In Arizona's territorial days, water still flowed through the Salt River and sometimes was used by early Valley residents as a giant swimming pool.
Now 100 years after Roosevelt Dam dried up the river, a pair of candidates in Tempe is calling for the city to revive the tradition by building a sand beach.
The plan involves building a sand barrier within Tempe Town Lake to separate icky lake water from water that would be treated as in any commercial pool.
Mayoral candidate Michael Monti and City Council candidate Dick Foreman outlined the idea Tuesday and said they're forming an ad hoc citizens committee to study their plan. Tempe residents have told the two they'd like to have greater use of the lake, Monti said.
"We've been hearing, ‘We love the lake. We love the amenities, but it's not really open for us on a casual basis,'" Monti said.
Foreman said residents are turned off by the concrete barrier that lines the lake.
"It's sort of like you're not allowed here," Foreman said.
The beach could be on the north or south side of the lake, close to existing parking lots.
The plan lacked specifics, including a cost. And it's not known what impact the sand bank would have on the flow of water during floods, which could raise objections from agencies that include the Army Corps of Engineers or the Maricopa County Flood Control District.
The beach plan can be scaled, which would allow it to expand as it becomes more popular.
"Yes, it does need further refinement but we believe it can be done," Foreman said.
Foreman said he saw the idea put into use while staying at the Hawks Cay Island Resort in the Florida Keys. The pool was separated from the ocean with sandbags and sand for the beach, which he said can be cheaply repaired or rebuilt if a flood were to cause damage. He said a 6 p.m. Dec. 20 community meeting will kick off a study to learn more about how to build such a system in Tempe. A meeting location will be announced later.
Foreman and Monti said they'd seek to minimize taxpayer expenses by funding as much of the project as possible from user fees and concessions like restaurants at the beach.
Since opening the lake in 1999, Tempe has only allowed swimming during special events. State regulations treat the lake more like a pool than natural lakes, which requires Tempe to only hold swimming events when the pH is between 6.5 and 9.0. The pH has climbed above that and required chemical treatments over the years.
Tempe studied opening the lake to swimming in 2010 and estimated the cost at $10 million. That did not involve a separate body of water in the lake, as the entire lake would be open to swimming. The cost included diverting lower-quality water that flows from the east around the lake to reduce contamination. Also, the price involved a bath house, restrooms and equipment. The study did not outline ongoing costs such as lifeguards and chemical treatments.
Tempe studied the idea while considering options to open the lake to additional uses. As a result, the city did allow stand-up paddle boarding but declined further study of swimming because of the cost.
City spokeswoman Nikki Ripley said Tempe would perform a more in-depth study if any current City Council members request more information.
Former Tempe Mayor Rudy Campbell endorsed the idea Tuesday. He was elected in 1966 and was in office when architecture students at Arizona State University planted the seed for the lake with a plan to bring water back to the dry, polluted river.
He recalled riding his bicycle from Mesa to Tempe Beach Park as a child to go swimming. A large pool was fed by constantly-flowing irrigation water and remained popular until the city was forced to chlorinate the water.
"It was just a plain old pool," he said. "It lost its luster."
The beach would capture some flavor of the original pool and become a regional destination, Campbell said.
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