A once blighted strip of the Salt River bed transformed into a nature preserve and city park might be the first step to a larger recreation system linking central Phoenix to Tempe’s Town Lake and Scottsdale’s Indian Bend Wash.
A nature festival on Saturday will mark the unveiling of the 595-acre Phoenix’s Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Project.
In the past five years, thousands of tons of debris have been removed from the fivemile stretch of the riverbed from 19th Avenue to 28th Street as part of the $100 million endeavor.
Long occupied by sand and gravel operations and large junk piles, the land now sports several ponds spread over 15 acres of reconstructed wetlands habitat, 10 miles of recreation trails, two plazas, pedestrian bridges and miniforests of cottonwood and willow trees.
When planting is completed, it will feature about 75,000 trees and shrubs native to the Sonoran Desert and riparian habitats.
About four acres are being reserved for the Rio Salado Audubon Center. The planned $6 million environmental and wildlife education facility is slated for completion in 2008.
The entire restoration project "is visionary and bold," said Sam Campana, former Scottsdale mayor and now director of Audubon Arizona, state branch of the national Audubon Society.
"It reminds me of the start of Scottsdale’s Indian Bend Wash project. . . . It’s going to be a spark plug that will truly change the whole area," Campana said.
Phoenix leaders hope it will spur residential and commercial development along the Salt River banks, said Karen Williams, the city’s Rio Salado project director.
The city is studying extending the riverbed restoration project east to Tempe’s boundary as a way to boost such revitalization, Williams said.
The riverside in Phoenix would be a more appealing lure for economic development if it were linked by trails and other recreational amenities to Town Lake and Scottsdale’s greenbelt, she said.
For now, the project already is fulfilling its environmental objectives.
A rejuvenated ecosystem has attracted about 100 species of birds to the area, as well as reptiles, some coyotes, javelina and even beavers, Williams said.
In addition, a low-flow channel carved into the riverbed will combine with the city’s storm drainage system to improve flood control.
That element of the project helped Phoenix get the federal government to fund 65 percent of project through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. About 14 percent came from the Flood Control District of Maricopa County.
James Elmore, a past dean of Arizona State University’s architecture school, will be a guest at Saturday’s dedication ceremony. The concept for both Phoenix’s and Tempe’s Rio Salado restoration projects evolved from ideas his students sketched out in the 1960s.
"You could say this project has been 40 years in the making," Williams said.
What: Nature Festival - opening of Phoenix’s Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Project
When: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Central Avenue bridge at the Salt River (free shuttle from parking areas at 305 W. Washington St. and 4732 S. Central Ave.)
Attractions: Music, arts and crafts, children’s activities, wildlife exhibits and interpretive tours
Information: (602) 262-4881 or