Is Tempe Town Lake worth it?

With 977 million gallons of murky water glimmering against the sunlight, Tempe Town Lake is more than its polished surface suggests. Below those gentle waves, the lake is swirling with controversy.

The lake is 16-years-old and completely man-made. In 1999, the city of Tempe decided to dam up the salt-covered, mosquito-infested and dried river bed that was once a free-flowing part of the Salt River.

However, the lake that is home to athletes, festivals and tourists also holds home to quite a bit of criticism as well.

Surfacing Conflict

Tempe Resident Troy Farah is one of the leaders of this criticism. Farah created the organization Drain Tempe Town Lake after driving past the lake and remembering when the lake’s dam burst in 2010. The burst cost the city an estimated $3 million.

As he looked into the actual information behind the lake, which he refers to as "The Cesspool," he began to realize the absurdity of keeping up a lake in the heart of a desert.

“All of the fish are imported, it smells awful and it is practically un-swimmable,” Farah said. “Tempe Town Lake is the very definition of unnatural. The body of water there makes our climate more humid, breeds mosquitoes and E. Coli.”

Farah said around 1.7 million gallons of water are lost from the lake every day from evaporated waste. The same amount of water is replenished from local canals by Tempe’s municipal service at a cost to taxpayers.

Farah said the goal of the campaign was not to take out the lake with a single stroke of their hand, but rather to have residents question the lake and the city’s choices. The overarching idea for them is practicality. 

However, Farah is just one of the many critics of the lake. The lake conversation is so popular that it initiated a parody account of a Facebook event called Fill Tempe Town Lake with Quick Dry Cement.

It started as a joke for Tempe resident Jake Morris, who created the page to make a group of his friends laugh. 

Morris calculated the volume of the lake, the price of cement and found that it would cost $8.4 million to fill the lake with dry cement. After tossing around jokes with a few friends, he created the Facebook event.

In less than a week, the page boomed with nearly 500 people RSVPing and 1,500 invitations sent by people in the community. Morris even sold red, white and blue pins emblazoned with the phrase “FILL TEMPE TOWN LAKE WITH CEMENT(sic)."

It appeared to Morris, despite the page's origin as a joke, passions about the lake were high.

“I think most of the people who support the page and think it’s really funny are ASU students — people that see all the good and bad that comes from the lake,” Morris said.

The 'cesspool'

The lake itself is known for its bacteria and murkiness, a issue that has been of concern for the city of Tempe.

Rick Amalfi, vice president of Aquatic Consulting and Testing Inc., has tested the lake since a year before the lake was filled. He said he’s seen the effort that goes into keeping up the lake, because he’s the one who does it.

The lake has become part of the group’s Monday morning routine. Every week, a group goes to the marina, stocked head-to-toe with bottles and testing equipment. They pull out a pontoon boat and go to test the waters at four different locations for things like algae, E. Coli, clarity and oxygenation.

The group also sets traps around the lake to test the levels of midge flies and mosquitos. Once a month, they go out on the boat and conduct more thorough tests such as checking levels of nutrients and metals, and digging up dirt from the bottom of the lake.

“It takes quite a bit of time, we’re out on the lake for many hours,” Amalfi said. 

However, pulling the boat out the morning of Nov. 9 had even higher stakes because it was the final test before the Ironman Arizona triathlon the next week. 

Amalfi said that Arizona’s requirement for the lake is to have the E. Coli count under 235 bacteria per 100 mL of water and the pH level between 6.5 and 9.0. 

Tempe Town Lake ran a bit high with the pH that day, running at around 8.66. This means the lake had a large amount of algae, bumping the levels up.

“It’s an irritation especially to the eyes," Amalfi said. "The bacteria is obviously for health purposes because you might swallow some water, but the pH is more for skin and eye irritation."

He said the bacteria levels tend to be fairly high because of the storm runoff from the river beds around the lake, adding that the bacteria is an inevitability near an urban city.

If any of those levels spike, the group’s job is to solve the problem and make sure the lake is still safe to swim in.

Amalfi said testing of the lake costs thousands of dollars per month, but he also believes the lake is positive for the city. Before the lake existed, the lake was nothing more than a bacteria, mosquito and fly infested salt bed. 

He said any complaints about the lake are, in their essence, flawed.

