The grand vision of a restored Salt River channel through the Valley didn’t die when Maricopa County voters rejected the Rio Salado project in 1987.
For one thing, of course, there is Tempe Town Lake, the one part of the 1987 proposal, that did get built, propelling downtown Tempe into a new era of recreation and business development.
For another, there is the sheer allure of the idea itself: Which do you prefer, a rubble-strewn wasteland or a lush desert oasis?
Revived efforts to restore the riverbed are being incubated in the same place that birthed the first Rio Salado proposal: Arizona State University.
Variously referred to as Rio Salado 2.0 or Rio Reimagined, the plans encompass an area from Granite Reef Dam in east Mesa to the Tres Rios Wetlands, a constructed wetland complex for wastewater treatment at roughly 91st Avenue in the West Valley.
The idea got a major boost from U.S. Sen. John McCain in August 2017, a year before he died of cancer.
McCain was inspired by the famous River Walk in San Antonio, Texas, as well as river restoration efforts in other cities.
Neil Giuliano, Tempe mayor when Town Lake opened in 1999, is president and CEO of Greater Phoenix Leadership – a cohort of business leaders, educators and others focused on identifying and solving problems in the Valley.
Giuliano also sits on the ASU-led steering committee promoting the new Rio Salado effort.
The task is immense and diversified.
ASU, Giuliano said, is “playing the role of facilitator for the various jurisdictions to get everybody to coordinate and communicate about what needs to happen along the entire stretch of the river bottom.”
And it won’t be a one-size-fits-all effort.
“Every jurisdiction will have a different need,” Giuliano said. “They have different geography, they have different flood control needs, so every community is going to have to implement in a way that fits them best.”
Current Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell said while there may be an overall master plan for the riverbed, each jurisdiction will have to decide what parts of it to implement and pay for.
Still, Giuliano said, “There can be something that weaves it all together, pulls it all together, even if it’s something as simple a very long combination of pedestrian and bike paths that connect all the jurisdictions.”
Wellington “Duke” Reiter, who is spearheading the effort at ASU, said in 2017, that the final product won’t be the equivalent of a 40-mile-long Tempe Town Lake, but rather a “string of assets” with various uses and features.
Mitchell said he believes Town Lake helped spur renewed interest in the overall riverbed.
“I think people can look at Tempe as a success in terms of how we saw the vision,” Mitchell said.
McCain himself said as much in the 2017 rollout with ASU officials: “Everybody who drives past Tempe Town Lake realizes what a success this is. Every mayor wants a Tempe Town Lake.”