Rio Reimagined looks to make continued environmental improvements

Rio Reimagined is a green infrastructure project that has made a mark on the city of Tempe, helping to form Tempe Town Lake

Rio Reimagined, a green infrastructure project, has been making a mark on the environmental and economic development of the Valley since the project launched in 2018. The city of Tempe is no exception.

The project is a collaboration between six cities, two native communities and ASU to revitalize the Rio Salado and Gila rivers and transform the Salt River bottom. It covers a 58-mile stretch spanning from Buckeye to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community that relies on public-private partnerships to spearhead sustainable projects, protect land for future public space and reunite resilient communities, among many other goals.

The idea of the Rio Reimagined project originated from ASU students in 1966 and sparked decades of work leading to the construction of Tempe Town Lake in the 90s. The lake has become one of Tempe’s most iconic features and one of the biggest economic developments the project has made.

Neil Giuliano was the mayor of Tempe during the construction of Tempe Town Lake and currently works with the project in the private sector as the president and CEO of Greater Phoenix Leadership

“It’s been an ongoing project for many, many, many decades now … to ensure that the Rio Salado, the Salt River, can flourish once again throughout the entire region, the entire 50 miles,” Giuliano said. 

In 2018, the late Sen. John McCain breathed new life into Rio Reimagined when he brought ASU into the project to serve as a liaison, project manager and research arm to help to facilitate and convene the effort, which ASU does under the University City Exchange department. 

Today, Tempe continues to work toward the project's goal. 

The city is working on cleaning up brownfield sites along the river to redevelop these areas and a green stormwater infrastructure plan, said Braden Kay, the city of Tempe’s director of sustainability. 

Brownfield sites are areas that have had previous contamination and led themselves to environmental remediation and redevelopment. Tempe Marketplace, an open-air shopping center located along the Salt River and off Loop 202, was a previous brownfield site. 

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

Kay said he hopes to ask the Tempe City Council for funding for a green stormwater infrastructure plan in the winter. This plan would change the way that the city deals with water as it would absorb rainwater where it falls, rather than using gutters and pipes to collect rainwater, which has the goal of cooling down the environment.

“I see Rio Reimagined as being the catalyst for regional movements around green stormwater infrastructure and green buildings,” Kay said. “If we re-embrace our watershed and the cities that share the Rio Salado, how can that transform how we rethink our relationship to soil, water, air (and) our whole environment?” 

The project is larger than just Tempe and it captures much of the Valley, leading to collaboration both locally and federally. 

“What is exciting about Rio Reimagined is an ability to have residents, ASU, our federal elected leaders and local government all work together on a unifying vision for our region,” Kay said.

This collaboration was displayed on Sept. 17 in a meeting hosted by Sen. Mark Kelly’s office. The meeting took place at Tempe Town Lake, featuring many leaders of the project and including Michael Regan, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator. It was the first time Regan traveled to the Valley since he was sworn in as administrator in March.

The EPA has been a strong supporter of Rio Reimagined over the years. In 2020, it gave the project a special federal designation that promised to cut red tape, get grants and help local leaders decide how to spend federal money. 

The project partners have received federal grant funding for the project. 

“There's roughly $2 million worth of investment by the EPA to local, state and nonprofit partners in the corridor for projects over the last two years,” said Cecilia Riviere, the assistant director of University City Exchange at ASU.

Project partners are still looking to receive additional federal funding as the project “has probably 10 to 12 grants that are pending from different federal agencies,” Riviere said. 

Despite all the work that the project has done over the years, Kay expressed concern about the future and priorities of the project. 

“There’s this crossroads to really figure out, is this about economic development, or is it really about an equity people-centered way of developing our region into the future?” Kay said.


Reach the reporter at mcfisch4@asu.edu and follow @morgfisch on Twitter.

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