What’s missing is the water. The dams and reservoirs that allowed Phoenix to flourish drained the once-vibrant Salt, and now the river that for so long defined the region is often known better as a lake – temporarily empty Tempe Town Lake.
Tempe sees the lake as the center of a wider riparian restoration effort, but for passionate conservationists, the lake is everything the river once was not: a sterile park setting, uninviting to most wildlife. When a rubber dam burst and drained the lake this summer, its absence rekindled an appreciation for the value of water in a river.
Instead of growing up around the Salt, cities seem to avoid the mostly dried-up channel, treating it as inconvenience instead of riparian resource. Businesses face away, shutting out the river with cinderblock walls. Motorists must find other routes when roads dead-end without bridges. Thickets of trees and scrub discourage hikers from approaching.
The portrait that emerges along the lower Salt – 37 miles from Granite Reef Dam east of Mesa to the Gila River at 115th Avenue in Avondale – is a river not known for being a river at all.
Phoenix may never fully regain what it lost when the Salt dried up: the gathering place, the wildlife, the urban oasis. The next best thing, cities and conservation groups have decided, is to restore short segments of the river, committing time, money and imported water to create wetlands, trails and native riparian habitat to evoke the essence of a desert river’s nature.
It’s an imperfect fix: Restoration projects require constant attention and as much or more water than undisturbed rivers. The projects are expensive and take years to develop. Their progress is often slowed by businesses and other property owners with their own interests along the river.
As a result, advocates say, the work to revive the Salt is not so much a rebirth as a reminder to value and preserve the state’s remaining rivers and the water they carry.
“Over 90 percent of our riparian areas have been lost just in the last 100 years. That means we have 10 percent left to save,” said Sarah Porter, executive director of Audubon Arizona, which built an education center near a restored stretch of the Salt in south Phoenix.
“What we want to do is make sure we devote more of our energy to preserving what’s left.”
What’s left of the lower Salt is more like leftovers. The river’s natural flow was shut off with the completion of six upstream dams, starting with Roosevelt in 1911, that help supply about one-third o