Progress is made to restore the Gila River’s flow in metro Phoenix after decades of planning

Aug 29, 2020

Progress is made to restore the Gila River’s flow in metro Phoenix after decades of planning

AZ Republic

Joshua Bowling
Arizona Republic
Jackie Meck spent many weekends as a kid fishing in the Gila River’s clear waters.
Meck, the 79-year-old mayor of Buckeye, was born and raised in the then small town west of Phoenix. Through the years, he has seen the river change. He saw it become cloudy with pesticides decades ago before tighter environmental regulations kicked in. He saw invasive salt cedar trees sprout and eventually choke the river’s flow.
Meck has used his voice as a Buckeye native and as a political mainstay to sound the alarm on threats facing his city’s stretch of the river — both at community meetings in the West Valley and at meetings with Arizona’s delegation on Capitol Hill.
For now, the Gila River flows from New Mexico into Arizona, winding  near Phoenix, through the Gila River Indian Community, Avondale and Goodyear before it becomes log-jammed in Buckeye by the salt cedar.
City leaders from Phoenix and the West Valley suburbs have partnered with the Gila River Indian Community, state, county and federal agencies, nonprofits and the private sector to restore the river’s flow. Nonprofits such as the Audubon Society and private-sector companies such as REI are part of the effort.  
Leaders hope to one day seeing hiking trails, parks and light development along a river that is habitable for wildlife and native vegetation.
Ambitions to restore the river fit into the broader Rio Reimagined project pioneered by the late Sen. John McCain, which his wife Cindy announced alongside Arizona State University officials in 2018.
As Congress mulls over funding to restore the river, state lawmakers have put some money into an effort that could help by giving grants for communities to remove non-native vegetation. 
The biggest challenge for years has been the pervasive growth of the invasive salt cedar trees that tangle and act as a dam to stop the river’s flow in Buckeye. Its water, choked off by the thick growths of trees, is murky. Wildlife habitat is threatened. And it’s an ever-growing brush fire hazard.
“What used to be there was cottonwoods and willows,” Meck said. “It’s a different environment.”
State grants are available
Restoring the Gila River’s flow isn’t as easy as getting rid of the dense foliage choking it. It’s a matter of money, and the growing southwest Valley suburbs don’t have a lot to spare.
State lawmakers in 2019 set up an $11 million fund for the removal of invasive plants such as salt cedars. The state gave out $2 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year and will hand out $1 million each fiscal year through the fiscal year 2029.

The state provided an initial $2 million in late 2019 to 11 projects around Arizona, five of which were also focused on clearing salt cedars. One of the grant recipients, the Safford-based Gila Watershed Partnership, is clearing salt cedars along the river in Graham and Greenlee counties.
Buckeye plans to apply each year. Meanwhile, the regional effort to restore the Gila River has already landed millions in grant funding. Phoenix earlier this year received $1.4 million in Environmental Protection Agency grants to work with Arizona State University and southwest Valley suburbs on the Gila, Salt and Agua Fria rivers.
Already the Gila River coalition of cities, nonprofits and state agencies has managed to clear several hundred acres’ worth of salt cedars in Buckeye. 
Potential help from the federal government
They hope for help from the federal government, too.
Earlier this year, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Sen. Martha McSally co-sponsored the Drought Relief through Innovative Projects Act, which if passed could also set up a grant program to help locales target invasive species.
“In Arizona, our desert rivers like the Verde, Salt, and Gila have been hit particularly hard,” McSally said in a statement at the time. “In their healthy state, these landscapes should have a handful of native trees like willows, cottonwoods, or mesquite. But right now these riverbeds are choked with up to 4,000 salt cedars per acre. This not only puts incredible strain on water supply, it also causes serious flooding and fire hazards.”
The river once looked much different
Conservation groups tout the Gila River as New Mexico’s last free-flowing river and in 2019 rated it the country’s most endangered river.
The river touches much of metro Phoenix’s southwest Valley, from the historic Gillespie Dam near State Route 85 on the way to Gila Bend to the Tres Rios Wetlands project near 91st Avenue and Broadway Road that feeds back into the river.
The river is home to the endangered Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, a bird that thrives in the type of marsh habitat that the salt cedars have eaten away at.

