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Sen. John McCain's legacy project: Develop 45 miles of the Rio Salado

 McCain 2 

The Salt River gave life to the Valley. Then it tore it apart. More than 100 years after dams dried up the portion of the river that cut across the Phoenix metropolitan area, some of Arizona's most influential leaders are trying to put the Valley back together again by erasing the scar the river left behind.

It's a continuation of a plan hatched more than 50 years ago by a team of undergraduate architecture students at Arizona State University, who thought putting water back into the river would transform the riverbanks into an economic and recreational boomtown.

"We wanted to bring life back to the place where people were turning their backs on," said Bill Close, who a half-century ago was one of those ASU students. 

Close and his former classmates are considered the brains behind what is now Tempe Town Lake — the only part of their grand vision that came to fruition. 

Sen. John McCain, in an August 2017 talk with ASU special adviser Duke Reiter, says a revived Rio Salado Project would ensure Arizona’s economic future and be a legacy not only for him, but for the many people required to bring the project to life. The senator noted that the development not only will be part of his legacy but also that of all the visionaries before him, and the students and leaders who will continue the project after him. "I don't mean to be a little dramatic, but I believe if we get this done, someday your kids and you will be walking along and you'll be able to say, 'I played a role in that. I was part of the effort that made this such a wonderful place to raise you kids and for you to have a better life than the one you had before I started on it.' "That's kind of a nice legacy," he said.


McCain's revival of the Rio Salado Project is in its earliest stages, but all of the stakeholders — including the leadership from all of the cities and Indian communities the river traverses — say they're on board, a critical first step.  McCain has entrusted ASU with organizing a formal working group and pushing the project forward. Duke Reiter, senior policy adviser to ASU President Michael Crow, said the university has pledged its full support.

"The Rio Salado project has the potential to transform the Salt River bottom and revitalize an untapped Valley treasure," McCain told The Arizona Republic in a statement on Saturday. "I look forward to continue working with ASU, mayors and other local elected officials and stakeholders to establish a vision and an organization to see this project through long term." 

Tempe leads the way

The Rio Salado Project may have been envisioned in an eight-week seminar, but the realities of government slowed the actual development phase to a near standstill. There were decades of meetings, studies and discussions by ASU, non-profit organizations and the Legislature. Eventually, there was a vote of the residents in each of the big three cities involved — Phoenix, Mesa and Tempe. 

Only Tempe voters approved funding for the project. 

Instead of folding when it became apparent that the rest of the Valley would not chip in, Tempe decided to go it alone. 

"They were ridiculed at the time that this was just a pie-in-the-sky, very impracticable idea," Mesa Mayor John Giles said. "They proved all of those critics wrong."

Today, Tempe Town Lake is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the state, second only to the Grand Canyon, according to the city. Since its creation, the lake has had a $1.5 billion economic impact on the city, and 40,000 employees work within a mile of it. The city has also invested in several riparian habitat areas in other portions of the riverbed to bring back native plants and animals. 

McCain said in August, "I've been fooling around with this project for many, many years. And it wasn't ready until we saw the incredible success of the Tempe Town Lake."  

Rio Salado 2.0

Reiter said ASU intends to incorporate Rio Salado 2.0 — the name university officials have given to the next phase of the project — into several of the university's programs. For example, students studying anything from architecture to sustainability to environmental science to finance could be tasked with working on the project.

McCain said former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, who now heads the university's Center for Water Policy, will be heavily involved to make sure water conservation is at the forefront of conversations.

"Like the people who kicked this off (in 1966), we're kicking off a new phase of this, but it will be realized by probably multiple generations of civic leaders," Duke Reiter said. 

McCain has made clear that he wants the project to move along expeditiously. When he first attempted to revive the project in the 1980s, he said it got lost in a sea of meetings and studies with no tangible results.

"A growing number of leaders from across the Valley agree that re-imagining the Rio Salado as a public amenity that could include businesses, public recreation, and housing and infrastructure, could drive important economic growth just as Tempe Town Lake has done for the East Valley," McCain said in a statement. 

Reiter said there is not yet a design for Rio Salado 2.0 — and there likely won't be one singular design. He said the senator and other stakeholders are not suggesting that all 45 miles of the Rio Salado look like Tempe Town Lake — each city will likely have its own ideas, and ASU will help to bridge them all together. 

