Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

One of the sad realities of living in a southwestern desert is the necessary compromises that must be made to sustain life here. One such compromise is the destruction of the natural flowing rivers that flow through out most of the west. Over the past century several dams were built in the mountains north of the desert of Phoenix creating man-made reservoir or "lakes" as we call them here. These reservoir provide the Valley with most of its water but it has left the former rivers that were fed with the mountain run off dry. These rivers flow occasionally when there is unusually high rainfall and water needs to be released from the reservoirs. But for most of the time the river bottom are left dry and over the course of several decades they became eyesores as landfills, junkyards and cement quarries where built on the vacated land that was adjacent to there banks.

In the 1980s a major effort was put forward to raise public money to develop the entire span of dry river bed that ran through several Valley cities. It failed miserably and left the individual cities to determine ways to develop the river bottoms on there own.

The city of Tempe decided to covert their portion of the river bottom into a man-made lake by putting rubber bladders that can collapse when the water flows. They were able to do this because Tempe is a fairly compact city and the river bottom to be develop was a small portion that runs to the north of the city. Once the "Tempe Town Lake" was created the city was able to attract developers to build commercial office buildings and condos. I went down to the lake the other night to photograph it and I was impressed with what they have been able to create with the lake.

The city of Phoenix had a more difficult job because the portion of the dry river that runs through the city is much larger. Phoenix decided to take a much more low key approach by converting a portion of the river bottom into a park and wetland similar to the way the banks of the river would have been when the river flowed on a regular basis. The Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area stretches along five miles of the Salt River just south of downtown Phoenix. Once a dump site, the area is now a lush riparian corridor with five miles of paved and dirt trails dotted with unique design and features. When I visited there recently I noticed a good variety of birds and interesting vegetation that has been planted. I was even able to photograph a blue heron which was cool to see up close. I wouldn't say that this is the most beautiful park in Phoenix, but it is a attempt to turn a wasted area into something that can be enjoyed again.

I actually like the Phoenix approach better because it is lower cost and a more natural approach; although some elements of the Tempe approach could help develop the surrounding banks faster.

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