A River Ran Through It !

     In the heart of central Phoenix lies what used to be a thriving river habitat. Home to several plant species and wildlife, this river brought water, a source of life, to Phoenix.   Yet, it was this very concept of water as a source of life that led to its ultimate demise. In the early 1900’s dams were placed along the river so as to provide a reliable year-round water supply for the valley.  This practice inevitably dried up the river and as a result the river bottom became a dumping ground for people’s “junk”. Over the years the banks developed into land fills, gravel pits, and other industrial hazards which also contributed to the river’s unsightly appearance. In recent years the City of Phoenix has implemented a plan to change all of that. The primary goal of the Rio Salado Project is to transform this visible eyesore into a beautiful wildlife habitat, while revitalizing the surrounding communities. 

This environmental restoration would concern itself with a five-mile stretch of the Salt River from 24th Street west to 19th Ave.   The basic elements of the project include constructing a low flow channel in the river bed, and returning native vegetation and indigenous wildlife to the area.  Included in the plans for the project are several amenities to benefit the community members, such as a biking and walking trail system along the river, equestrian trails, and an environmental education center. This part of the riparian project is well underway and should be completed in late 2004.  As far as the revitalization taking place beyond the banks is concerned, there is an indefinite timeline. 

The Beyond the Banks Advisory Committee, has put together a vision for South Phoenix in which “the Rio Salado project will serve as a catalyst for transforming the area adjacent to the project into places where people not only work and live, but also places where people form all over Phoenix will come to enjoy the experiences that have been created.” (Summary Report, 2)  The City and public, through several meetings, have formulated a plan to make this vision a reality.                                                         

Despite all of the positive implications that the restoration will have on the South Phoenix community there is opposition to the project.  The resistance comes from environmental activist Steve Brittle and his non-profit environmental justice organization, Don’t Waste Arizona, Inc.  In his article “The Rio Salado Project – the Rest of the Story” he lists several environmental justice issues that are raised by the project such as contaminated surface water, plane collisions with birds, and epidemics of encephalitis. One argument that I find particularly interesting is his concern that the wetlands will breed mosquitoes, which creates a public health menace. My common sense leads me to believe that if water is what breeds mosquitoes, wouldn’t such have been the case before the river dried up? If so, it seems to me that his argument has no bearing. If somehow the people who lived at that time found a way to deal with the problem, then why, in this age of advanced technology and science, wouldn’t we be able to?  When I e-mailed Steve with my concerns about his the problem he wrote back:

 The Salt River was never a river that flowed all year. It went from very high levels during spring as snow caps in the mountains melted to little water to none. It had floods and dry spells. Dry spells took care of the mosquitoes--they died off and couldn't breed. [There is even a type of mosquito in AZ that can have its larvae survive in mud and doesn't need standing water for finishing its life cycle--luckily, this type does not carry fearsome diseases...]. But when you put water into the Salt River year round, then the mosquitoes can breed and breed, exponentially.

 Despite the possibility of problems in the future, the community would like to see the restoration of a dead river habitat. They would one day like to see a river run through it!

by KaMaili Jones


Read of my experience at the Public Planning Meeting for the Rio Salado Project!





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