By Joshua Bowling
Rio Reimagined, a project pioneered by Sen. John McCain to revitalize dozens of miles along the Salt and Gila rivers through metro Phoenix, could see more funding and personnel under proposed legislation.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2020 gave the Rio Reimagined project a special federal designation that promised to cut red tape, pave the way for grants and help local leaders decide where to best spend federal money.
Now, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, have introduced legislation that would give the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, which coordinates 20 projects with the special federal designation, $10 million annually for five years and a dedicated staffer on each of the 20 projects who can wrangle all the federal, state, tribal and municipal entities involved.
“We’re continuing the important work started by Sen. John McCain in revitalizing the Rio Reimagined project, which will improve water systems, boost economic growth and reconnect communities,” Sinema said in a statement.
Nearly 1 year since Rio Reimagined received special EPA designation
A diverse group of local, state and federal leaders, such as Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, then-Buckeye Mayor Jackie Meck, Cindy McCain and Arizona State University President Michael Crow, gathered in late 2020 to announce the project’s federal designation.
The group touted the designation as the push Rio Reimagined needed to hit the ground running. Arizonans have talked for decades about revitalizing the Valley’s river corridors — and have made progress with major projects such as Tempe Town Lake — but this designation would go a long way in streamlining federal resources, they said at the time.
“It’s been said that this river gave life to this Valley and now it’s time to return life to this river,” former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said at the announcement.
Rio Reimagined is the 20th and most recent project to receive the Urban Waters Federal Partnership designation. Other projects with the designation include the Los Angeles River Watershed, the Middle Rio Grande Watershed in Albuquerque and the San Antonio River Watershed in Bexar County, Texas.
Cindy McCain speaks March 30, 2018, during the Rio Reimagined meeting at the Tempe Center for the Arts. If named to take her late husband’s Senate seat, she could represent his legacy while pursuing her own priorities, such as fighting human trafficking.
Officials said the designation would kick-start work that’s already underway. In recent years, efforts to restore the rivers have included:
A partnership between Phoenix, Avondale, Tempe and ASU to assess and clean up land near the Salt River with a $1.4 million grant from the EPA.
Efforts in far west Buckeye to clear invasive plants that for years have choked off the Gila River’s flow.
“For centuries, the Salt River has been the lifeblood of the Valley,” Cindy McCain, chair of the McCain Institute for International Leadership’s board of trustees, said at the time. “Looking at the river today, I see what John McCain saw … something that would keep future generations here.”
For decades, Arizonans have dreamt of reviving Valley’s river corridor
The more recent plans to revitalize the Valley’s river corridors are reminiscent of decades-old plans pitched by a group of college students.
Students at ASU in the 1960s pitched the “Rio Salado Project” as a way to bring new life to the Salt River, as well as the six cities and two Native American reservations it touches, by developing along the river.