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ASU partners with feds, local groups to revitalize Rio Salado, Gila Rivers communities

The University-led Rio Reimagined project will receive a boost from the EPA through new funding and technical assistance


Neil Giuliano, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Leadership, left, speaks with EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler at San Tan Pavilion at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020

ASU announced Tuesday a partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, surrounding cities and other groups to help revitalize the communities surrounding the Rio Salado and Gila Rivers.

The Rio Reimagined — Rio Salado Project is the 20th project to be included in the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, which assists existing local revitalization efforts by supporting groups. The partnership, which comprises 15 federal agencies, was first introduced under the Obama administration in 2011. The Rio Reimagined project is the first to be added under the Trump administration. 

The Rio Reimagined project started as a partnership between eight primary communities along a 58-mile stretch of the Salt and Gila Rivers, including the City of Phoenix, Gila River Indian Community and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. ASU has spearheaded the project since its creation in 2017 by providing research and organizational resources. 

The designation provides a $200,000 grant specifically to support Rio Reimagined's El Rio vegetation management plan. The plan was developed by the Flood Control District of Maricopa County to identify stretches of the Gila River along which they will remove the invasive plant species salt cedar to plant native vegetation species in its place and revitalize the ecosystem.

Other UWFP projects include toxic sediment clean up in New Jersey’s Passaic River and the creation of the first urban wildlife refuge in the Southwest with New Mexico's Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge. 

Before this designation, Tempe Mayor Corey Woods said the EPA has already provided roughly $1 million in support toward issues impacting the rivers and surrounding populations such as urban forestry, local food and hazard mitigation planning.

"It's really with great excitement and enthusiasm that we've engaged with EPA as partner agencies to continue to elevate the metropolitan Phoenix area and cultivate our community and river assets through the Urban Waters Partnership," Woods said.

Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis said his community has made great progress in restoring portions of the Gila River, and he's excited to continue toward the goal of bringing back the river with this new designation.

"These Gila, Salt and the other Gila tributaries in central Arizona are not only sacred to us, but are important to the non-Indians who live in and visit central Arizona, we understand this," Lewis said. "Restoring these rivers will not only reconnect people to these areas, but help promote important conservation goals and provide economic revitalization opportunities along the Salt River in southern Phoenix."

ASU President Michael Crow said in a pre-recorded message that ASU's role in the project as an institution with a "deep commitment to sustainability" is to provide the full weight of the University's resources to the other stakeholders. 

"We have this unique opportunity as an institution to step up and to engage as a convener, engage as a source of data and understanding and ideas and creativity and everything," Crow said.

Speakers at ASU to announce the adoption of the Rio Reimagined project in the UWFP also included Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Prescott).

Plans of action will be developed by each city or tribe's respective governments, and exact details on how the funding will be used have not been announced.

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