Plans to restore the Valley’s waterways go back decades, from the Rio Salado Project of the 1960s aimed at revitalizing the Salt River, which led to Tempe Town Lake’s creation, to the El Rio Watercourse Master Plan of the 2000s that focused on the Gila River in the southwest Valley.
The new Rio Reimagined plan unifies the plans for the East and West Valley.
“Collaboration that creates environmental, social and economic value along the Lower Gila not only enriches the region, but also provides a direct benefit to the investment and efforts the city of Phoenix has made to revitalize the Salt River corridor over the past two decades,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said in a statement.
Leaders announced plans to restore the Gila River in 1999. Even then, the river was much different than whenBuckeye’s mayor spent time there as a child in the 1940s.
The water used to be clear, Meck said. He could spend a day fishing on the river and see the fish through the water.
But as time went on, the water became cloudy. Pesticides tainted the water so much that for nearly 25 years the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality had a warning against eating fish out of the river. It didn’t remove that warning until 2015.
Improvements to the river that began in the late 1990s culminated in the mid-2000s with the publication of the El Rio Watercourse Master Plan.
The plan called for hiking and horseback trails as well as light development along the Gila River. Leaders hope the area one day mirrors developments such as Tempe Town Lake, which has become surrounded by offices and apartments, or Scottsdale’s Indian Bend Wash, which offers biking and walking trails.
Leaders are focused on making the experience along the rivers interconnected. For example, they don’t want something like walking trails to feel wildly different when someone walks from Avondale into Goodyear. The trails should link right into each other so the person doesn’t even notice they left one city for another, they say.
“We think it’s going to be a ribbon through the Valley,” said Adam Copeland, Buckeye’s principal planner.
Plans to add development are now seen as more long-term goals, Meck said. Right now, the priority is to get the water flowing again and to bring back native vegetation, like cottonwood trees, and attract the wildlife that thrives in that environment.
“Someday, maybe development comes along. (But) let’s get it back to where it was,” Meck said.
Does the river hold an answer to Buckeye’s water woes?
Salt cedars aren’t just a dam — they’re thirsty.
Each one consumes 200 to 300 gallons of water each day, Meck said. If all the salt cedar trees clogging Buckeye’s stretch of the Gila River were cleared, that would conserve some 50,000 acre-feet of water per year, or enough to meet the water needs of 150,000 typical Phoenix-area households for a year.
When the trees choke the river like that, the underground water table rises closer to the ground and can flood and kill the crops on nearby farms. To counter that, the Buckeye Water Conservation and Drainage District pumps 30,000 to 40,000 acre-feet of finite groundwater and dumps it back in the river.
Getting rid of the salt cedar trees would keep more of that finite groundwater underground, Meck said.
While that’s not a catch-all solution for Buckeye’s water supply, which isn’t robust enough to keep up with the fast-growing suburb’s loftiest population projections, it would be a major asset.
Buckeye earlier this year adopted a plan to find more water resources, but leaders fear that other locales with deeper pockets could beat them to those sources.
Another invasive species found on the Gila River
The trees alone pose environmental, economic and fire hazards.
As they continue to grow, they push the flood plain north toward the city’s agriculture and growing suburbia. If a bad enough flood came in, it could knock out the city’s nearby wastewater treatment plant and dump 20,000 homes’ worth of wastewater into the ground, Meck said.
Because they grow so close together and intertwine, it’s virtually impossible for firefighters to get close to a fire on the Gila River bed, Meck said. So the city has to call for a plane to dump retardant on the fire, which can cost the city upward of $200,000.
The 500-acre brush fire that burned in June near Avondale’s stretch of the Gila River would have been a significant setback in Buckeye because the salt cedars would act like a tinder box, Meck said. 
And the trees aren’t the only threat the river faces.
As leaders seek to wipe out the invasive salt cedar trees, also known as tamarisk, another invasive species has found its way to the Gila River: the tamarisk beetle.
Tamarisk beetles, which are native to Asia, eat away at thirsty salt cedars. The federal government released tamarisk beetles, which are native to Asia, in Utah in the early 2000s as a way to control salt cedars there. They were expected to travel about a mile a year and weren’t expected to ever reach Arizona. Scientists didn’t believe the bugs would survive the arid climate.
But researchers have found tamarisk beetles along the Gila River for the first time and they fear the bugs’ appetite could drive them to eat away at habitat that endangered species and native wildlife rely on. 
‘We’re planting trees and we’ll never sit under the shade’
While leaders focus today on clearing invasive species and making the Gila River habitable for wildlife, they know that one day development could move in.
There have for years been plans to build a park along the Gila River in Buckeye, an extensive trail system in Goodyear and small lakes for fishing and kayaking in Avondale. But Meck acknowledges that’s far off in the future.
Meck, who was first elected to the Town Council in 1968, has seen the city change. It’s not the farming town with a crystal-clear river that he grew up in. It’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, quickly trading its farmland for distribution centers and massive master-planned communities.
When Meck leaves public office in January, he wants to leave a piece of the Buckeye he grew up with as a legacy for the generations that come after him.
“Years ago it was beautiful and stripped through the Valley, now it’s anything but,” Meck said. “We’re planting trees today and we’ll never sit under the shade. I’ll never see the end result.”