Gilbert envisions another riparian wonder - East Valley Tribune: News

Gilbert envisions another riparian wonder

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Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2008 10:25 pm | Updated: 9:02 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Animals, museums, gardens, theaters - they're all found in San Diego's Balboa Park, a 1,400-acre swath in the middle of the city that includes the world-famous zoo and 15 museums.

Click on the map for a larger view
Gilbert's groundwater recharge facilities, Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, Riparian Preserve at Neely Ranch, Gilbert's third riparian park, SOURCE: Gilbert, Map by Scott Kirchhofer/EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE

Some Gilbert officials are saying something like this could happen on 140 acres of desert at the northeast corner of Ocotillo and Higley roads, around what will be eventually be 15 water recharge basins where treated wastewater filters back into the ground.

Town Councilwoman Linda Abbott began to pitch her ideas for the site at last year's annual council retreat, and the ideas will be fleshed out more with a presentation today at this year's retreat.

"What we're going to be doing is visioning for the possibilities at that site," she said, including classroom space, aquariums, art gallery space, habitat to attract birds and insects, a gift shop and an amphitheater.

Abbott said she's been hashing out the options with groups such as the Desert Audubon Society and the town's human relations and arts board about how different concepts could be worked into the site. Chandler-Gilbert Community College or Arizona State University could offer botany courses and other classes in the site, she said.

"Certainly, this is premature, to suggest we have any formal relationship," she said "That is the point of (today's) discussion, to see what support there is."

Click to see how riparian preserves replenish the aquifer
Groundwater recharge and more: How Gilbert uses riparian preserves to replenish the aquifer and provide a habitat for wildlife and a parklike setting for the public. Recharge basin, Fishing lake, Treated wastewater, Wastewater, Recycled water is transferred in purple pipes (different from drinking water system), SOURCES: Gilbert; Tribune research, Graphic by Scott Kirchhofer/EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE

Abbott and others, including town Riparian Preserve director Scott Anderson and public works director Lonnie Frost, will make a presentation at the retreat to an audience of intrigued onlookers, including Vice Mayor Joan Krueger.

"I'm interested in hearing how they think the community is going to support this," she said. "The revenues, the activities, will it bring us more hotel visits? These are the types of things we're going to be looking for."

The idea is to build on the ecologically based recreation that has already sprung up around a water conservation measure in Gilbert.

Neely Ranch near Cooper and Elliot roads was never meant to be anything more than a fenced-off lake where treated wastewater could filter back into the ground and boost the town's water supply. But the vegetation around it attracted birds, and the birds attracted birders.

This accident spawned Water Ranch at Riparian Preserve, next to the county library at Greenfield and Guadalupe roads. Almost 10 years after it opened, Water Ranch is bringing in more than 100,000 visitors a year, including some 10,000 from out of state.

The riparian areas are starting to become Gilbert's "thing," like Scottsdale with its art galleries, said Anderson. "That's kind of the character we created for Gilbert when we started doing the preserves," he said.

Anderson said that aside from Balboa Park, a smaller model for what could be accomplished at Higley and Ocotillo roads can be found at the Biopark in Albuquerque, N.M., which has an aquarium, garden, fishing lakes and a model train over 20 acres, and is next to the Rio Grande Zoo.

But there are some kinks that need to be ironed out before all this could happen at Gilbert's southern end.

The town's current five-year construction plan incorporates $7.5 million to build amenities similar to what was originally planned at the Water Ranch. But it is to be funded by park development fees charged on new houses, which aren't nearly as plentiful as they were just a year ago.

Town Manager George Pettit said Gilbert isn't on track right now to have the money to build the park by 2013, and it's impossible to know for sure if and when the pace of homebuilding will pick up in time to accomplish it. Funding for anything else will have to come from elsewhere because it would fall outside the definition of the park fees.

Steve Johnson, a frequent council critic and Republican Party leader in Legislative District 22, is skeptical: "This is something to talk about in 2005, when you think the money's going to last forever."

Anderson added that an ongoing study indicates the town might need to devote most or all of its 140 acres to its original water management intent, with little to no room for even basic park amenities. Anderson stressed that the study isn't completed yet.


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