“This is a vast improvement from what the lake used to look like,” Amalfi said. “The key is that you weren’t here when the lake was empty because there weren’t parks and all these businesses. The key is you weren’t here when we caught 300 mosquitoes a night compared ten now.”

The asset

While few people have beach days on the coast of Tempe Town Lake, this high pH level becomes a problem for swimmers and triathletes during the lake’s races.

Journalism sophomore Joshua Cutlip, a triathlete and Arizona-native has done about seven races in the lake and has seen the lake at a variety of pH levels.

He said the lake can be murky, and his eyes and nose can occasionally get irritated, but he doesn’t see a problem with the lake overall.

“A lot of people say it’s really gross,” Cutlip said. “And I’ve done one race right after that huge rainstorm, where it flooded the highway. There was a bunch of branches and stuff in the lake, but, I mean, they keep it clean.”

However, Cutlip said he thinks the lake is almost crucial to Arizona.

The lake is home to a variety of open water swims and triathlons through the year, and most notably, the Ironman Arizona. Thousands crowd the lake every year on Nov. 15 for the race, which is popular for its flat course and mild temperatures. 

Cutlip said the coordinators for the triathlon open registration for the race a year in advance, right after the previous one ends. Registration typically sells out within a couple hours.

Although the lake's water isn't top-notch, the water provides one of the few local areas in which water-based athletes can train. Cutlip said the lake overall is worth keeping and that draining the lake would ultimately be a problem for athletes like himself. 

That’s a situation Nick Ansara, the ASU Rowing Team's president, has grueled over.

The city recently announced it will drain the lake for six-to-eight weeks in the spring of 2016 to replace the western dam in the lake.

This news creates one problem. Spring is rowing season for the 43 members on the team.

“Losing the lake for two to three months will really cut into our water training time,” Ansara said. “There are land workouts that you can do to train, but if you can't get into a boat and out on the water you can't get the training in to really be competitive.”

The team has trained on the lake since 2002, seeing it as an undeniable asset. 

While the lake is drained, the team plans to use things like rowing machines and work on land training, but Ansara said being a rowing team in a desert has already placed them at a disadvantage.

Thus, the search is on for the team to find another lake for practice in the middle of a desert, which is also in the middle of a drought.

Ansara recognized that draining was a necessary part of the maintenance of a man-made lake.

However, the small period of time begins to reflect the reality athletes like Cutlip and Ansara will soon face following the draining of the lake. 

The money question

Even then, the lake is not all about swimmers and mosquitos, it also holds a special place in the heart of Tempe’s proverbial wallet.

Between its opening in 1999 and 2013, building the lake and keeping it up has cost about $350 million. Tempe officials said they’ve already paid off around $268 million of the lake's initial cost.

Yet, the economic gains between that period outweigh the costs. Adding together things like taxes, past and future developments on the lake and general economic impacts, Tempe estimated that the lake’s net revenue for the city and the area around it rests around $557 million.

Although the actual benefit of the lake has been called into question multiple times before — it was another concern voiced by Farah, the founder of the campaign to drain the lake. 

“It really only benefits rich people who live near it,” Farah said.

Tempe taxpayers pay approximately $2 million to $3 million a year to fund the lake and make sure it’s up to scratch. Critics of the lake argue that the bulk of the money generated by the lake goes back to the businesses and people living around the lake, most of whom are already well-off.

Despite the criticisms, Tempe Public Information Officer Kris Baxter said the lake is the state’s second most visited public attraction with more than 2.4 million people visiting every year. The lake itself has attracted major corporations to the area like Microsoft, Silicon Valley Bank, US Airways and State Farm.

Is it worth it?

In reality, there’s no easy answer to the question and no definitive answer to whether or not the lake is either good or bad.

Just like an actual living, breathing person, it may be a little bit of both.

But for Amalfi, who’s seen it grow into the community around Tempe, he believes there’s something inherently important about the lake.

“I live in Tempe and I work with the lake so I’m a little biased, but they’ve taken an eyesore — the river bottom that was covered in salt and infested with mosquitos, and turned it into a resource for the community,” Amalfi said.

Related Links:

Tempe Police: Five dead after car crashes into Tempe Town Lake

ASU club sets sail on Tempe Town Lake


Reach the reporter at megan.janetsky@asu.edu or follow @meganjanetsky on Twitter.

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