Reiter said his team is aiming to host a kickoff event for the project and formalize a working committee in early 2018. Dealing with multiple governments could pose an additional hurdle, but Reiter said he believes "the genius of why Sen. McCain wants to revive this is that it's not in one city." "This region is characterized, fairly or unfairly, for the way that we've sprawled into the landscape," he said. "Wouldn't it be great if the cities came together and say, 'Let's have a project ... that sort of makes us look a bit more like a coherent metro area than just something that's sort of all over the landscape.' 

Ahead of the class

Some cities, most notably Phoenix, already have done some rehabilitation to the riverbed.  Karen Peters, Phoenix deputy city manager,  said the city has spent $120 million to turn the swath of riverbed between 24th Street and 19th Avenue into a riparian area with vegetation and some water.

"The idea is that we would attract businesses to be adjacent and on the banks and enjoy this amenity," Peters said.  It's been successful but slow going, Peters said. Many people aren't aware of the habitat rehabilitation, she said.  The Audubon Society opened a facility on the banks of the rehabilitated habitat at Central Avenue about eight years ago. Executive Director Sonia Perillo said before the restoration, there were fewer than 20 species of birds in the area. Now, there are more than 200. 

"It's an example of, 'If you build it, they will come. If you restore it, they will come back,' " Perillo said.

The wetlands is not only a recreational asset open to the public — birders frequent the area to catch a glimpse of the 150 bird species — it's also part of the Valley's wastewater treatment system.

Phoenix pumps 60 to 80 million gallons of treated wastewater into the wetlands each day. The water meanders through a serious of basins, ponds and creeks where natural algae and other elements diminish the chlorine in the treated water and help bring back its natural chemical balance.

After the water goes through the wetlands, it's poured into the Salt River, where it's used by the Buckeye Irrigation District for non-edible crops. 

"I love what Phoenix has done with the Rio Salado," Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said. "Now, how does that interact with what Tempe has done? Or with what other cities have done? We need to better connect to other cities."

Looking west and east

This genesis of the Rio Salado project includes West Valley cities, which have exploded in population in recent decades. “I love what Phoenix has done with the Rio Salado. Now, how does that interact with what Tempe has done? Or with what other cities have done? We need to better connect to other cities.”

Goodyear Mayor Georgia Lord said she's excited to see what could happen on her side of the Valley that could drive economic development and improve the quality of life. 

"I have to tell you, I was thrilled thathe (McCain) consulted us here in our community," she said. 

On the opposite side of the Valley, Giles said he could envision the Salt River's eastern end transformed into portions that resemble Tempe Town Lake, Phoenix's riparian areas — or something completely different.  Although the riverbed abuts Mesa, it's technically on Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community land, so the city would serve a supporting role to the tribe in any development, he said. Giles said the Valley has a history of collaborations across government boundaries.

"I know at the local level, the political will to do this is there," Giles said. 

A legacy for all

McCain in July was diagnosed with gioblastoma, an aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer, after doctors removed a blood clot during a procedure at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix.

Given his condition, discussions of his legacy are more timely than ever. And those who have worked with the senator say that a development project that could change the face and future of metro Phoenix is as fitting a legacy project as any.  McCain moved to Arizona in 1981 and has represented the state in Congress since 1982. His wife, Cindy McCain, is a Phoenix native. 

"He has a keen eye for the obvious. He is frustrated when he sees good ideas die for lack of political courage. He has the clout both here and at the national level to push good ideas," Giles said. "It would be a great legacy for the senator." Stanton said not long after he was elected mayor in 2011, McCain asked to meet with him. The topic: transforming the riverbed.

"From day one this was an issue of passion for him — that Phoenix make Rio Salado a priority," Stanton said. 

When discussing the project with students in August, McCain said the Phoenix area is continuing to grow. The question is — will it grow in a positive way? "I believe that my obligation is to do whatever I can to make sure that the future of Arizona is better than when I came upon it and was first elected back during the Coolidge administration," McCain, 81, said with a smirk.

A legacy beyond McCain

Earlier this year, Tempe dedicated the footbridge that crosses Tempe Town Lake to Elmore, the dean of the architecture school who first challenged ASU to "do something with the river."

All of the living students from the 1966 class,most of whom still work as architects, attended the dedication. One of them, who had moved to California and had never seen the lake in person, "just nearly fell out of the car" when he saw it, Scalise said. "We never thought we'd live 50 years, much less see the project," he said.

In addition to a plaque recognizing Elmore, there is now a sign with all 16 names of the students in the class, an equally fitting legacy for the people who set the stage for what is still to come.

"Who has their name attached to a body of water? Pretty rare, right?" alumnus Jerry Atwood said.

 Source: Arizona Republic, December 2017

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