe website, which carries a detailed history of the area. Once, the area was home to a flowing Salt River. First, prehistoric Hohokam Indians lived along the banks of the Salt River between 500 A.D. and 1450 A.D., according to the website. Next came the Jesuits, and then Anglo settlers, the website says. Charles Trumbull Hayden, founder of Tempe, ferried people across the Salt River at Hayden Ferry in 1871, near the entrance to modern downtown Tempe. The river was tamed by the Roosevelt Dam in 1911, but flowed a little, according to the Salt River Project website. In the 1920s, the Salt River still flowed enough to provide swimming at Tempe Beach Park, but ultimately the river dried up so much that a swimming pool was built. Over the next three decades, additional water was diverted for agricultural, industrial and domestic uses. The Salt River was transformed from a flowing river to a barren wasteland with dangerous flooding potential during monsoon seasons. In 1966, ASU architecture students and Dean James Elmore came up with the beginning ideas of an urban lake for Tempe. After 31 years, the riverbed that residents saw as an eyesore and dumping ground for old cars, refrigerators and trash became a 2-mile-long lake that covered 220 surface acres with an average depth of 12.5 feet. Tempe Town Lake was filled July 14, 1999.
An artificial lake in the desert
But is it wise to have an artificial lake in the desert?
“Tempe Town Lake is not a responsible use of water in one of the most arid regions of the country. It does nothing to restore habitat and was established primarily to enhance the value of some real estate,” says Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club – Grand Canyon Chapter. Sierra Club is one of the oldest environmental organizations in the United States and the only environmental organization in Arizona that works on environmental issues at the Arizona Legislature.
Bahr supports restoring the river, when possible, to its natural state – and points to efforts like Rio Salado Restoration in Phoenix, which provides habitat for wildlife and native plants but still offers recreation for residents.
“The Town Lake promotes more of the head in the sand, denial that we are a desert, attitude. It sends the message that we should not be concerned about conserving water – that is a bad message,” Bahr says.
Tempe Vice Mayor Onnie Shekerjian, says after the dam burst, the city received emails from citizens asking to let the lake flow as a natural river, and turn it into a riparian area. But the city would be sued, she says, because of Proposition 207, which protects private property values. She says if Tempe gets rid of the lake, it will hurt the property value of everything around it.
“There’s no turning back at this time,” she says. “Even if there was a way, we can’t. This particular (city) council didn’t make the decision to have Town Lake. (The city council) decided it was doing what they thought was best for the city, just like we do today with every decision. I don’t look at it as ‘shoulda’, ‘woulda’, ‘coulda.’ This is what we’re dealing with today and we have to do whatever we can to get as much value for it.”
Shekerjian says Tempe prohibits swimming because of liability issues and because of issues with the pH. She says she thinks the lake should have a master plan. “We should stop and take stock with the lake and figure out all the ways we can utilize it because there are so many more ways we can,” she says.
“Let’s bail out of here,” Rick Amalfi says as he steps out of a white company truck.
Amalfi and Wrieden are behind the east dam today, finishing their sample collection. It’s called the “lake above the lake” that receives nuisance flows and causes issues for Tempe Town Lake’s water quality. The water has been allowed to rise to the top of the east dam because it protects the rubber bladder from the sun.
“What we’ve been doing here is measuring bacteria counts and pH to see what impact it has because it goes right into the lake. Of course it won’t matter if they take the dam down” Amalfi says while walking down a gravel slope to the edge of the water.
“I would say there are diatom algae (in the water). That’s why there is a yellow pigment,” he observes. The yellow water laps against the bank, carrying a red, deflated balloon. Amalfi continues to the water’s foamy edge. Weeds sprout between the rocks along the bank.
Wrieden and Amalfi simultaneously dip their pH and dissolved-oxygen meter’s sensors in the lake. Wrieden shouts her results to Amalfi, trying to be heard over bridge traffic.
“The lake’s holding steady,” Amalfi says.
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