Tuesday, October 25, 2011

River Restoration: What's in a Name?



I spent the better part of the past week in Phoenix, AZ with colleagues from around the country at the 46th Annual Conference of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC). Since serendipitously falling into the field over 8 years ago, I have had the privilege of taking part in what I believe to be one of the last bastions of classical liberal education in the modern university. My ruminations on what Honors education is, exactly, is a subject for another post. Suffice it to say for now that Honors is a laboratory for teaching and pedagogy, and concepts like experiential learning found their start in Honors.

NCHC's trademarked experiential learning pedagogy is City as Text™(CAT). CAT, in the context of the annual conference, gives participants the opportunity to "read" a place through the buildings, signs, and people in that place (those interested in reading up on this pedagogy can find more here and here). In Phoenix, I got to be part of a select group piloting an expansion of the traditional CAT method. Instead of an informal exploration and chance interviews with inhabitants, the organizers arranged meetings for us with city officials to get more information about city infrastructure. My assignment: the Salt River Restoration Project. Here is the report my group prepared for the CAT closing:
We met with Karen Williams, Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Phoenix, and Wendy Wonderly, Coordinator of Environmental Programs. This experience was amazing! Karen and Wendy were incredibly hospitable. They even arranged to do a driving tour of the Rio Salado project after their presentation to us; we wouldn't have had a chance to see the project otherwise. Their passion for this project showed and is likely responsible for its success.


Rio Salado sign. Copyright 2011 - Matt Butera
The Salt River is dry. Originally it was a river that supported tremendous agricultural production. The Hohokam people built a network of irrigation canals, some of which are in use today. In the early 20th century a series of dams were constructed to concentrate and divert water for agricultural irrigation. Because of this the Salt River stopped flowing. River water now is primarily dedicated to municipal use, accounting for nearly 95% of Phoenix's water.


As a dry riverbed, the Salt River became a source for gravel and sand. These mining efforts were accompanied by using the river as a dump. Development along the Salt River course in Phoenix has been dedicated to heavy industrial use and low-income housing. Many in Phoenix consider the river a dividing line between affluence in the north and poverty to the south of the river.


In the 1960's a professor at Arizona State University challenged his class to walk the riverbed and think of how to revive the river. A county-wide ballot issue in 1987 to tax property to fund restoration efforts failed to pass anywhere except in Phoenix. In 1992, the expanded charge of the Army Corps of Engineers to include ecological restoration provided a means to pursue restoration. Karen has been the public face of these efforts for 15 years. The restoration cost was $100M, 65% of which came from federal funds, 35% of which was raised locally, including voter-approved bond issues in 2001 and 2008. Ed Pastor, one of the students in that class at ASU in the 1960's and now an Arizona congressman, has helped continue to find federal funding for the project.


Because water will never flow in the Salt River again unless the dams are removed, the project will never be self-sustaining. Phoenix Parks and Recreation has partnered with the Audubon Society to make a place where the public can learn about the restoration and enjoy the benefits of this natural resource.

Rio Salado. Copyright 2011 - Matt Butera

My note about removing the dams was not off-hand; one of the questions I had prepared before we got to City Hall was, "the term 'restoration' seems to indicate restoring the river from some deficit state to a steady state: at what point does this stop being a 'restoration' and become a 'preserve'?" Another simpler way to ask this question might have been: "how will you know when your restoration efforts are successful?" I'm glad I asked the question the way I did, though, because of the answer I got: Rio Salado will never be self-sustaining. In this sense, Rio Salado is less a restoration and more of an elaborate re-creation. Given the political and environmental pressures at work in Arizona, I'm happy that we have the re-creation at least.

I asked Wendy what chance she thought that something like the Elwha River Restoration in Washington state I had read about last month. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any indication that the political will to mount such a project exists. How amazing would it be, though, to see the desert like this again? (Arrakis, anyone?)


Arizona watershed map - 1850-2000. Images from the presentation given to our CAT group. A substantially similar presentation is online at http://www.sw-green.com/powerpoints/RioSaladoOct2008.ppt



Our CAT Exploration Group (I'm behind the camera) with Karen and Wendy.


 Photos courtesy of Matt Butera. See his Flickr feed for more.