PHOENIX (AP) The dust, rocky soil and inhospitable summers make it hard to imagine why anyone would have settled here before the availability of air conditioners and sprinkler systems.
But a century ago, Phoenix was a riverside community, a settlement with sometimes flowing water and even an occasional flood. The water in the Salt River ebbed and flowed with the desert seasons.
Eventually, dams turned the riverbed into a barren ribbon punctuated by gravel mines, abandoned cars and assorted junk. That could change in coming years, however.
Sections of the Salt River, totaling approximately 40 mi., are in various stages of study or rehabilitation as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local governments seek to return water to the riverbed and trees and vegetation to its banks.
“Our goal isn’t to establish it to presettlement conditions. It’s never going to happen,” said Kayla Eckert, study manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. “We’re trying to create something that’s sustainable,” she added.
That means the river would have seasonally flowing water, braided streams and small pools and would be flanked by native trees like willows, cottonwoods and mesquite.
The Corps of Engineers used to have two basic civilian missions: flood control and maintaining ports and waterways for commercial traffic. But in 1986, environmental restoration was added to the Corps’ functions, opening the door to the Salt River restoration.
Using a framework established by Congress, local governments and the corps can partner to restore the barren waterway, removing junk, adding water and native vegetation and eventually attracting the birds and other animals that once made their home along the river.
Stretches in Phoenix and Tempe are under construction. Other sections on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and in western Phoenix are being studied and a wetlands demonstration project, Tres Rios, has already been completed.
In the Phoenix project — a 5-mi. stretch first discussed 11 years ago — construction crews have cleared debris, built an initial wetland and began planting cottonwoods and other vegetation.
Even with bulldozers and other heavy equipment rumbling through the riverbed, ducks and herons can be seen swimming and winging their way around the river bottom.
Ultimately, an estimated 70,000 shrubs and trees will be planted on the 592-acre area, said Walt Kinsler, project manager for the development.
Prior to the start of construction, the river bottom was filled with tires and concrete that had washed down in previous floods. Except for sparse grass and an occasional tree, the banks were barren. “It was just a big dust bowl,” Kinsler said.
The Phoenix project should be open next year. The first phase of the Tempe project should be completed this summer. Proposals for other stretches are still being studied and refined.
The water for the projects is effluent, shallow groundwater and storm or irrigation runoff.
Some sections of the restored river, like the one under construction in Phoenix, will be park-like, including trails and restroom facilities. Others, like the one proposed for the Indian reservation east of Phoenix, will be more natural with little recreational development, Eckert said.
The water in the Salt River first began to dry up with the construction of Roosevelt Dam, which was completed in 1911. Five other dams were subsequently built on the Salt River and its tributary, the Verde River.
The dams were designed to give residents control over the water supply, which has allowed Phoenix to grow from a tiny desert settlement to the nation’s sixth-largest city.
Before the Roosevelt Dam, the Salt River was “a river that had a mind of its own,” said Shelly Dudley, a historical analyst for Salt River Project, the utility that supplies water and electricity using the stored water.
“Those were times when it flooded deep and wide,” she said. “You also had times when there was very limited water in the Salt River.”
For years, the riverbed was used for landfills and gravel mining operations, which still continue on parts of the river bottom including the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation.
Restoration efforts have required officials to remove tons of landfill junk or work around it.
In Tempe, where the riverbed was cleaned for the restoration project and for Town Lake, a separate project in the riverbed, loads of tires and steel had to be hauled away.
“You could probably build a building with all of the stuff that’s been pulled out of there. I mean, we pulled out full cars,” said Kris Baxter, economic development and marketing coordinator for the city of Tempe.
Gravel mining will have to eventually cease in restoration areas if Indian, local and federal officials decide to proceed with all the projects, Eckert said. “We’ve been very clear that ecosystem restoration and mining activities are not compatible,” she said.
In addition to the mining operations, other obstacles to full restoration exist. The projects require federal approval and some local money.
But Karen Williams, the river project coordinator for Phoenix, said even though it took years to get her city’s project off the ground, it’s been exciting to see the changes actually take place. “If it had been easy, a project like this would have been done years ago,” she said.