'Rio Reimagined' project hopes to bring life back to the Rio Salado

The project plans to transform 45 miles of dry riverbed through Metro Phoenix

Arizona leaders like Sen. John McCain and ASU President Michael Crow have drawn inspiration from the Rio Salado Project of the 1960s to embark upon their own Salt River revitalization endeavors. 

The pair launched the ‘Rio Reimagined’ project last year in hopes of transforming the dry river beds along the Salt River and turning them into useful resources. 

According to the Rio Reimagined website, the project covers over 78,000 acres stretching from Arizona State Route 85 to the Granite Reef Diversion Dam in the East Valley. The 55-mile span covers six cities and two tribal communities, all of which signed statements of intent at the public launching on March 30 to help aid the efforts and fuel the project. 

Melissa McCann of the ASU University City Exchange office said that in spring 2017, McCain asked Crow to help him revitalize the Rio Salado efforts.

“Sen. McCain went to Michael Crow last year and asked him if he would help re-catalyze the Rio Salado efforts that ASU had led in the late 1960s,” she said. “He had aspirations for a vision of environmental, social and economic vitality for the region.” 

She said the project is in the starting phases, and that the revitalization effort's leaders are bringing together the communities involved to lay out plans and establish timelines and objectives. 

“We at ASU, at this point, are only facilitating and convening, working with other communities to establish goals and objectives for a project of this size,” she said.

McCann said even though each city has plans for the riverbeds in their community, everyone is collaborating together so the project can provide as much benefit as possible.

“All the communities are coming together for a collective vision of what this entire river corridor could be,” she said. “While there are different aspects to each community, we are looking for framework that can be integrated into all of Maricopa County.”

McCann said a project this size should "reinforce all aspects of our community and our urban growth."

In 1966, ASU's founding dean of architecture James Elmore and a group of architecture students at ASU envisioned a transformation of large portions of dry river bed along the Salt River, according to Salt River Stories, a University-directed research project about the river's history. The project culminated three decades later when Tempe Town Lake was finished in 1999.

Philip Vandermeer, a professor emeritus of history at ASU, said the 1960s river revitalization project was inspired by a nationwide movement to clean up lakes and rivers so they were usable and could revitalize the surrounding urban areas.

“The growing environmental movement envisioned cleaning up lakes and rivers, and making them attractive and usable, which prompted planners to think about cleaning up rivers and harbors and using them to revitalize center cities,” he said. 

Vandermeer said Elmore’s plans fit into that trend because they would help the growth of cities. 

“Professor Elmore's class project fit into this critique and designed a renewed water course, with hiking and biking trails, and recreation as the centerpiece,” he said. “During the 1970s, as Phoenix struggled with growth, the city began turning to policies to strengthen the center city by creating historic districts, providing tax breaks for infill projects and trying to control growth."

George Diaz, the government relations manager for the city of Buckeye, said a portion of the city's plan involves removing the cedar trees along the Gila River.

"Salt cedar trees consume about 200 to 250 gallons of water per day, so that is water we can be using for humans, animals or recreation," he said. "So that is part of our motivation to restore the Gila River and eradicate those salt cedar trees." 

Diaz said the city is hoping transforming the river will open up beneficial opportunities for the city.

"Eradicating the trees will conserve water, prevent fires and floods and restore wildlife habitats," he said. "We are also hoping this provides some recreational activities for our community and some tourism attractions as well." 

Peter Fox, a professor of environmental engineering at ASU, said the project will impact the Phoenix metro area because it relies on these reservoirs and it allows for economic growth. 

“The Phoenix metropolitan area relies on water that is stored up in the reservoirs, this has been a positive thing for the economic growth of the area,” he said. “We have these great reservoirs that people use for not only a drinking water source but also for recreation.” 

Reach the reporter at smpere10@asu.edu or follow @therealsperez on Twitter. 

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