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John McCain's final multi-decade initiative with ASU

McCain and ASU's Rio Reimagined hopes to transform 55 miles of dry river bed


A young boy rows across the Tempe Town Lake in Tempe, Arizona, on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.

Former Arizona senator John McCain’s final initiative before his passing was the announcement of a multi-decade initiative to restore the Rio Salado river, dubbed as “The Rio Reimagined."

The Rio Salado once flowed for 60 miles through Maricopa County before it dried up over a century ago. For many decades, elected officials hoped to transform the dry riverbeds but failed to succeed in their attempts.

In the 1960s, a group of undergraduate architecture students at ASU came up with the Rio Salado project, but only managed to complete Tempe Town Lake which took almost 50 years to build. 

Duke Reiter, senior adviser to ASU President Michael Crow and executive director of University City Exchange, said McCain was inspired by the group of ASU students and wanted to collaborate with the University to advance the project. 

“The original project was meant to be much bigger than just Tempe Town Lake," Reiter said. "It was going to go from Mesa through Phoenix out to the West Valley, but that was never realized. McCain had an interest in seeing that idea advance, so he talked to Michael Crow and to me and for the past year we put this project together."

He said McCain helped give the project credibility because of his relationships with the mayors and tribes alongside the river and managed to bring civic leaders to sign onto the project — the first step of many. 

The renewed initiative would stretch over 78,000 acres from AZ Route 85 to the Granite Reef Diversion Dam in the East Valley covering 55 miles. 

Reiter said the project is still in the early stages with a long path ahead, but there are already plans to turn it into a stand alone non-profit organization in the future. 

"There’s a working group made of all six cities and the two tribal nations along the river who help us to advance the vision," Reiter said. "We have a small advisory project that meets almost weekly to ensure that we’re attending to all the issues that might come up like how to fund it, how it’ll be water positive and not a drain on the water system, how it’ll support communities and how it’ll lead to a better economic development.” 

The project will not be a unified vision for the entire length of the river and will likely not resemble Tempe Town Lake depends on the community’s needs and what their interests are for their individual cities.

Some might opt for public interests while others prefer private interests, like lakes but the project’s goal is to "come together for a collective vision of what this entire river corridor could be," according to Melissa McCann, director of the ASU University City Exchange. 

“While there are different aspects to each community, we are looking for framework that can be integrated into all of Maricopa County," she said. 

The Rio Reimagined project is already benefiting ASU students with classes related to environment, sustainability, governance, economic development and real estate. Students may contribute on real sites as the project is developed in the coming decades. 

One year ago, John McCain said at a conference that he was excited about ASU's role in the project, as recorded in a video by ASU. 

"I believe that some day you'll be walking along or biking along with your kids or your grand kids and say 'You know, I was part of the planning of this,'" McCain said in the video. 

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