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Gila River Restoration Helps Environment

Planners want to foster a riparian habitat throughout the river corridor with more open water and native plants. Photo credit: Maricopa County Flood Control District

By Susie Steckner for The Arizona Republic

A decade-old plan to restore a 17-mile stretch of the Gila River from Buckeye to Avondale has been revived, with hopes that the meandering waterway will one day bring new development and recreation opportunities to the West Valley.

The massive project includes many complex components, such as constructing a new levee, battling the invasive salt cedars and protecting endangered species. The project also hinges on hundreds of millions in funding and partnerships between multiple public and private landowners.

Advocates acknowledge that clearing these hurdles is daunting and will take years. But they say restoring the Gila River is vital to the region. The plan will have far-reaching impact in terms of flood control, wildfire prevention and water conservation, as well as economic growth.

The restoration plan could also put this stretch of the Gila River on par with other destination projects such as Tempe Town Lake and Tres Rios in Phoenix.

A restoration plan, called the El Rio Watercourse Master Plan, was developed in 2005. It covers a 17.5-mile stretch of the Gila River, from the confluence with the Agua Fria River west to the State Route 85 Bridge. The plan includes multiple partners, chief among them the Maricopa County Flood Control District, the communities of Avondale, Buckeye and Goodyear, state and federal agencies, and private landowners involved in mining.

The El Rio plan has moved along in fits and starts, but largely stalled because of the sagging economy. Two notable efforts have moved forward to address the salt cedars that are choking the Gila River, said Jen Pokorski, the flood control district’s ombudsman and citizen advocate.

Funding in question

The big unknown is how to pay the estimated $300M to $500M tab, which includes the removal and revegetation, annual maintenance and, if needed, land acquisition. That cost will likely be covered by a mix of federal, state and local dollars, and grant funding.

Another large component of the El Rio plan is the addition of a new levee, which will help reduce the floodplain. The proposed levee is to be paid for by developers but there have been no new projects to trigger the levee construction, Pokorski said. Once it is built, public agencies would maintain it. The estimated price tag for construction of the levee is between $150M and $200M.

The plan also focuses on another key partnership with private landowners involved in mining operations and the Arizona Rock Products Association. Pokorski said a likely scenario is that the land would be mined over the next decade or longer, and then it would be turned over to public agencies to maintain. With its shallow groundwater, the area would provide more open water and new recreation opportunities.

Ultimately, planners envision this stretch of the Gila River as a recreation destination and burgeoning habitat. Think bird watching, family bike rides, lazy afternoon canoe trips and scenic picnics.

One step toward this vision could be connecting the river and Estrella Mountain Regional Park via the Maricopa County Regional Trail alignment, which follows the north bank of the river. Communities involved in the El Rio project are beginning to develop ideas for small pilot recreational projects such as trail heads.

Read more at The Arizona Republic

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