Bruce Wenzlau and his wife Susan stood in the sand of a kiddie play area in Mesa’s Riverview Park watching two of their six grandchildren play.
The sun — high overhead — cast shadows of the playscape on the ground.
They come to the park with the growing kids every year.
The park won’t be there in a few years, and while they lament the loss, they’re only passing through from Durango, Colo.
“We’ve been coming to this park for 5 or 6 years ... visiting with the grandkids,” Bruce Wenzlau said. Their grandkids range in age from 7 to 11.
Mesa residents voted in 2007 for the city to sell the city-owned Riverview Park and the nearby golf course to private developer for the construction of Waveyard, a water amusement park.
In what Mesa officials are calling a key step in the development of the land — conducting an archeological and cultural study — they have unearthed a section of an ancient Hohokam canal system.
Less than 360 yards away from where the Wenzlaus played with their grandchildren, the faint remnants of those ancient canals straddle a languishing state of resilience and invisibility.
You can’t see them with the naked eye.
“Through satellite imagery, sometimes we can actually see the canals, kind of a signature of them,” said Jerry B. Howard, curator of anthropology at the Arizona Museum of Natural History. “The soil in them is different than the other soil around them — more porous and moist — still conducting water, if you will.”
Howard is among the scholars who worked on an archeological study for the city. It’s one of the first steps that must take place before any construction of the Waveyard development can begin.
He said his team completed the first portion of a study on the Riverview Park tract using radio carbon dating to determine the age of the canals.
“Pretty neat stuff buried under the city,” he said. “People don’t know about it.”
The project was budgeted at about $60,000, but they only spent $20,000 as of late 2008, Howard said. He added that the savings came from the city supplying municipal-owned heavy equipment used in excavating the land in key places. For the better part of 2008, Howard said he and a team of four other scholars studied the area and could continue for as long as the land is owned by the city.
Howard said a deeper look into the land’s past and the city as a whole revealed massive canals that span in some places for 20 miles and can measure as much as 15 feet deep and 45 feet wide.
“They were incredibly well engineered,” Howard said of the ancient Hohokam projects, built using digging sticks and baskets. “Massive works of engineering and labor.”
Howard said he has been studying the area long before there was any mention of Waveyard. In the 1980s, he and a team unearthed what he described as a ground-shaking discovery.
Just adjacent to the canal tracts near where Eighth Street intersects with Loop 101, Howard said he and a crew discovered remnants of a Hohokam dwelling that dated back to 50 AD, built overtop of a canal.
“So the canal had to be even earlier than that,” Howard said of the discovery he described as the earliest reported Hohokam site found in the Valley.
That site was across from the Riverview Golf Course, which is also on the chopping block to make room for the Waveyard project.
“Were hoping to take a look in there when they shut the golf course down,” Howard said. “We’re hoping to find some things in there, too.”
On the Riverview Golf Course and less than a half-mile from the earlier site Howard discovered, Mary E. Collins, a self-described “snowbird,” was waiting for her chance to putt.
“We play four months out of the year, twice a week,” she said, shielding her eyes from the sun with a squint. She didn’t give her age, just that she was from Kansas City, Mo, where her Royals had performed poorly.
She also didn’t give her opinion of the pretty-much inevitable closure of the golf course, only out of being polite, though.
“I shouldn’t say. I’m a snowbird. I wouldn’t use a water park.”
But Mesa’s tourism leaders and city officials hope more people would.
Robert Brinton, executive director of the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau, said despite the challenging economy, he was confident the project will still move forward.
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Brinton acknowledged that “it may take a little longer” to complete the project, though.
The earliest projected start date of the Waveyard site had been slated for 2010, but the economy has all but guaranteed a delay of that, Brinton said. The earliest cost of the development was projected at $250 million.
Mesa officials said they stand behind the city’s choice of $20 million in incentives offered to Scottsdale-based Waveyward LLC, which was heavily backed by voters in a November 2007 election.
Brinton said the project could still move forward and be completed as soon as 2012.
“We’re still extremely supportive of the Waveyard project,” said Brinton, who added he meets with Waveyard and other city officials fairly frequently to discuss the project’s future. “There is still a significant amount of time to continue the process.”
Brinton said that 2010 still remains the company’s deadline to come up with the money to purchase the property from the city.
“They’re still not in a situation that prohibits them from qualifying for the incentives,” he said.
Brinton said flexibility was built into the proposal such that “if difficulties occur there would be more time to complete the project.”
Waveyard officials declined comment for this story.
The city is still moving forward with its part.
Natalie N. Lewis, a Mesa projects manager working with Waveyard, said the archeological study and a cultural study funded by the city, are all necessary steps toward selling the land and developing it.