Dam Vulnerable

Tempe is asking for a monkeywrencher to pull the plug on Town Lake

I wondered what $100 million in terra-forming looks like up close, so last Wednesday I walked around the newly filled Tempe Town Lake. It was late morning. The sun was high and cruel. Thirty minutes from the car found me at the far east end of the lake, bouncing deliriously atop its inflated black rubber dam.

As I gazed across the lake, I imagined the face of Ben Franklin reflected a million times in the antifreeze-green water.

Still bouncing, I looked into the future, at the $1 billion of development the Tempe Town Lake is supposed to lure to its shores: luxury condos; a five-star hotel; a convention center; and scores of paddle-boat enthusiasts, recreating upon a manmade lake in the bed of what once was a perpetually flowing river in the midst of the Sonoran Desert.

Mark Poutenis

It struck me that I was merrily hopping upon perhaps the most attractive ecoterrorism target in the Southwest, and there was nary a security measure in sight. I had scaled no fences to reach the dam, and passed no trespass signs.

I slid down the dry side of the dam and looked around. Nope, nobody around. I kicked the rubber wall a few times. Despite the massive water pressure, the surface yielded about a half-inch. I looked around again. It was just me and the dragonflies.

I chortled at the arrogance. Not the arrogance to build a $100 million lake in the Sonoran Desert. The arrogance to then leave it unprotected.

News flash: Tempe's visionaries could not have built a better objective for a strike by a roving monkey-wrench gang such as the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, which torched a ski-lift building and a day lodge in Vail, Colorado, last October to protest Vail Corporation's plans for expansion into the habitat of a subspecies of endangered lynx. That arson caused $12 million in damage.

ELF could easily inflict similar damage in Tempe, and probably earn as much national publicity.

Also, this just in: The Tempe Town Lake is not appreciated by everyone in Tempe. I have spoken with and listened to conversations among those who see it not as a monument to progress, but as an exercise in flagrant consumption. They see the $100 million in public money spent on the Rio Salado project as the most damning evidence yet of Tempe's shift from an affordable, neobohemian college town to a place where the interests of business rule, and laws are passed that make it illegal to sit on the sidewalk.

They see their town becoming a Scottsdale franchise, led by champions of shopping-mall culture. They see the "algae pond" as a symbol for everything that's going wrong in Tempe. I can easily imagine a few beers pushing one or a group of them to execute a black op.

I've heard a lot of wild ideas on how to monkey-wrench Loch Mess, most of them in neighborhood bars, which explains the suggestion to slip a raft into the water in the dead of night and paddle around, quietly distributing a wholesale aquarium shipment of 1,000 piranha. The concept was that the minipredators would act as the Town Lake equivalent of tree spikes. You dump the fish, then post signs: "Warning: Piranha-Infested Waters."

Two problems: Although piranha thrive in warm, still water, the Town Lake is so nasty the piranha would die off straightaway. Also, one of the tenets of monkey-wrenching is to make sure nobody gets hurt. Some fool could take an illicit skinny dip the morning after and get skeletonized.

Another fanciful conversation centered on the invasive aquatic weed hydrilla. It's got a cool name, it spreads like Ebola virus, and it grows 10 inches a day. Toss in a little water hyacinth or Eurasian milfoil for variety, and within weeks the Tempe Town Lake could become the Tempe Town Marsh. The ducks would dig it.

Of course, if a real ecoterrorist were to plan a hit on the Tempe Town Lake, she would focus on the rubber dams, and primarily the rubber dam at the west end. The down-river end. The end toward which the water naturally flows.

The rubber dam on the west end of Tempe Town Lake is 16 feet high, making it the largest rubber dam in North America. I know this because a sign posted on an overlook told me so. The sign also informed me the west dam consists of five rubber segments, divided by concrete support pillars, each of which is 225 feet long. The rubber membrane is one inch thick -- thick enough to repel most gunfire.

The day I spent at the lake, there was a security guard posted at the overlook. As I approached from behind him, he seemed to be performing a hybrid of disco dancing and tai chi. Obviously, he didn't know I was coming. He heard from 30 yards out, spun, and straightened up.

I asked him if I could walk down to check out the west side rubber dam, and he said no, it wasn't allowed. Then I asked him how many guards were on the lake, and he said there are always two -- one guarding the western dam, one the eastern. I told him I'd just been to the eastern dam, and used it as a trampoline. He shrugged and said maybe the guard had gone to Circle K. I noticed he wore the white-shirted uniform of TEAM, the firm that provides security for Downtown Tempe, Inc., and whose pool of talent is, let's be honest here, not exactly Delta Force.

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